ONEIDA, Tenn. — Truthfully, there is no bad time to hike the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. With hundreds of miles of footpaths spread throughout 125,000 acres of wilderness, the BSF is truly a park for all seasons.
But hiking this section of the northern Cumberland Plateau is near its best during the early weeks of summer, when the rhododendron and mountain laurel that are so prolific throughout the region are in full bloom.
With that in mind, here are five hikes that you won’t want to miss during the months of May and June:
1.) Burnt Mill Loop
Distance: 4.5 miles. Difficulty: Moderate. Accessible via: Burnt Mill Bridge Trailhead.
The Clear Fork River is one of two major tributaries that join to form the Big South Fork River, which lends its namesake to the national park. With headwaters near Allardt, Tenn., the Clear Fork River more closely resembles the river it will eventually empty into than does its counterpart, New River, which heads up in the Cumberland Mountains.
Burnt Mill Loop, a 4.5-mile loop trail on the southern end of the Big South Fork NRRA, showcases this stream, which features many of the same terrain features that you’ll find further downstream along the Big South Fork River, although in gentler form.
From the trailhead at Burnt Mill Bridge on Honey Creek Road near Robbins, Tenn., the Burnt Mill Loop follows the stream for much of its length, climbing up and over a ridge to off a bit of variety to the hike. In addition to the river, the trail features a waterfall, wildflowers and bluffs. But what truly sets it apart is the opportunity to take off your shoes and wade into the shallow waters of Clear Fork. Hikers will find ample opportunity to do so on the upstream side of Burnt Mill Bridge, where scenic camping spots can be found along the river bank and the river bottom is made of solid rock.
2.) Leatherwood Loop
Distance: 3.3 miles. Difficulty: Strenuous. Accessible via: East Rim or Leatherwood trailheads.
The 3.3-mile Leatherwood Loop Trail is one of only a few loop trails in the Big South Fork NRRA that is accessible by multiple trailheads. The trail makes up for its short length with a strenuous ascent from the river bottom to the top of the gorge, and features a little bit of everything that makes the Big South Fork region unique, from dense stands of hemlock to waterfalls to panoramic views of the river gorge.
From East Rim Trailhead on East Rim Road, which can be accessed via S.R. 297 near the Big South Fork NRRA headquarters outside Oneida, Tenn., Leatherwood Loop Trail passes through an old farmstead that has been almost completely reclaimed by nature before following the original road that early settlers of the region used. The trail first drops below the bluff line, then winds its way through a hemlock forest along a small stream for a ways as it descends towards the bottom of the gorge.
Ultimately, the trail emerges at the Leatherwood Ford day use area before following the Big South Fork River upstream, merging with the John Muir Trail for a short distance. One of the highlights along the trip is Echo Rock, which includes a viewing platform along the river’s edge so that hikers can pause to admire the way the sound of the river’s rushing whitewater is reflected off a gigantic boulder along the edge of the stream.
Once the trail makes its vigorous ascent back to the top of the plateau, a short spur trail leads hikers to a panoramic overlook that offers expansive views of the river gorge, including Leatherwood Ford and Bandy Creek. But what really sets the trail apart is the mountain laurel that grows in abundance along the route. Hikers who are fortunate enough to catch the plant in bloom in May are in for a treat, particularly once the trail has topped the plateau on the south side of the loop, where the laurel seems to close in and form walls of flowers on either side of the footpath.
3.) Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole
Distance: 2.9 miles. Difficulty: Moderate. Accessible via: Laurel Dale Cemetery (Historic Rugby).
The Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole trail at Historic Rugby is another of the Big South Fork NRRA’s trails that showcases the Clear Fork River. Located further upstream than Burnt Mill Loop, the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole trail is a throwback to the days of English gentry in this historic Victorian village.
Founded by British author and reformer Thomas Hughes (notable for Tom Brown’s School Days) in the 1890s, Rugby was originally intended as an escape for younger sons of English gentry who would not be afforded the same opportunities that were reserved for their families’ eldest sons. The village flourished for a while, but did not out-last the Great Depression that struck America in the 1920s. Today, the village remains largely intact, thanks to the preservation efforts of Historic Rugby, and is an excellent side trip for visitors to the region.
The Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole is exactly what its name implies: a pool of water along the Clear Fork River where the English (and American) gentlemen of Rugby would go to swim and bathe. The swimming hole is a gentle pool of water at the bottom of a whitewater rapid, and is a picturesque spot along the river.
Further down the trail is Meeting of the Waters, where White Oak Creek empties into the river as its largest tributary. This was the ladies’ bathing hole during the early days of settlement. Either swimming hole remains an excellent place for hikers to cool off from the summer heat.
4.) Oscar Blevins Farm Loop
Distance: 3.6 miles. Difficulty: Easy. Accessible via: Bandy Creek Trailhead.
The Oscar Blevins Farm is one of only four farmsteads in the Big South Fork NRRA that remain largely intact, and it is also the most picturesque of the four. Located just north of Bandy Creek Visitor Center, the farm is actually accessible by vehicles, but the loop trail leading to it offers an easy hike that should not be overlooked.
From Bandy Creek Trailhead, just north of the visitor center, the trail winds through what was once fields that have since been reclaimed by nature, and the forest line between the new growth forest and the old growth forest is clearly visible. One side of the loop offers a hike that is largely uneventful, traveling through the hardwood forest, while the other side of the loop offers a trek through stream drainages and follows Bandy Creek for a short distance. One of the highlights of the hike is Muleshoe Shelter, a rock shelter where farmers once shoed their mules.
The Oscar Blevins Farm is the closest thing to a working farm that you’ll find in the Big South Fork these days. The National Park Service keeps horses on the premises, which helps keep the fields open and in their original form. The farmstead is so picturesque that it is often used for family portraits and even the occasional wedding.
5.) Yahoo Falls
Distance: 1.2 miles. Difficulty: Easy. Accessible via: Whitley City, Ky.
Located on the northern edge of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, near Daniel Boone National Forest, Yahoo Falls stands 113 ft. tall, making it the highest waterfall in all of Kentucky. The waterfall is located near the Big South Fork River, along a small stream that feeds into the river. It has cultural and historic importance, as it was said to be the site of an Indian massacre at the hands of John Sevier’s Indian hunters during the 19th century.
During drier weather, the flow of water over Yahoo Falls becomes little more than a trickle, but the pool of water at the base of the waterfall remains an inviting place for hikers to take off their shoes and step into the cool water to beat the heat of day.