A geologic and natural wonder is hidden away in a remote corner of Kentucky and Tennessee.
The Big South Fork, one of Tennessee’s best-kept secrets, is overseen by the National Park Service as a natural river and recreation area that is located high atop the portion of the Cumberland Plateau, protecting the Big South Fork from the Cumberland River and its tributaries.
Waterfalls, soaring cliffs, caves, sandstone arches, forests, rivers, and lakes abound in this truly unique and incredible place. But the reasons we love to visit the Big South Fork don’t end there.
Stunning Natural Arches
This region presumably contains more natural arches than any other region in the eastern United States! What are the chances?
Natural arches are frequently found in the Big South Fork at the edges of the tableland surface. Here, the resistant Rockcastle Conglomerate slowly succumbs to erosion before arches begin to form along gorge edges. This act of lower layers eroding away results in a resistant sandstone supporting its weight, creating what we’ve come to know as famous arches in the area.
Arches of varying sizes and descriptions can be found throughout the Big South Fork, but only a few have hiking trails leading to them. Easily accessible arches include Twin Arches, Needle Arch, Split Bow Arch, Wagon Arch, Yahoo Arch, Koger Arch, Buffalo Arch, and Gobblers Arch. On our classic ‘Exploring the Big South Fork’ trip, we set out on the 5-mile Twin Arches loop to explore the natural wonder before descending into a hidden piece of history.
The Rainforest of the Southeast
Experience the lush forests of Southern Appalachia without the crowds that typically flood Big South Fork’s neighbor, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Southern Appalachian forests are some of the most biologically diverse forests on the planet and are often referred to as rainforests of the southeast United States.
Temperate rainforests extend through the Appalachian areas of western North Carolina, southeastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, eastern Tennessee, northern South Carolina, and north Georgia. Fir trees are dominant at higher elevations, spruce at middle elevations, and mixed forests at low elevations.
What better way to get fully immersed in the richness of rainforests than a quiet journey through the towering beauty of the Southern Appalachians?
Authentic Off-grid Lodging
Tucked into the park is another gem: Charit Creek Lodge. At this rustic wilderness retreat, you can take a step back in time and unplug completely in their primitive cabins. This relaxed and beautiful place offers comfortable beds, wood-burning stoves, a bathroom and shower house, and a dining room where they serve a fantastic dinner and breakfast by oil lamp light.
This historic wilderness lodge also makes an appearance on our ‘Exploring the Big South Fork’ trip as we set out on a short 1-mile hike to begin our 2-night stay in their rustic cabins. One of the highlights of our time here includes a delicious home-cooked, family-style dinner before cozying up by the campfire fire to enjoy the night sky.
Wildflowers, Wildflowers, Wildflowers!
If you’re wondering if there’s a rhyme or reason behind visiting the Big South Fork in the springtime, the answer would be YES! While the Big South Fork is the place to be all year round, the springtime is an exceptional time to visit for botanists and wildflower novices alike.
In general, this area is rich in plant species, but many beautiful wildflowers grow along the trails and roadsides within the park.
Visitors are encouraged to admire these beauties without picking, digging, or collecting flowers as all plant species in the Big South Fork are not just protected, but many are very rare. While weather conditions and topographic locations can often alter blooming times, late winter and early spring are generally proven to be prime times for classic wildflowers such as the Bloodroot, the Trout Lily and the Star Chickweed.
Explore Pickett State Park
Pickett CCC Memorial State Park lies within the 20,887-acre Pickett State Forest and is adjacent to the massive 125,000-acre Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
Pickett State Park features historic cabins and campsites available for rent and more than 58 miles of hiking trails that meander through the wilderness and surrounding forest. These trails offer shared views of sandstone bluffs, natural bridges, waterfalls, and diverse plant life.
Prime Stargazing Destination
In 2015, Pickett State Park was the first state park in the southeast to be listed as a certified dark sky viewing location. Their commitment to preserving the natural beauty of the night sky led to being named aSilver-tier International Dark Sky Park.
The park then established an astronomy field located at the Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area's parking lot on Highway 154. This field is available for public stargazing year-round. The park even hosts star parties throughout the year to gather and appreciate the outstanding nighttime views.
On the first three nights of our ‘Exploring the Big South Fork’ trip, we rest up in the historic cabins of Pickett State Park, providing ample opportunities for stargazing and testing your astronomy knowledge.
The natural arches of Big South Fork don’t stand alone as a wondrous geographical feature that fills this wilderness area.
The Big South Fork River begins in Tennessee at the confluence of the Clear Fork and New rivers, flows north through a spectacular 600-foot-deep gorge, enters Kentucky, and empties into the Cumberland River. This land embraces the wildest and most rugged territory on the Cumberland Plateau. Carved over millennia by water flowing over sandstone and shale, the plateau today is a network of hills and hollows, rocky ridges, and river valleys. Rock shelters bear evidence of thousands of years of human habitation, and remnants of homesteads and cemeteries dot the landscape.
The gorge slowly widens northward, revealing river benches, floodplains, and bottomlands. Many streams drop suddenly from the plateau's surface into deeply entrenched valleys. The bottom of the gorge ranges from flat and sandy, almost like a beach, to huge boulders that force the river into violent stretches of white water.
Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls
Unless they’re the impressive waterfalls that feed the South Fork of the Cumberland River! The northern Cumberland Plateau has an abundance of spectacular waterfalls, but their reputation depends on streamflows, meaning they’re usually at full strength in wetter months like spring.
On our final day of ‘Exploring the Big South Fork’ we take an easy hike through Colditz Cove State Natural Area on the hunt for one of the main attractions in the area. We get an intimate opportunity to observe Big Branch Creek drop 60ft over a rock ledge to form the crown jewel known as Northrup Falls. A beautiful 1.5-mile loop brings us through lovely hemlock and deciduous forest and then over, down to, behind, and back up to the falls as we enjoy it from every angle.
A Birdwatcher’s Delight
Over 160 species of birds have been recorded within the Big South Fork during the past two decades. The area is a vibrant haven for species of Neotropical migrant birds. Neotropical migrants are species that breed in North America and then migrate to the tropical regions of Central and South America to spend the northern winter.
Roam with Wildlife
The varied terrains of Big South Fork offer a high diversity of habitats for mammals. Large native mammals found in the area include white-tailed deer and black bear, released experimentally in the mid-1990s, and elk, which have migrated into the area from state-managed lands. Small mammals ranging from raccoons to bobcats and gray foxes are also present throughout the park.