Big South Fork is one of the most underrated wilderness areas near Knoxville and home to diverse wildlife, a pristine trail system, and great whitewater. But because it's a somewhat lesser known outdoor destination, compared to the Smokies or Knoxville's Urban Wilderness, you might not be sure where to start. Well, we've got you covered with these three Big South Fork adventures ranging from a moderate day trip hike to a week-long expedition into the depths of the park.
1. Angel Falls/Angel Falls Overlook
Want a fun day hike sampling of the best that Big South Fork has to offer? Then you want to tackle the Angel Falls Overlook Trail. The Angel Falls Overlook is one of the most popular hikes in the park, and for very obvious reasons. Much of the park’s literature, as well as the most popular photographs from the area, are taken in this very spot—a lush gorge buttressed by steep cliffs that transform into deeply wooded hills as they steadily slide down to the curves of the Cumberland River Gorge. The site is truly something to behold, and the overlook is arguably the most beautiful spot in the park.
The 5.6 mile hike begins at the Leatherwood Ford parking lot and crosses the bridge to the main Angel Falls Trail. From there, hikers follow the east (right) side of the Cumberland River until eventually passing a rock shelter and then climbing up a manageable series of support cables. Once to the top, the rock slab of the Angel Overlook is a great spot to have a snack or read a book while taking in the spectacular view.
2. Twin Arches and Charit Creek Lodge
If you’re looking for a memorable, family-friendly weekend in one of East Tennessee’s more underrated parks, a hike to Twin Arches combined with a night at Charit Creek Lodge is a one-two punch of awesome. Gregg, the manager at Charit Creek is hospitable to a fault, and easily meets the needs of small families and larger groups. Guests can make reservations online starting as low as $40.00 per cabin, per night.
Drop your stuff off at the cabin and head down the trail toward the Twin Arches. The route to this popular Big South Fork attraction is easy and accessible to nearly anyone, aside from some steep steps that might prove difficult for some. If you’d like to add on a more difficult and secluded experience, drive up Divide Road a bit to hike a section of the John Muir Trail across Chestnut Ridge.
When you’re done for the day, head back to the lodge. This is the oldest functioning structure in the park, built around 1815. Gregg will probably have a delicious dinner ready for you, and afterwards, you can sit underneath the stars, warmed by the campfire, before eventually settling into your warm bed.
3. John Muir Trail
For those wishing to escape from mankind and lose (or find) themselves in the wild forests of the Cumberland Plateau, the John Muir Trail—named after one of this country's most famed outdoorsmen—is a great place to "keep close to Nature's heart and break clear away," as he would say.
Hikers should be warned, though, this is not a well-maintained trail like you might find in the Smokies. While some developments have been made to the park in recent years, hikers should still be prepared to ford rivers, camp in imperfect sites, and generally improvise along their way north. We’d also suggest buying a good, topographical map of the area and a guidebook like Hiking the Big South Fork by Deaver, Smith, and Duncan. Permits are required and can be found here.
Marked by the blue, bearded silhouette of its namesake, the John Muir Trail meanders for 44 miles through Big South Fork and requires about 5 days for most hikers to complete. Sign in at the Brandy Creek Visitors Center before setting out on this long expedition. Starting at the south end, hikers are advised to to park in the relatively well-lit Leatherwood Ford parking lot to avoid theft while on the trail. From Leatherwood Ford, you’ll head north to the Angel Falls overlook and continue along the west side of the Cumberland River before following the trail northwest away from the river, across Chestnut Ridge to the John Muir Overlook. Cross the Big South Fork boundary into Pickett State Park and finish at the trailhead for Hidden Passage Trail, where your second car should be parked.