Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. With so much to do and see, you could spend a week there and not repeat a trail or activity.
The Cumberland River and its tributaries flow through here. In fact, it is the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River that gives its name to the Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area and its 125,000 acres. The Cumberland Plateau and miles of hiking trails are the main attractions in this area, though hunting and fishing is also a popular activity. The hiking trails all wind through or end at scenic gorges, sandstone bluffs, outdoor museums, or historic landmarks.
Every visit to the Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area must include a hike to the Twin Arches state natural area. The Twin Arches are two sandstone arches that form the largest natural bridge complex in Tennessee and one of the largest in the world. (See my article on the Twin Arches for more information.)
Indian Rock House
From the Middle Creek Hiking trailhead there are several trails you can pick up, including a 7 mile trail to the Twin Arches. I chose the Indian Rock House trail. The trail was fairly easy, but not very well-maintained at all. Quite a few trees have fallen onto the trail, and there were branches everywhere. The trail is not very hilly, but lots of rocks in the middle of the very uneven trail mean you have to really watch where you are going. Another reason to watch where you are going: I saw a snake on the trail (black snake, yellow splotches, round head and a rattle on its tail). It hissed and rattled its tail, so I decided to leave it alone.
Nothing really stands out about this trail. It had partial shade, but was quite sunny in other areas. When you come to a big clearing about 2.5 miles from the trailhead, there is a sign for the Indian Rock House that points straight. The Indian Rock House is really just a big outcropping of sandstone that provided shelter for Native Americas many years ago. It is not a house or anything like that. There is a fire pit in the middle with a couple of stones to sit on.
I was quite impressed with the facilities at the Leatherwood trailhead. The restrooms are probably the nicest in all of the Big South Fork River and Recreational Area. There is a gazebo and picnic areas, as well as a very scenic riverwalk. Down by the river you can take a stroll on the sidewalk and boardwalks as they follow the river. I can see coming to this area just to walk around there if you are looking for a very easy walk while still being able to enjoying nature.
You can connect to a few different trails from this area. The 5.6 mile trail to Angel Falls Overlook is said to be one of the most popular in the Big South Fork River and Recreational Area, probably right behind the Twin Arches trail. You need to go across the bridge and follow signs from there. The signage from the parking area is very poor. It labels the trail to the rapids as “Angel Falls” only, so it is very unclear that that trail goes to the rapids only. This is probably very disappointing for a lot of people who don’t get a map of the area.
I walked the Angel Falls Rapids trail, an easy 2 mile trail from the Leatherwood trailhead to the rapids. This is a really nice trail because it is slightly hilly trail, wide enough along many parts to walk two abreast, and full of plant life. I think I counted at least nine different varieties of wildflowers, as well as ferns, small bushes, huge rhododendron bushes, and lots of plants I did not recognize but was fascinated by. Another great thing about this trail is that it follows the river, so I constantly found myself stopping to look in that direction to see what there was to see: a sandy area that looked good for swimming, some men fishing a little further down, a family having a picnic out in another sandy area, many boulders jutting out over the water. Two miles later you come to a sign that says “Angel Falls PORTAGE.” There is a deck with a sign that explains classifications of rapids for whitewater rafting. Swimming here is not recommended because the rapids are dangerous, and a couple of people have died.
However, you can and should still climb down the trail that leads to the water. The area is really pretty. Hundreds of boulders sit out there in the sand, waiting for you to explore and just get a closer view of the water and the rapids. You’ll not be disappointed, unless you’re confused and think that there is a waterfall there. The signs are misleading, so just pretend is says “Angel Falls Rapids” instead.
Accommodations and Campgrounds of Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area
The area’s many lodges and campgrounds offer something for every taste. Pickett State Park has more primitive and secluded campsites. Big South Fork offers two developed campgrounds: Bandy Creek Campgrounds in Tennessee and Blue Heron Campground in Kentucky. If you’re looking for a shelter to backpack in to, you might check out Charit Creek Lodge (as known as Charit Creek Hostel), which is located about a mile from the Twin Arches. From the parking lot at the Twin Arches trailhead, it’s about 1.8 miles to the rustic shelters that make up Charit Creek Lodge.
Bandy Creek Campgrounds
I stayed at Bandy Creek Campgrounds. It was a nice campground overall; I just wish that I had chosen to camp in the more secluded areas of Pickett State Park. I chose Bandy Creek because I didn’t know too much about the area at the time, and I wanted a place that allows pets and where I could make a reservation since I was coming from three hours away and wanted a guaranteed spot.
The hot showers and restroom facilities at Bandy Creek were nicer than most places I have been to. However, the people who go to this campground do not respect the camp’s quiet hours. The rangers come around on their golf carts before and after quiet hours, so they’re not too helpful in keeping the noise levels down. I learned that it is not a good idea to go to this campsite during turkey hunting season (April and May). I had people around me practicing turkey calls and getting up at 4:30 a.m. to go hunting. The campsites there are a little too close to each other and not set back enough from the campground’s road for my taste. The campground’s map does not show where the restroom facilities are, so I would like to point out to my readers that tent site A044 is right across from the bathrooms. Many people use the large double sink outside the bathrooms for preparing food, washing dishes, etc. It is hard to feel like everyone is not getting up in your space if you choose this site.
The grounds themselves were very nice and well-maintained. The facilities include a pool, playground, picnic area, RV campsites, tent campsites, and a volleyball court. There are stables not too far away where you can buy wood and bring your horse to go riding on the horse trails of the area.