1 of 4
It's one of several spectacular Pennsylvanian sandstone formations in Big South Fork.
2 of 4
Bears. They're in remote areas of BSF.
3 of 4
Mountain biking. Leave from the visitor center.
4 of 4
The old O&W railroad bridge
Cumberland Plateau Beauty
A unique combination of national river and national recreation area preserves a section of the Cumberland Plateau west of the Blue Ridge. As the geologic splendor of the region receives national recognition, more and more visitors come to experience a land that is the offspring of the Appalachian Mountains.
Across the Cumberland River
When I began exploring the Cumberland Plateau more than a decade ago, I discovered a dramatic landscape. In contrast to the molded mountains and dense forests of Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks and Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, I found more western-like natural wonders. I gazed at raging rivers from the edge of steep-walled canyons, stood beneath masses of suspended sandstone, and escaped the rain under rock overhangs that once sheltered Indian hunting parties.
Much of this tableland in Tennessee and Kentucky I found set aside in state parks and natural areas, recreation sites and wildlife management areas -- more than 50 preserves at last count that took years to experience fully. You can, however, now explore all the distinct features of the plateau at a single site, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River.
Long recognized as an ideal location for such outdoor recreation as horseback riding, hiking and whitewater rafting and canoeing, the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau attracted the interests of preservationists in the late 1960s. The effort originated with a local group, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, which enlisted others in a Big South Fork Coalition, coordinated by Liane Russell one of the founders of TCWP. The coalition worked with then-Senator Howard Baker to draft a bill to establish a recreation area in the region.
The result of the protection effort was the authorization by Congress in 1974 of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. The designation is virtually the same as a national park, just established under a different type of legislation, and allowing some activities, such as hunting, that would not be allowed in a national park.
Funds to establish the recreation area were slow in coming. Of the planned 123,000 acres, a few thousand have yet to be purchased, and it's only in the last several years that the staff and infrastructure were ready to cope with an influx of nearly one million visitors a year. But now it's ready, with more than 300 miles of hiking, horse, and mountain bike trails, 86 miles of free-flowing river and tributaries, four campgrounds, a backcountry lodge, picnic areas, swimming pool and plenty of overlooks and historic locations for sightseeing.
The combination of national recreation area and national river at the Big South Fork is a unique approach to managing federal lands. The National Park Service manages the gorge area -- approximately 56,000 acres with bare rock walls and steep wooded slopes leading down to the river -- as virtual wilderness with no development, except for a few authorized roads that wander down to the river. The remaining 67,000 acres back from the rim of the gorge forms the recreation area, with visitor center, campgrounds and stable.
This merger of national river and national recreation area (NRRA), may well become a blueprint for future preservation of such places. With nearly half to be left in a natural state, and visitor facilities and contact points concentrated in the other half, the NRRA is a compromise between calls for wilderness preservation and the demands that national lands be accessible.
Only the Tennessee and Kentucky portion of the tableland where the Big South Fork NRRA lies is called the Cumberland Plateau; to the north, where mountains still stand on the tableland, it's called the Alleghenies. In fact, this Appalachian Plateaus Province stretches all the way into New York, running southwest to northeast.
It is perhaps appropriate that the plateau possesses a terrain more like you would expect out West. After all, this region does lie to the west of the Appalachian Mountains.
While the Blue Ridge was being created by mountain-building forces in the east, it was also being eroded by streams flowing to the west. These rivers deposited countless tons of gravel and soil and sand in the region that was to become the plateau. During a time geologists call the Pennsylvanian Period, the process of erosion and deposition laid down a 100-foot-thick layer of gravel and sand. Under the increasing weight of piled-up sediment, this layer of gravel and sand solidified into a Pennsylvanian sandstone.
As this land rose due to tectonic forces and secondary uplift, the land simultaneously eroded down until the old Pennsylvanian sandstone was uplifted. This particularly resistant sandstone slowed the erosion process, leaving today a tableland 1,000 feet above the surrounding valleys. Since the tableland is capped and protected by sandstone formed of sediment from the early Blue Ridge Mountains, the plateau may be considered the offspring of the Blue Ridge.
Once the rains and resulting streams eroded down to the Pennsylvanian sandstone, the water gathered into cracks that had developed in the rock. Several of these streams converged to form the precursor of the Big South Fork.
