ONEIDA, Tenn. — The autumn foliage season is upon us in the heart of Tennessee’s Cumberlands region. The landscape is already beginning to pop with the golden-hued foliage that signals fall’s arrival, and meteorologists are forecasting the first frost of the season for this weekend, which should help speed up the transition from green to reds, yellows and oranges.
There are many ways to experience fall in Big South Fork Country and the Cumberland Mountains. Here are a few.
1.) From a car. A road trip through the Cumberland Mountains and the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is the easiest way to experience the eye-popping fall foliage. From Interstate 75’s Exit 141 at Caryville, Tenn., S.R. 63 traverses the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area through the Cumberland Mountains to the Scott County seat of Huntsville before intersecting with U.S. Hwy. 27 to Oneida. From there, it’s just a short drive along S.R. 297 to the Big South Fork NRRA.
There are several ways to make your trip better. For starters, don’t wait until Exit 141 to leave I-75. Instead, take Exit 134 (Jacksboro/LaFollette) and hang a left onto Old Highway 63 (Royal Blue Road). This scenic drive will take you through the North Cumberland WMA along Cove Creek before emerging at the top of the Cumberland Plateau on S.R. 63.
Once you’ve reached Oneida, you might wish to take a detour along the O&W Road — an historic rail bed into the Big South Fork NRRA that ends at the O&W Bridge at the Big South Fork River (pictured above). The two-lane gravel road is suitable for vehicles of every sort. You’ll want to plan to take it slow, though, to allow for a few potholes along the route. The drive in and out will take more than two hours, but it is well worth it for the scenery you’ll see along the way and at your destination, where the O&W Wall — a spectacular cliff face — stands sentry over the O&W Bridge. From there, you may wish to park your car and hike the John Muir Trail to the top of the gorge on the west side of the river. Just past Devils Den, a spectacular overlook (unprotected — use caution) offers jaw-dropping views of the BSF River Gorge.
Back at S.R. 297, you’ll enjoy a scenic drive through farmland west of Oneida before reaching the boundary of the Big South Fork NRRA. The highway twists and turns its way into the gorge to the Big South Fork River and back out again. At that point, you may wish to hang a right to drive into the Bandy Creek area. There’s a two-lane gravel road that leads past the visitor center and two a couple of historic farmsteads before re-emerging back on S.R. 297 several miles west, and there are also several side roads that allow visitors to drive deeper into the forests to view the spectacular scenery of the autumn season.
Once back at S.R. 297, continuing west through the BSF will take you to S.R. 154, where a short drive north will lead you to Divide Road. This road, true to its name, serves as the dividing line between the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area and Pickett State Forest. Once motorists reach the Kentucky line, it divides BSF and the Daniel Boone National Forest. It’s a two-lane gravel road suitable for all vehicles. See the map below for a suggested auto tour of the region.
There are literally dozens of side trips you can take along the route — Norma Road or Brimstone Road into the heart of the Cumberland Mountains. Brimstone Road in particular offers spectacular scenic views along a two-lane, paved country road that eventually winds up at the scenic Lone Mountain Baptist Church.
2.) From an ATV. Those Cumberland Mountains sure are pretty from a distance when they’re bathed in the golden-hued colors of autumn. But they’re even better when you see them up-close-and-personal. You can plant yourself square in the middle of the mountains on an ATV. Brimstone Recreation manages 20,000 acres of property with more than 300 miles of ATV trails and is headquartered on the corner of the courthouse square in downtown Huntsville. Park in town and enjoy an ATV ride directly into the mountains. ATVs are available for rent. The North Cumberland WMA also offers hundreds of miles of trails that are open for ATVs. Trails End Campground on River Road just outside of Huntsville caters to riders on the North Cumberland.
3.) From a bike. Did you know that the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is the only national park in America to receive the International Mountain Biking Association’s coveted “epic” rating? It’s true! And some of the BSF’s bike trails take riders directly into the heart of some of the best fall scenery you’ll find anywhere.
From Bandy Creek Visitors Center, it’s just a short ride (or drive) along a scenic, one-lane gravel road to a small trailhead that serves as a starting point for both the Grand Gap Loop Trail (6.8 mile loop) and a segment of the John Muir Trail (7.0 miles) that are open for mountain bikes seven days a week. Most riders prefer to begin and end their ride at Bandy Creek Visitor Center, which adds additional mileage along gravel roads.
The Grand Gap Loop Trail features nearly seven miles of single track, with stunning views of the river gorge, including Angel Falls Overlook — the single most photographed feature in the national park. The trail mixes in several miles of rolling mixed-oak forestland as well.
The John Muir Trail features seven miles of single track that includes a mix of cliff’s edge riding along the top of the gorge with several spectacular overlooks and rolling to mostly-level trail through mixed-oak forest. At the trail’s end, riders take the gravel road back to Bandy Creek.
Some riders prefer to link the two trails for more than 20 miles of riding from Bandy Creek Visitor Center and back.
4.) On horseback. The Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is one of the Southeast’s top destinations for equestrian riders, and there is no more popular time to ride your horse at BSF than during the months of October and November. More than 200 miles of equine trails dot the landscape of the Big South Fork — some on top of the plateau, some through the gorge. Popular starting points include Station Camp Horse Camp (or the nearby trailhead) and Bandy Creek Stables adjacent to the park’s visitors center.
Some trails are more popular than others, but an excellent choice is the Cumberland Valley Trail along the O&W Railroad bed that follows North White Oak Creek (starting point: Bandy Creek).
5.) On foot. We saved the best for last. There’s no better way to discover fall scenery in Big South Fork Country than the old-fashioned way. More than 300 miles of hiking trails in the national park include a wide variety of trails along the edge of the gorge to spectacular overlooks, along streams in the bottom of the gorge, and everything in between. If you get tired of looking at leaves, the Big South Fork features the widest variety of sandstone geological formations east of the Mississippi River, including hundreds of natural arches, rock shelters, land bridges, chimneys and more.
Among the best choices for hiking in the fall are the Grand Gap Loop Trail (6.8 mile loop; start at Alfred Smith Road near Bandy Creek Campground); the O&W Bridge Trail (a segment of John Muir Trail that links Leatherwood Ford, the starting point, to the O&W Bridge; 6 miles round trip) from Leatherwood to O&W Bridge and beyond to Devils Den at the top of the gorge; Honey Creek Loop Trail (5.5 mile loop; start at Honey Creek Trailhead on Honey Creek Road on the south end of BSF); and the Middle Creek Nature Loop (4 mile loop; start on Divide Road off S.R. 154).
Photo: The historic O&W Railroad Bridge across the Big South Fork River. (Photo copyright Melissa Capps, Pixel Star Photography. Used by permission.)