Travel Adventures: Big South Fork and Cumberland Falls

Tucked away one and a half hours from Knoxville, TN, and under three hours from Lexington, KY, is Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area ( ). We learned about Big South Fork, oddly enough, in the parking lot of a Starbucks in Atlanta. Somehow, and this happens to us quite a bit, we got in a conversation with a complete stranger. This conversation happened to be about our 4x4 orange Jeep and what we do in it. That led to us talking about our love of national parks, especially the Big 5 in Utah (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion). “Well, if you love those parks, you should go to Big South Fork in Tennessee. It’s got similar geology,” the guy said. I honestly didn’t believe you could get the sandstone cliffs and arches you find out West this side of the Mississippi River, but I wanted to find out. Three years later, we went to Big South Fork, took some good hikes and saw some beautiful things while camping out in a wonderful campground.

Now, you have to plan to go to Big South Fork; you’re not just going to happen upon it. Located on 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau, this park skirts the Cumberland River and its tributaries, including the Big South Fork River, in northeastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky. From Atlanta, we drove less than five hours and immediately went to the National Park Service Visitor’s Center at Bandy Creek. I wanted to see arches and waterfalls, and the best arch was only a short drive away, Twin Arches.

After dropping our stuff at our campsite, we drove to the Twin Arches trailhead. This was the best hike and feature we experienced in the park. It was an easy hike to two magnificent rock arches that were well worth the trip.

You actually walk across an arch to get down to the base of the formations, and we loved the views at the bottom, too.

Any way you go to the arches, requires that you go up and down some steps, but the steps are doable, even with small children. When you get to the point on the trail where the sign says you can go straight or to the left to get to the arch, take the trail on the left because it has the least amount of steps. This trail can be taken as part of a loop or as an in-and-back hike of less than two miles. It was well worth the hike!

We also took a two-three-hour hike to Yahoo Falls and Arch. The trailhead is a 45-minute drive north of Bandy Creek. This was a beautiful hike with a couple of shallow creek crossings along the way. We stopped at the Yahoo Falls overlook, but it wasn’t very inspiring, so we decided to take the longer hike to Yahoo Arch.

Yahoo Arch is impressive but does not compare to Twin Arches. From the arch, we headed back to the falls. Somehow, and, honest, we thought we were on a trail, we followed a creek through some giant boulders to the pool at the base of Yahoo Falls. The picture above tries to capture that tiny hike. Now, Yahoo Falls is the tallest falls in Kentucky, but, when we were there, due to lack of rain, it was more of a tallest trickle. The shower of water (think a light shower) drops 113 feet from the rocks above. Not exactly Niagra Falls, but still worth the hike because of the setting. The water drops down into a secluded hollowed-out cubby hole surrounded by trees. It is very serene and picturesque.

The environs of Big South Fork are interesting and unlike other places I have visited on this side of the country. The park is spread out and offers many hikes but most are a little longer than we wanted to do. The hike to Angel Falls is supposed to be worthwhile but is seven miles round trip. Many people take lengthy trips into the wilderness area on foot or horseback and camp for several days, and you can easily see how the area lends itself to that. There is a hike-in lodge, Charit Lodge, near Twin Arches that might also be a good stop, but we didn't go there. We did take the short drive to Natural Arch and were glad we did. The hike to the arch is quite lengthy according to my standards on a hot, humid day when I had already hiked a good deal. It may be a stroll in the park for some people.

Another quick side trip on your way to Lexington, KY, is Cumberland Falls State Resort Park ( ).

Cumberland Falls is beautiful and boasts the only moonbow in the Western Hemisphere. A moonbow is like a rainbow but only appears when the moon conditions are just right. We didn’t get to see it because we were there during the day, but the state park website has a calendar of when the chances are best to see this rare phenomenon. There is also a lodge and restaurant at the park and many miles of trails connect to the Daniel Boone National Forest.

(This is our picture. I wanted you to know we actually went.)

I can’t finish this without a plug for the campground at Bandy Creek in Big South Fork. We’ve been to about 20 national park campgrounds within the last five years, and this was the best one so far. The campsites were clean and spacious and came complete with a bear box, which everyone should use religiously if there’s even a slight threat of bears. The bath houses were very clean, had a large area in which to wash dishes, and had a very nice shower that could be used free of charge. There is a large pool on site that can be used on the weekends in the summer months and a nice playground. The visitor’s center also has a demonstration area to educate the public about life on the Cumberland Plateau throughout history. There are several other campgrounds in Big South Fork including an equestrian campground. If you’re idea of camping is a hotel or lodge, the national park website listed at the beginning of this article has some great information under the “Plan Your Visit” section.

Now it's your turn: If you go, or have gone, to Big South Fork, let us know what you thought of it. We always try to support our national parks and recreation areas every chance we get and encourage everyone to do the same. If you have any questions for us, just email me at I'd love to hear from you!!!

If you see any pictures in this post you would like to purchase, please let me know. I can also add text to the photos if you like.

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