As the plateau surface gave way to the downward erosion of the river, the sandstone at the edges resisted the river's lateral forces. So rather than the river widening over time, the river's erosion continued downward, creating a gorge hundreds of feet deep in the plateau.
Today, the Big South Fork flows north across the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, carving a river gorge that reaches depths of 600 feet before joining the Cumberland River in Kentucky. The gorge is rimmed by the 100-foot-thick Pennsylvanian sandstone. You can walk out to the edge at the East Rim, Devils Jump and Honey Creek Overlooks and look down a sheer drop into the river gorge.
The South Arch
Natural arches also take shape because of the Pennsylvanian sandstone. At the top of a ridge the sandstone resists falling apart, and so erosion eventually opens a hole under the sandstone, leaving a layer of rock suspended above ground. The best example in the recreation area is Twin Arches, where two massive stone arches stand end to end. The North Arch possesses a span of 93 feet and a clearance of 51 feet. The South Arch has 135 feet of rock spanning a clearance of 70 feet. Numerous smaller arches dot the recreation area which, when the tally is complete, may turn out to possess more natural arches than anywhere else in the eastern United States.
The Pennsylvanian sandstone molds the landscape in other ways. Sandstone at the lip of waterfalls resists breaking away; so erosion proceeds downward, creating 60-foot Slave Falls in the Tennessee portion. Sandstone protects more-easily eroded layers, leaving pillars, such as the Chimneys at Station Camp East, and the buttes standing in No Business Creek Gorge. Sandstone forms the ceiling of rock overhangs throughout the recreation area; where openings erode in exposed rock walls, pieces fall away until the resistant sandstone is reached overhead, leaving shelters where Indians and pioneers alike took refuge.
And where today's solitary hiker escapes a sudden thunderstorm. Gazing out on the dripping forest from the confines of a rock shelter, I can't help thinking about the contrasts. Dark and green. Rock and leaf. Pillar and tree. Immutable sandstone and effervescent life. Something a little different, up on the Cumberland Plateau, at the Big South Fork.
How To Go See It
The Big South Fork NRRA lies atop the Cumberland Plateau west of I-75 between Lexington, Ky., to the north and Knoxville, Tenn., to the south.
For the Tennessee portion of the recreation area, the towns of Oneida on the east and Jamestown on the west serve as gateways into the area. The Bandy Creek Visitor Center lies on the west side of the river off Tenn. 297 that runs through the park (BSFNRRA, Rt. 3, Box 401, Oneida, Tenn. 37841. 615/879-3625 or -4890).
For the Kentucky section, head for the historic town of Stearns. On your way into town from the east on Ky. 92, pause at the recreation area's Stearns Information Center (606/376-5073). In Stearns, you can board the Big South Fork Scenic Railway (1-800-462-5664) for a train ride down to the restored Blue Heron Mining Community in the river gorge.
Russ Manning's "Exploring the Big South Fork" ($15.95) provides virtually all you need to know, with sections on history, geology, plants and animals, and directions for each outdoor activity.
With Sondra Jamieson, Manning has also written a complete trail guide to the region, "Trails of the Big South Fork" ($12.95). The guide has descriptions of 89 trails in the NRRA and the adjacent areas.
Manning's complete guide to the plateau region, "The Historic Cumberland Plateau" ($16.95), tells the history and gives directions for exploring each region of the plateau from Kentucky through Tennessee and into Georgia and Alabama.
All three books are available from Mountain Laurel Place, P.O. Box 3001, Norris, Tenn. 37828. 423/494-8121.
What to See and Do: Hike, Bike & Explore
Easily accessible overlooks offer panoramic views of the river gorge, like the East Rim overlook in Tennessee and the Devils Jump and Blue Heron overlooks in Kentucky. Other viewpoints require driving backroads, such as Honey Creek and Dick Gap overlooks. Still others require some walking, like the Catawba Overlook 1.6 miles out of the Blue Heron Mining Community in Kentucky or the Sunset Overlook 1.3 miles from the East Rim Overlook.
History abounds. At the Blue Heron Mining Community you'll hear the recorded voices of the people who once lived and mined coal there. Historic Rugby offers tours of the Victorian homes, church, and library; call or write for a brochure that describes the Big South Fork Heritage Trail, a driving tour of the entire region. Visit turn-of-the-century farmsteads in the recreation area by walking the 3.6-mile Oscar Blevins Farm Loop and the 5.9-mile John Litton Farm Loop from the Bandy Creek Visitor Center.
