The Big South Fork
What is big and comes in a variety of colors? The answer is the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in all seasons of the year. Situated both in Kentucky and Tennessee, the Big South Fork is spectacular enough for the two states to share.
Composed of over 100,000 acres, the Big South Fork is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River. With that much area there are plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation of all varieties. For relaxing, try camping alongside one of the many rivers or branches in the Big South Fork and listening to and feeling the spray of the cool mist as the water ripples over the rocks in the stream. For the active crowd, whitewater rafting or kayaking over the wilder portions of the river will prove satisfying to their desires for adventure. If water adventures are not for you, there are 280 miles of trails for hiking, biking, or horseback riding. Wildflowers, waterfalls, and unique rock formations are among the favorite trail destinations.
The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River has its origin within this recreation area’s boundaries with many branches contributing to it, like White Oak Creek, New River, and Clear Fork. The Big South Fork is located in the southeastern part of Kentucky and the northeastern part of Tennessee and contains some very rugged terrain. The gorge of the South Fork of the Cumberland River is steep enough to provide some spectacular views from the many overlooks in the park (many of which are wheelchair accessible). At the East Rim Overlook the river gorge can be viewed 400 feet below. The rocky, rugged terrain can be enjoyed visually from the overlooks, but it cannot be appreciated fully until they are experienced at ground level.
Where to start?
Headquarters for the Big South Fork Recreation Area in the Bandy Creek area is the hub of activities and one of its information centers. Being near the geographic center, it is convenient to check here for information on activities and to obtain the latest condition of trails and water and accessibility to the various areas. The Bandy Creek area contains one of the three campgrounds in the Big South Fork, horse stables, and a group camp area. Information on outfitters that guide whitewater float trips, overnight backpacking trips, and horseback riding can be obtained from the park headquarters at Bandy Creek and other visitor centers.
Major state and US highways surround the Big South Fork in both Kentucky and Tennessee. US 27 is the north-south highway bordering the Big South Fork on the east. In Tennessee State Highway 52 is the southern bordering highway and connects to US 27 near Elgin passing through the town of Rugby and its Historic District, and joining US 127 in Jamestown. County Road 297 is the only major highway that crosses the midsection of the Big South Fork. Several highways clip corners or small sections of the area. The Bandy Creek area and the headquarters are accessed from CR 297.
Whitewater and Trails
The Big South Fork Recreation Area has excellent opportunities for whitewater adventure. Several sections of the main river and its branches have a designation of Class III and Class IV rapids, which means it can be a very exciting ride down the river. Guided rafting trips can be arranged from commercial outfitters scattered around the Big South Fork. Their names, locations, and telephone numbers can be obtained from park headquarters. Kayaking is also a popular way to experience the river with its long stretches of isolated whitewater and the steep rock walls along the gorge.
There are hundreds of miles of trails in the Big South Fork to be enjoyed and endured by foot, mountain bike, and horseback. Maps can be obtained from the visitor centers so be sure to check in for trail conditions, especially if overnight trips are planned (which is required). A visitors center is also located in Stearns, Kentucky along Highway 92.
Most of the attractions are only accessible by trail. Waterfalls, natural arches, and spectacular overlooks are examples of what awaits the hiker who wants to enjoy the true wonder of this wilderness. Many short trails provide natural treasures at their terminus for those who cannot or do not like to hike. Many long trails can be taken to fully appreciate the wilderness area’s uniqueness.
Angel Falls is located about two miles north of CR 297 at the Leatherwood Road bridge. The old O & W railroad bridge (and exciting whitewater action) is located two and three tenths miles to the south from the same trailhead. These two relatively easy hikes are good ways to enjoy a sampling of the Big South Fork's wonders. The Leatherwood Road bridge area, a take-out and put-in point for whitewater rafters, is about two miles from the Bandy Creek area along Highway 297.
In the extreme northern section of the Big South Fork is Yahoo Falls, a beautiful and tall waterfall worth the trip. At 113 feet it is the Big South Fork’s highest waterfall. A short 0.4 mile hike is required to get to the falls.
Twin Arches in the western part of the recreation area involves a five-mile drive over a gravel road and a 0.7 mile hike to get to these natural arches. The north and south arches are 62 feet and 103 feet tall, respectively, making the south arch the tallest sandstone arch in Tennessee.
Stearns, Kentucky Area
On the Kentucky side in the extreme northeastern section near Stearns are the Blue Heron Mining Community and Interpretive Center, the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, and two overlooks -- Devil’s Jump and Split Bow. Take the train ride to the Blue Heron Mining Community aboard the Big South Fork Scenic Railway. This trip takes the passengers down the same route of the early coal miners to the Blue Heron Interpretive Center, where audio stations describe the life in an early coal mining community.
Experiencing the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area can be in a variety of forms -- whitewater adventures of raft or kayak, horseback trail rides, waterfalls, natural arch or wildflower walks, a train ride to a coal mine of times gone by, or quiet times by a mountain stream. The experience could be any or all of these. But the important thing is to experience the Big South Fork.
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