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Big South Fork Information

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How would you like to have 125,000 acres as your big back yard? (with no yard work to do!) 

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BSFNRRA) is located in some of the most remote and rugged territory on the Cumberland Plateau. Its present size is approximately 125,000 acres, and it encompasses almost all of the drainage area of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. The Big South Fork originates in Tennessee, then flows down through a spectacular 600-foot-deep gorge before emptying into the Cumberland River in Kentucky. Nearly two-thirds of the area lies in Tennessee, the remainder in Kentucky. The area boasts miles of scenic gorges and sandstone bluffs, is rich with natural and historic features, and has been developed to provide visitors with a wide range of outdoor recreational activities.

Much of the lands in the region, collectively known as 'The Big Survey,' were owned by Stearns Coal & Lumber Company. In March of 1974, U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr. led a congressional effort to create the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. The initial land purchases had begun by 1980, and the park was turned over to the National Park Service for management by 1990. Because guidelines in a national recreation area are less restrictive than in a national park, visitors to BSFNRRA may enjoy traditional activities such as hiking, horseback riding, and primitive camping as well as nontraditional activities including four-wheeling, hunting, and trapping. Among other activities that can be enjoyed are backpacking, bicycling, canoeing, fishing, kayaking, participating in nature programs, nature walking, picnicking, rappelling, RV camping, rock climbing, sightseeing, scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, and whitewater rafting. Information about these activities is available at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center.

Big South Fork is on EASTERN TIME so you'll have to factor that in with regard to scheduled activities or hours at the Bandy Creek Visitors Center.

Horseback Riding

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Charit Creek Lodge

There are more than 180 miles of horse trails throughout Big South Fork with a trail system that straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky border. It's this spectacular trail riding that gave Big South Fork the reputation for being 'The Trailriding Capital of the Southeast.' The park has a number of trailheads; residents and visitors trailer often to ride different sections of the park. Trails and trailheads are marked on the National Geographic map, available locally at the area tack shops and at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center as well as online.

There are several horse campgrounds within the park itself (Bandy Creek, Station Camp, Bear Creek) as well as a number of local horse campgrounds also offering full hookups for living-quarter trailers or RVs, and equine accommodations.

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​Visitors wishing to enjoy the beauty of the BSFNRRA and primitive accommodations seek reservations at Charit Creek Lodge, a rustic backcountry lodge located in Big South Fork, only accessible by hiking, biking, or horseback, and catering to outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. It's nestled in a remote wilderness location where Charit Creek joins Station Camp Creek in a small valley framed by high bluffs. The structure has evolved through the years of habitation, and on the western end, there's a log cabin that may have been built in the early 1800s by longhunter Jonathan Blevins. The house became a hunting lodge known locally as 'the hog farm' due to the Russian boar imported by owner Joe Simpson in

the early 1960s. It was also operated as a youth hostel from 1987 to 1989. Today, it's operated by the same concessionaire who operates another well-known Tennessee wilderness retreat, Le Conte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There is running water at Charit, but no electricity. Each room is equipped with a kerosene lamp and a wood stove. The shower water is heated by solar energy and screened windows and doors provide air conditioning in the summer. The main lodge is just one of many buildings in the Charit Creek complex. An old smokehouse has been converted to host's quarters. There's also a large barn, kitchen and store building, two free-standing guest cabins, and another barn-like structure converted to a shared bathroom/shower building. The stabling for horses makes Charit a popular destination for riders to spend the night. Dinner and breakfast are served. Reservations required.


Charit Creek Hostel provides a unique and romantic setting for a memorable and rustic wedding; see details on Charit's website

The best way to check availability at Charit Creek Lodge or to make a reservation is online at their website. The phone number is (865) 696-5611 but be prepared to leave a voicemail as service is very limited.



Hiking is one of the most popular and rewarding activities within Big South Fork. An extensive trail system was designed to take hikers into the heart of the park and provides them with access to virtually all of the scenic and historic locations and accommodates all ages and levels of experience. Some trails can be walked in less than one hour, while others require a full day or longer, and the degree of difficulty ranges from easy to strenuous with many of the trails falling in the moderate-to-strenuous category as a result of length or topography. There is even a section of the John Muir National Recreation Trail that passes through the park.

Due to the presence of high cliffs and the generally rugged nature of the trails, it is recommended that hikers plan to reach their destination well in advance of nightfall. With more than 150 miles of hiking trails, there's variety of terrain and many, many 'photo ops' of the breathtaking scenery. Many day hikes in the park include waterfalls, natural bridges, and overlooks. Arches, or natural bridges, are most often created in the exposed cliffs and ridges of the plateau when the softer rock under the highly resistant sandstone cap erodes. There are well over two dozen of these features in Big South Fork but the best known are the Twin Arches, which are accessible on the Twin Arches Trail. They are two of the largest arches in the eastern United States. There are steps lead up and across the span. A map of the trails and other information is available at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center.