For horseback riding, you can board your horse at the Bandy Creek Stables (615/879-4013) or take guided rides on the stable's horses. The 16-mile North White Oak and eight-mile Jacks Ridge Loops are popular. There are also the new 12-mile Pilot/Wines Loop out of the Station Camp East Horse Camp and the six-mile Lee Hollow Loop out of the Bear Creek Horse Camp.
For the more adventuresome, a raft trip through the gorge of the Big South Fork offers one of the best ways to get a feel for the landscape. Unless you're an expert paddler, you should go with a guide, Sheltowee Trace Outfitters (1-800-541-RAFT) in Kentucky and Cumberland Rapid Transit (423/879-4818) in Tennessee.
Mountain biking is popular. The five-mile Duncan Hollow and seven-mile Collier Ridge Loops lead from the Bandy Creek Visitor Center.
Still, walking is the best way to experience the outdoors. A stroll along the Riverwalk at Leatherwood Ford introduces you to the river, and a universally accessible trail leads south through the riverside forest and beside gigantic boulders. Longer walks take you 2.3 miles to the O&W Bridge and two miles to Angel Falls, a massive drop in the river.
The 3.5-mile Middle Creek Nature Loop on the west side in Tennessee takes you by numerous rock shelters, and the 4.6-mile Twin Arches/Charit Creek Loop features the massive arches and the old backcountry lodge. In Kentucky, the 0.7-mile Split Bow Arch Loop circles through the natural arch, the 0.8-mile Topside Loop passes behind Yahoo Falls, and the 6.6-mile Blue Heron Loop penetrates Cracks-in-the-Rock and swings by Devils Jump Rapids.
My favorite is part of the John Muir Trail out of Leatherwood Ford that leads to Angel Falls Overlook at three miles. This spectacular scene of the river gorge is probably the best view on the Cumberland Plateau.
Where To Stay
The BSFNRRA has four campgrounds. The 190-site Bandy Creek Campground near the Bandy Creek Visitor Center has water and electric hookups. The 45-site Blue Heron Campground near Stearns at present has no utility hookups. Two new camps cater to horseback riders at Station Camp East in Tennessee and Bear Creek in Kentucky.
Charit Creek Lodge in the backcountry is the sole lodging in the recreation area. Hiking and horseback riding, or mountain biking, are the only ways to get there. You'll stay in bunk cabins or bunk rooms in the lodge, pioneer log structures. Breakfast and lunch provided. Reservations are needed (250 Apple Valley Rd., Sevierville, Tenn. 37862. 423/429-5704).
In addition to small motels in the surrounding communities, inns offer a night's stay. At Stearns, you'll find the Big South Fork Motor Lodge (606/376-3156) and the Marcum-Porter House (606/376-2242). A restoration of the nearby Barthell Mining Community will include lodging; check with the visitor center for the opening.
On the southern boundary of the park lies Historic Rugby, an English colony founded in 1880 (P.O. Box 8, Rugby, Tenn. 37733. 423/628-2441). You can stay at Newbury House or a cottage and have dinner at the Harrow Road Cafe. There's also the nearby Clear Fork Farm (423/628-2967) and Grey Gables (423/628-5252) bed and breakfasts, and the Bruno Gernt House (1-800-771-8940) in the old German community of Allardt.
Tennessee's Pickett State Rustic Park on the west side of the recreation area has cabins and a campground (615/879-5821). A new Big South Fork Wilderness Resort (423/569-9847) on the east has cabins.
Black Bears Arrive in the Big South Fork
The Big South Fork got a little wilder last winter when park rangers began an experimental release of black bears deep into the park's backcountry. In January, rangers transplanted six pregnant females from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and outfitted the bears with radio collars that allow researchers to track them. Park biologist Robert Emmott calls the release successful, since the bears and their cubs have stayed near their release points. A second release of six females started this summer.
The experimental two-year release was prompted by the natural migration of wild bears into eastern Kentucky and by research indicating that the Big South Fork could provide sufficient food and shelter to sustain a bear population. The study data will enable park managers to plan for the possibility of a wild bear population.
The reintroduction is designed to minimize interactions between bears and people. The transplanted bears, which have no history of nuisance activities, were released into a remote area where it is unlikely that park visitors will see them. If the experimental release is successful, and the bears remain within park boundaries, a natural population of bears may soon inhabit the Big South Fork.