ONEIDA, Tenn. — The 2018 calendar year is upon us. With it comes the opportunity to explore new areas, try new adventures, and make new friends and memories. With a wide diversity of natural splendors and exciting adventures, there is no better place to spread your wings in 2018 than in Scott County, Tennessee — home of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area and the Cumberland Mountains.
Here is a guide for exploring this beautiful region of the northern Cumberland Plateau in 2018, with something new to try every month!
January: Hiking? Sure, why not? Most people think of warm-weather months when they think of hitting the trails, but there are a few benefits to taking advantage of the colder weather. No snakes. No bugs. No humidity. No people. Plus, the lack of foliage and summer haze really opens up those views across the expanses of the Big South Fork River Gorge, truly making winter one of the best times of the year to hike. If there’s a fresh snow on the ground, all the better! (Just be careful around the cliff edges; the rocks get slippery when the temperatures drop below freezing.)
Looking for the perfect trail to hike during the winter months? Here are a few that are particularly noteworthy: The John Muir Trail segment between Grand Gap Loop and the terminus of Duncan Hollow Road is approximately seven miles, following the edge of the river gorge for the entirety of the trip. There are several spectacular vantage points along the way. Unless you want to double back and hike 14 miles, you’ll want to arrange a shuttle for shuttle service or have someone pick you up. (Access via Grand Gap Trailhead, Alfred Smith Road.) Honey Creek Loop (5.5 miles) is the Big South Fork’s most popular hiking trail and is exceptional in any season. Just take note that this rugged and difficult trail includes several stream crossings and at one point actually uses the stream bed for a short distance. Avoid it after heavy rains, wear waterproof footwear and be sure to watch for ice-covered rocks. (Access via Honey Creek Trailhead, Honey Creek Road.) Middle Creek Nature Loop is a 3.5 mile hike that is fairly easy and offers views of some of the largest rock shelters within the Big South Fork region. With all that rock along the trails, it can be a particularly breathtaking hike after a prolonged bout of sub-freezing weather, due to the ice that forms from the dripping water. (Access via Middle Creek Trailhead, Divide Road.) Yahoo Falls Loop is a short (1.0 mile), easy trail, with the exception of a steep set of metal steps, that passes underneath the 113-foot-tall Yahoo Falls — the tallest waterfall in the Big South Fork. It’s particularly breathtaking when temperatures have been well below freezing for a week or so, as gigantic ice formations form at the base of the falls. (Access via Yahoo Falls Trailhead, Ky. Hwy. 700.)
February: How would you like to come face to face with one of these critters? Yes, the Big South Fork is home to wild boar! So are the Cumberland Mountains, but the hunting season for boar extends all the way through February in the BSF. All that is required is a valid Tennessee hunting license and a $5 permit that can be purchased online or at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center.
The wild boar is a fearsome looking beast, but most visitors to the park never see him, even hikers and others who venture far into the backcountry. He’s shy, moves mostly at night, and tends to stay away from trails and other areas trafficked by humans. But for those looking for an unique adventure, wild boar hunting can be it. Because these tusked beasts reside in the most difficult areas to reach, typically in rock shelters where the stands of rhododendron are dense and provide plenty of cover, they can be an exciting and unique challenge for hunters.
Success rates are actually quite small, but searching for the wild boar is two thirds of the adventure.
March: Sometimes you just want to get away. Late winter is a great opportunity to do that, by renting your very own cabin in the mountains. There are plenty to choose from near the Big South Fork and near the Cumberland Mountains, and at much cheaper rates than you’ll find at larger tourism areas nearby.
From your cabin, you can choose to get out and explore nearby hiking trails, venture into town for dinner and a movie, or simply relax in the quiet surroundings of mother nature, far from the beaten path. It’s the perfect way to relax and unwind!
April: It’s the peak of whitewater season in the Big South Fork! The BSF River and its tributaries are among the most renowned whitewater in the Southeast. Because these rivers aren’t tamed by man’s concrete dams, paddling opportunities here are seasonal and highly dependent on the weather. Late winter and early spring are the prime time for whitewater paddling, from kayak, canoe or raft.
The most commonly tackled section of the river is The Canyon and The Gorge, a section that begins with put-in at the confluence and ends with take-out at O&W Bridge or Leatherwood Ford. This section of the river includes the famed “Big Three” rapids of Double Drop, Washing Machine and The Ell.
If you’re a novice who isn’t ready to hit the whitewater alone, you’re in luck! Sheltowee Trace Outfitters offers complete guide service!
May: There isn’t exactly a beginning or an end to the off-road season in the Cumberlands, but things really begin to crank up in May. Warm weather is finally here to stay, and Brimstone will be hosting its White Knuckle Event on Memorial Day weekend. This three-day event combines music from some of Nashville’s hottest country music artists with hundreds of miles of off-road trails in the mountains and fun events and good food at the Vanderpool Event Area near Huntsville.