Mountain Biking

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In recent years, mountain biking has become one of the more popular recreational activities enjoyed at Big South Fork and there are several trails that have been designed, built, and are maintained by the Big South Fork Mountain Bike Club. In addition to bike-only trails, mountain bikes are allowed on highway edges, backcountry roads, and some horse trails; this combination provides bikers of all skill levels with miles of trail options. Almost 300 miles of trails in the Big South Fork are open to mountain biking. Most of the open trails are shared with other users but there are several miles of trails dedicated to mountain biking.

In 2012, several trails were designated by the International Mountain Biking Association as Epic Rides. The Big South Fork was the first national park in the nation to receive this designation. Every New Year’s Day, the Big South Fork Bike Club sponsors an annual ride at Big South Fork called The Mail Run, so named because 'neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of the night' keeps them from getting out there on the first of the year! A map of the trails and other information is available at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center.

Kayaking, Canoeing & Whitewater Rafting

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This area is also a draw for kayakers, offering several reservoirs and rivers for beginning, intermediate, and advanced paddlers. And there's the Class IV whitewater rafting on the Big South Fork River! The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its major tributaries, Clear Fork, North White Oak, and New River, offer a variety of experiences for canoeing, kayaking, and rafting. Some of the stretches are placid enough for new paddlers, while others require skilled whitewater paddling. Whitewater rafters and canoeists can take the longest water ride in the eastern United States, some eighty miles with rapids ranging from mild to wild.


The terrain furthest upstream near the confluence is the most rugged, characterized by narrow gorges, valleys strewn with large boulders fallen from cliffs above, natural arches, mesas, chimneys, cracks, and rock shelters. It's an ancient river, cutting through gorges more than 250 million years old. It's also one of the few rivers in the eastern U.S. that haven't been dammed for hydroelectric power. And it's one of those rivers that doesn't flow south to the sea, but northwest, northeast, and north, originating in Scott County, Tennessee, and terminating in McCreary County, Kentucky.

When water levels are high and the flow rate is increased, the river can be dangerous regardless of the paddlers' experience. Floatation devices should be worn by everyone who floats the river. Helmets should be worn by all kayakers and by open canoeists on Class III and above rapids. The park suggests packing a spare paddle, a throw rope, a bailer, and a first aid kit. All supplies should be secured.

More information such as current river conditions, flow rates, and available commercial operators may be obtained by calling the Bandy Creek Visitor Center, phone (423) 286-7275.



The Big South Fork and its tributaries provide an immense amount of fishing potential for both warm-water and cold-water species. Some parts of the rivers and streams can be reached by automobile or 4WD vehicle. However, the major part of the system is accessible only on foot or by floating in rafts or canoes. In total, there are well over 200 miles of productive water available.

Some species are prevalent from the headwaters to where the Big South Fork leaves the area, while others, notably rainbow trout and brown trout, are found only in the higher elevation streams. Neither species is native. They are present in Williams Creek, Laurel Fork, and Station Camp Creek on the upper reaches of the river. Smallmouth bass, walleye, muskies, catfish, and bluegill are found the entire length of the river, and on the extreme lower reaches, sauger, largemouth bass, and white bass occur. There is also a late winter spawning run of walleye from Lake Cumberland that produces some specimens larger than those found year-round in the river.

Fishing licenses from either Tennessee or Kentucky are recognized from Leatherwood Ford Bridge down to the Yamacraw Bridge on the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Anglers must follow the regulations of the state in which the license was issued. However, this reciprocal agreement does not extend to tributary streams. For copies of fishing regulations, contact the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (615-781-6500) or Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources (502-564-4336).

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Anyone who has been to this area knows about nearby Dale Hollow Lake, renowned for its ability to produce trophy smallmouth bass. In fact, the world record holder was pulled from Dale Hollow, which has produced the two largest smallmouth bass ever recorded! With 620 miles of scenic shorelines and ultra-clear water, it's a paradise for vacationers, retirees, and fishermen of all ages.

Dale Hollow Lake



Many ATV aficionados come here for the renowned riding on Blackhouse Mountain Road, with trails winding well up into Kentucky and locals will see them arriving for weekends, towing flatbed trailers with one, two, three, and sometimes four ATVs and UTVs. The Blackhouse Mountain ATV Campground is conveniently located on State Highway 154 (Pickett Park Highway), right across from the turn onto Blackhouse Mountain Road. For more info, call (931) 879-2838 or look them up online at or on Facebook



The legislation that created the BSFNRRA authorized hunting, which is conducted in accordance with state and federal regulations. Once a favored hunting ground for the Indians who made frequent forays into the territory seeking buffalo, elk, white-tailed deer, black bear, and other furbearers for meat and hides, the Cumberland Plateau provided these early hunters temporary camps in caves and rock shelters. After longhunters Daniel Boone and James Robertson followed game trails through the sheer eastern wall of the plateau, they discovered the rich game bounty of the plateau region and began setting up camps for their sometimes yearlong hunting

expeditions. Some of the camps used by Indians, longhunters, and early settlers are now historic sites and popular destinations for hikers.

