Sitting on 125,000 acres at the South Fork of the Cumberland River, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is an outdoor recreation paradise for Tennessee and Kentucky adventurers looking for their next destination.
The park was designated as a national recreation area in 1974 in efforts to both protect the Cumberland River’s water quality and offer recreational opportunities to metropolitan residents in nearby cities. The region wherein the park is located contains former mining, agricultural, and logging sites. The effects of these activities and their environmental impact on the area is still apparent in parts of the park today.
The park is located in northeastern Tennessee and reaches parts of southeastern Kentucky. Visitors flock to the area to experience its scenic gorges, sandstone bluffs and unique rock formations, and abundance of outdoor recreational activities.
Embark on an overnight backpacking trip, stay at the rugged Charit Creek Lodge, try your hand at mountain biking on trails designed by the Big South Fork Mountain Bike Club. Whatever you choose to do, Big South Fork is guaranteed to offer a rewarding outdoor experience.
Big South Fork offers 5 campground areas across different areas of the park, in both Tennessee and Kentucky. Bandy Creek, Blue Heron, Bear Creek, and Station Camp campgrounds are highly developed sites managed by the park and offer a variety of amenities.
Alum Ford Campground offers a limited number of primitive sites and is not as developed as the other sites. Station Creek and Bear Creek are designed as equestrian campgrounds and are equipped with amenities to accommodate you and your horses.
Reservations can be made online or by calling the campgrounds ahead of time.
Charit Creek Lodge
Those looking for a unique lodging experience at Big South Fork can find it at Charit Creek Lodge. Located off the grid, and only accessible by foot, bike, or horse, the lodge provides full-service meals and amenities in a secluded setting. Charit Creek Lodge sits 1.1 miles from the nearest road and offers full service and partial service options for guests, depending on what they’d like their experience to be.
Guests enjoy family-style meals, modern bath and shower amenities, and private cabins with wood stoves, screened-in porches, and lanterns. This cozy, serene atmosphere makes for the perfect escape from life’s usual hustle and bustle.
Check out the Charit Creek Lodge website for more details and to book your stay.
Hking, biking, and horseback riding are among the most popular activities at Big South Fork, due to a large trail system that allows visitors to explore the best parts of the park by foot, bike, and horseback. Trails range from easy to strenuous and vary in length from less than a mile to nearly 60 miles long. This variety gives visitors the chance to curate their trail experience to fit their expectations and needs.
Whether you’re looking for a leisurely day hike or multiple-night backpacking expedition, the variety of trails at Big South Fork are bound to accommodate whatever hike suits you.
The park offers nine detailed maps of different sections of trail, as well as pre-planned trip itineraries for hikers to follow in order to make the picking and choosing between trails a little easier.
Popular day hike routes include Angel Falls Overlook (6 miles roundtrip, moderate), Middle Creek Loop (3.5 miles roundtrip, easy/moderate), and Yahoo Falls Loop Trail (1.2 miles, easy/moderate). These day hikes offer hikers diverse experiences of forested habitats, beautiful waterfalls, dramatic cliffs, sandstone arches, and striking vistas.
Hikers looking to extend their trip with an overnight backpacking adventure can choose from a range of routes ranging from 11 to 55 miles long! These routes give backpackers a chance to immerse themselves in the environment around them and take in the varying terrains and features the expansive park has to offer. Popular routes include the 11.3 mile Angel Falls Overlook-Grand Gap Loop, the 27 mile John Litton route, and, for experienced and adventurous backpackers looking for a challenge, the 55 mile John Muir route.
Backcountry camping requires a permit. There are no designated backcountry site areas, however backpackers are encouraged to use existing sites made by former hikers in order to minimize their impact. Visit the park’s website to obtain your permit and get more information about backpacking routes.
Mountain biking is one of the newer activities at Big South Fork and is rapidly growing in popularity. Several trails are designed, built, and maintained by the Big South Fork Mountain Bike Club, while others are backcountry roads and horse trails. This variety creates a trail system that accommodates every skill level of mountain biker.
Bikers can find topographic maps and plan their routes on the park’s website.
Equestrians will be delighted to learn that there are 212 miles of horseback riding trails throughout the Big South Fork park. Blazed in red, these trails vary in length and difficulty, creating routes to accommodate every level of rider. Horseback riding facilities, such as Bandy Creek Stables, Charit Creek Lodge, and the multiple horse-friendly campgrounds provide amenities for horses and their riders during their stay at the park.
The confluence of the South Fork of the Cumberland River with its tributaries- the Clear Fork, North White Oak, and New River- create abundant whitewater paddling opportunities in the park.
While certain sections of the river are appropriate for every skill level of paddler, other sections are extremely technical and require expertise to navigate. Changing water levels and river patterns also create variety in the rapids and their intensity. Be sure to read up on safety information and be aware of any weather events which may lead to change in river conditions before your paddling trip.
Perhaps the most well-known rapids within the park are “The Big Three”. The Washing Machine, Ell, and Double Fall Rapids make up this famous route. Paddlers can take guided trips down the rapids from a variety of private outfitters. Check the park’s website for more information and to book your trip.
The park’s abundance of waterways creates opportunities for anglers to enjoy fishing for many types of game fish. Common catches include catfish, sunfish, muskie, ball, walleye, trout, and crappie of all different varieties. Make sure you obtain a fishing license before casting a line into these fruitful rivers and be sure to do your part to keep the river clean and healthy.
Big South Fork hosts hundreds of miles of cliffs within its boundaries. While many of the sandstone bluffs are too loose or soft for safe climbing, there are a select number of climbing routes for avid rock climbers looking for their next adventure.
Many of the routes are located within the Blue Heron Mining Community section of the park. There are around 35 routes within this section of cliffs that fall in the 5.9 to 5.12 range in difficulty.
Make sure you are properly equipped with the right gear and have experienced knowledge of climbing before scaling the cliffs within the park. Besides the standard rock climbing safety concerns, the areas of climbing within the park often are surrounded by rugged and dense vegetation. Take caution when navigating your way to the cliffs.
Big South Fork is known for its variety of unique environmental and geologic features. Visitors come from all over to see sandstone arches, catch a glimpse of the clear night sky, and explore the many rivers and streams within the area. Read more about these features below!
One feature that distinguishes the park from others in the region are its abundance of natural sandstone arches. These arches form on the edge of the park’s many gorges, where sandstone supports its own weight despite erosion from layers below it.
While there are many arches throughout the park, a select few have easy accessibility for viewing. Popular arches accessible from hiking trails within the park include Twin Arches, Wagon Arch, and Yahoo Arch. Many arches are also accessible from highways and roads throughout the park. Look on the park’s website to plan your arch driving/hiking tour.
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is home to some of the darkest night skies in the area. Visitors from urban areas can experience the beauty of dark skies and stargaze during their stay at the park.
The Knoxville Astronomy Club, in collaboration with the park service, hosts astronomy programs in the Bandy Creek area. These programs create memorable experiences for those looking to experience the awe and serenity of a sky virtually free from light pollution.
Rivers and Streams
The health of waterways is vital to Big South Fork and is a huge reason the national park is designated as such. The Big South Fork watershed expands over 1,000 miles in Kentucky and Tennessee counties. The national park seeks to protect the water of these areas through conservation of the land and river within park boundaries. Water quality testing and monitoring is a huge part of the park’s role in the region.
When you visit the park, think not only of the recreational activities it offers, but the important work it does to serve the water quality and health of rivers downstream.