Why You Should Plan a Visit to Big South Fork

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Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Big Fork National River and Recreation Area is big on adventure – and an off-the-beaten-path park to add to your summer staycation plans.

The 125,000-acre park offers a wide range of activities, including horseback riding, mountain biking and even a scenic railway. Spanning four Tennessee counties on the Cumberland Plateau (and one in Kentucky), it’s centrally located, just 100 miles northwest of Knoxville and 150 miles from both Nashville and Chattanooga.

Big South Fork is just that, a fork – it sits at the split of the Cumberland River’s northeastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky tributaries. With the largest collection of natural bridges in the eastern United States, the park also features a 119-foot waterfall and natural sandstone arches. The appeal of the area also sits at a fork where visitors can choose a quiet trail hike or more extreme recreational activities such as mountain biking, horseback riding and rock climbing. The natural details are in stark contrast to the abandoned remnants of the turn-of-the-century Blue Heron Mine.

“(Big South Fork is) a special place, that, while it is not as well-known as other National Park Service sites, is no doubt equal in the awe-inspiring natural beauty that exists within its boundaries,” says Christopher Derman, the park’s chief of interpretation and education.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area itself protects the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, and its rich history, tributaries and natural features. The jewel of a park is also one of only two national parks designated as a national river and recreation area.

Photo by Waterhouse Studios Photography

Hikes for History Buffs

Not just rich in natural details, the park area’s history dates back to the Paleoindians in 13,000 BC. Those first residents lived and farmed the land, leaving behind “hominy holes” where they stored grains. In fact, the park is home to the greatest amount of archaeological sites in the Southeast, including pottery shards, artifacts and stone projectile points.

The scenic integrity of the park’s gorge and recreational opportunities led to the park’s establishment in 1974. The area had survived an economic downturn related to coal mining and was officially designated Blue Fork Natural Park and Recreation Area in 1991, celebrating the National Park Service’s 75th anniversary. Oral histories of the coal-mining era accompany actual artifacts abandoned when the mines closed. Park staff can also tell the story of a time when the land was more coal mining, less hiking.

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Activities & Adventures

The park caters to all levels of outdoor enthusiasts, from a simple hike to the Twin Arches, two impressive natural bridges, to the more difficult Honey Creek Loop, where you can see bluffs, waterfalls and rock houses. Additional activities include horseback riding on more than 212 miles of marked trails that range from easy, beginner rides to multiday loops.

“Chances are, you name the outdoor activity, whether it be horseback riding, hiking, hunting, mountain biking, kayaking and bird-watching, and more, it exists at Big South Fork, ready for you to experience it,” Derman says.

To make the park easier to navigate, Big South Fork has developed nine detailed trail and trailhead maps. Each one matches with graphic symbols and color-coded blazes to alert visitors to authorized trail uses. An overall guide to the park and custom guides to black bears, bird-watching, the geology of the park and seasonal wildflowers are also available. The park also has activities for kids, such as the Junior Ranger Web Program for ages 4 to 12 to explore the National Park Service and Big South Fork with a badge, patch and certificate at completion.

While visiting the park is free, prices for various activities as well as staying at the park vary including tent, back country, primitive or RV options.

Horseback riding is a popular draw, and campsites even have horse tie-ins. In-park Bandy Creek Stables near Oneida offers horse boarding, a small tack shop and easy access to trails. Closer to Jamestown, Charit Creek Lodge features a wilderness lodge and rustic cabins – meaning no electricity, and spotty cell service. It’s only accessible by hiking, biking or horseback, and it also offers boarding for horses.

“One of the best ways to reach our backcountry lodge is by horseback,” says Gregg White with Charit Creek Lodge, who recommends visitors stay for two nights to experience all the park has to offer. “Summertime in the Big South Fork affords riders the opportunity to ride through beautiful creeks, see amazing rock formations and gaze at the unforgettable flora and fauna that exists on the Cumberland Plateau.”

Derman also strongly endorses an overnight stay. “The night skies that exist in the park are incredible,” he says. “The lack of light pollution allows for exceptional star-gazing that is increasingly rare in this part of the country. And although the park welcomes over half a million visitors each year, it is certainly possible you won’t encounter another visitor while out on the trail. That’s pretty special to me.”

If You Go...


Big South Fork
Address: 4564 Leatherwood Rd., Oneida, TN 37841
Website: nps.gov/biso
Hours: Park is open year round. Visitor center, accommodations, Blue Heron Interpretive Center and horse stables are open varying times.
Fees: Park entry is free, but various activities and accommodations have associated costs.

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