If you don’t like crowds, don’t worry. Brimstone’s trails, as well as the trails at nearby North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, are open every day of the year. With more than 150,000 contiguous acres sporting hundreds of miles of trails, you could ride every day of the summer and not encounter the same area twice.
June: Did you know that the Big South Fork region is home to America’s only museum that was designed, built and curated by students? The Museum of Scott County occupies several acres on the campus of Scott County High School and is a highly-acclaimed museum of Appalachian history and heritage.
The museum complex includes a natural history museum that explores the history of the Cumberlands from the era of Native Americans through wars and early industry, such as coal mining; the U.S.S. Tennessee Battleship museum, which boasts the largest collection of artifacts from this historic warship that survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; and the Frontier Village, which includes several acres of gardens and historic structures. There’s also a replica of the Howard Baker Law Office and the Learning Lodge, a museum of science that is loved by kids of all ages. Call 423-663-2801 for museum hours.
July: In the 1880s, British author and reformist Thomas Hughes envisioned a place where younger songs of English gentry could realize their full potential — an utopia, if you will. That vision led to Rugby, a Victorian English colony on the edge of the Big South Fork NRRA. The dream faded in the early 20th century, but Rugby remains, carefully preserved by a nonprofit organization dedicated to Hughes’ vision. Exploring Rugby is to take a step back in time, to a carefree life in the beauty of the Cumberlands.
There is lots to see and do in Rugby, and guided tours are available. You can also have lunch (or dinner on the weekends) at the Harrow Road Cafe, and even lodge on-site at one of the town’s bed-and-breakfast establishments.
August: Whitewater kayaking isn’t the only water sport in town! Recreational kayaking is growing especially popular during the summer months. There are sections of flat water in the Big South Fork that are conducive for paddling throughout the year, and the 200-acre Flat Creek Reservoir in Huntsville is perfect for floating. New River is also popular among recreational kayakers, and the Town of Huntsville offers a free boat launch ramp behind the historic Scott County Jail near the Old Town Springs.
You can even rent (borrow) a kayak, free of charge, through a program offered by the Scott County Chamber of Commerce and administered by South Fork Tack. To inquire about a rental (a small administrative fee applies), call 423-569-6700 or stop by the tack shop, located at 1487 West Third Avenue in Oneida.
September: There aren’t many ways better to see all that the Big South Fork region has to offer than from a passenger car on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.
From Historic Stearns, this excursion train follows the original route used by miners and loggers during the era of coal and timber, traveling into the river gorge and to the historic Blue Heron mining community. There, passengers disembark briefly for a tour of the facilities, which includes ghost structures and a self-guided tour through life as it was when coal was king in this land. Visit www.bsfsry.com for more information.
October: Saddle up, partner. October is prime-time for horseback riding in Big South Fork country. The changing of the seasons causes the lush green countryside to break out into brilliant hues of red, yellow and orange, drawing horseback riders of all ages from across the country to this region.
There are hundreds of miles of trails within the Big South Fork, ranging from short, half-day rides to multi-day rides through the heart of the backcountry. You can even book your very own backcountry lodging at the remote (no electricity) Charit Creek Lodge. Need a guided ride, or need to rent a horse? Check out Southeast Pack Trips!
November: Don’t let the last of warm weather escape you without trying out one of the Big South Fork’s fastest-growing activities: Rock climbing! The BSF has been called “the last frontier” for rock climbers, and features the largest vertical wall in Tennessee at the O&W Bridge. There are also 35 sport routes with fixed anchors near the Blue Heron Mining Community on the northern end of the park.
For more information on rock climbing in the Big South Fork, check out MountainProject.com.
December: Think it’s too cold to venture out on a mountain bike? No way! Mountain biking, like hiking, is always in season at Big South Fork. This national park is one of the very few in America that even allow mountain biking, and it goes without saying that the BSF has the most mountain biking opportunities of any of America’s national parks. In fact, the BSF is the only national park to receive the International Mountain Biking Association’s coveted “epic” designation.
The Big South Fork’s epic-designated trails are found near the Bandy Creek Visitors Center, and include Collier Ridge Loop, West Bandy, Duncan Hollow Loop, Grand Gap Loop and John Muir Trail. Together, they represent about 35 miles of mountain biking splendor. But there are other mountain biking opportunities as well, and most horse trails are open to mountain bikes.
On New Year’s Day each year, a group of mountain bikers get together at Bandy Creek for the annual Mail Run — a mountain bike ride that is held regardless of the weather, whether it be rain, sleet or snow…or sunshine.
For more information on mountain biking in the Big South Fork, check out the Big South Fork Bike Club.