While many of the big game species that were originally present have long since disappeared, there are now huntable populations of both deer and wild turkeys due to restoration programs by the National Park Service and wildlife agencies of Tennessee and Kentucky. Small game hunters seek gray squirrels, fox squirrels, cottontail rabbits, bobwhite quail, ruffed grouse, opossums, and raccoons. Trapping is also permitted. Sportsmen and women must comply with the license requirements and regulations of the state in which they are hunting or trapping.

The BSFNRRA also has regulations enforced by National Park rangers. These include a provision that forbids carrying a loaded firearm (including rifles, shotguns, and handguns) in a car, on a horse, or while operating a motorcycle or ATV. Even muzzleloaders must be without gun powder in the pan and crossbows may not be drawn. A weapon may only be fired in pursuit of game during a hunting season, which means target practice is forbidden as is sighting a rifle. In the interest of public safety, there are a number of safety zones where hunting is not allowed. These are located at the Bandy Creek Campground, East Rim facility complex, Charit Creek Lodge, Blue Heron Recreation Area, Alum Ford, Yahoo Falls, Yamacraw, Worley, Station Camp, Leatherwood Ford, Burnt Mill Bridge, Zenith, Brewster Bridge, and Peters Bridge. Other areas may be added in the future, so current information should be obtained from one of the visitor centers or from a park ranger. All such areas have yellow bands painted on trees to establish a boundary line.

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Places experiencing natural darkness at night are rapidly vanishing in much of the United States east of the Mississippi River, an area home to much of the country's population. Pickett State Park and Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area earned silver-tier International Dark Sky designation, the first state park in the Southeast to gain this prestigious recognition. Currently, Big South Fork leaders are working to make it a Dark Sky Park as well. The University of Tennessee works in cooperation with Big South Fork in presenting astronomy programs throughout the year.

Star-gazing/Night Sky

Archeological Sites


The Big South Fork National Park contains 1,338 documented archaeological sites, more than in any other national park in the Southeast. The Plateau served primarily as a seasonal hunting ground for the Cherokee and Shawnee Indians, who used caves and rockhouses cut by the streams and rivers along the walls of the steep canyons here as their temporary quarters. During the winter, Cherokee men traveled to Tennessee and Kentucky where they hunted wild boar, deer, wild turkey, and forest animals, for the most part.

Evidence of their occupation is everywhere. A trained eye can discern the remains of spear and arrow points and pieces of flint used to scrape animal hides. Archaeologists have found depressions worn into rock in the vicinity of these rockhouses, used as a primitive bowl for grinding.


Tennessee has over 500 waterfalls, many of them local. Late winter and spring are the waterfall season in this part of the world — specifically because it is the wet season. Winters are short and mild here so it's an excellent opportunity to pack a picnic and spend an enjoyable day outdoors.

Slave Falls is one of the more picturesque waterfalls in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, and it is the crown jewel of the Slave Falls Loop Trail. Legend has it that runaway slaves were once hidden in the rock shelter behind the 60-ft. sheer drop where Mill Creek tumbles over a cliff as it makes its way towards the headwaters of Station Camp Creek.The hike is an easy, 3.8-mile loop featuring only 150 feet in elevation gain. There is a four-tenths of a mile spur trail that leads hikers to Needle’s Arch as an added bonus, and the trail also includes a visit to Indian Rock House, which is one of the largest rock shelters in the Big South Fork NRRA. To get there, go up

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Highway 154N, right on Divide Road, then right again onto Fork Ridge Road. Sawmill Trailhead is located seven-tenths of a mile along Fork Ridge Road.

Located in McCreary County, just north of Oneida, Yahoo Falls (pictured) is the tallest waterfall in Kentucky, and has the distinction of being the most famous waterfall in the Big South Fork. There is an easy, 1-mile loop that leads hikers both above and beneath the falls, and a massive rock shelter behind the waterfall that is almost as stunning as Yahoo Falls itself. To get there, take U.S. Hwy. 27 north to Whitley City. Turn west on Kentucky Hwy 700 for four miles and follow the signs to Yahoo Falls Trailhead.

Fall Creek Falls, in nearby Cookeville, is the single highest plunge east of the Rockies. There are many websites and guidebooks recommending hikes to Tennessee's waterfalls. 


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Big South Fork is rugged country, which is part of its allure. The directions you download from Mapquest

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or the instructions you receive from your GPS will not tell you that, if you are coming from the east, through Oneida, you will be descending 600 feet into the gorge on a narrow road that has a 13% grade. A series of switchbacks will bring you down to the point where you cross the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River at Leatherwood Ford and up the other side toward Jamestown. It's not dangerous but, if you're towing a big rig, there are a few spots that are mighty interesting.

At one point, there's a large outcropping of rock that intrudes into the roadway so it's necessary to pull over, well into the oncoming lane, if you're towing a trailer that could be…uh…impacted. (There are, of course, other less exciting ways of getting here).

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