The dog days of summer are upon us. For most of us, summer is the most opportune time to get outdoors or take a trip. Work slows down, vacation days await and the kids are out of school. But as the temperatures climb, sometimes it’s nice to be sure your leisurely trip includes water for cooling down. You won’t find water parks at the Big South Fork — at least not the man-made kind. But we do have nature’s water park!
Here are several hikes and adventures that will allow you to get your feet — or your head, if you choose! — wet in Big South Fork Country this summer.
Hike Burnt Mill Loop: It’s a common question this time of year — “What is a hike I can take that includes swimming holes?” Our answer? There are none better than the Burnt Mill Loop! This 4.5-mile loop trail is located on the southern end of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, near Robbins, Tenn. For much of its length, it follows the Clear Fork River, which merges with the New River further downstream to form the Big South Fork River. There are several easily-accessible swimming holes along the hike, with solid rock bottoms and waters that are shallow enough to allow your kids to safely play in the river. From the trailhead at Burnt Mill Bridge on Honey Creek Road (Robbins, Tenn.), hike the trail in a counter-clockwise direction. The best swimming holes are located along the second half of the hike. After following the river downstream for a short distance, the trail winds its way to the top of the plateau, crosses a road and gradually drops back into the river gorge to follow the river back to the trailhead. Look for campsites along the river’s edge as you make your way back downstream. These are usually where the best swimming holes are located. As an added bonus, you’ll encounter Burnt Mill Shower — an ice-cold waterfall located just off-trail along the second half of the hike. It’s little more than a trickle this time of year, but there’s plenty of water flowing over the waterfall to cool off!
Drive to the O&W: The historic O&W Road from Oneida, Tenn., into the Big South Fork NRRA was once the Oneida & Western Railroad, which connected Oneida to Jamestown, Tenn., some 30 miles to the west through the coal- and timber-rich forestlands that are today the Big South Fork. Today, the old rail bed is a road for motor vehicles, extending from Verdun Road (Oneida, Tenn.) into the Big South Fork. The highlight of the road is the O&W Bridge, a steel bridge dating back to the 1800s that is one of the last of its kind in the United States. The road turns from gravel to dirt at that point, but those who venture on will find another treat: North White Oak Creek. The scenic stream is a popular swimming area for locals, and you won’t have any trouble finding a place to dip your toes into the water.
Paddle the river: Whitewater paddling is out of season during the summer months. The Big South Fork is one of the few rivers in the region not tamed by manmade dams for hydroelectric purposes, which means the river’s suitability for kayaking and rafting is totally dependent on the weather. However, there is plenty of flat water along the Big South Fork and its major tributaries, which is leading to an increase in recreational paddling. On the Big South Fork, the best stretches of water for recreational kayaking or canoeing are around the Leatherwood Ford and Station Camp areas. The Leatherwood to Station Camp float begins at Leatherwood Ford on S.R. 297 (Leatherwood Road, Oneida, Tenn.) and ends at Station Camp (Station Camp Road, Oneida, Tenn.). It is a 10-mile stretch of mostly flat water, although there are some small, Class I rapids. There’s also the dangerous Angel Falls rapid, a Class IV/V whitewater rapid that must be portaged during all seasons. Recreational kayaking is more popular on New River, one of the BSF’s two main tributaries. Popular launch areas include the U.S. Hwy. 27 bridge (Scott Highway, Huntsville, Tenn.), the Town Springs boat launch (Town Spring Road, Huntsville, Tenn.) and Winona (Winona Road, Huntsville, Tenn.). Lots of folks also prefer to kayak on Flat Creek Reservoir, a 260-acre impoundment of Flat Creek (Larry Crowley Way, Huntsville, Tenn.). Need a rental kayak? Check with South Fork Tack (West 3rd Avenue, Oneida, Tenn., or 423-569-6700). Through a partnership, the Scott County Chamber of Commerce and South Fork Tack offer a limited number of cost-free loaner kayaks. (A small administrative fee applies; users are responsible for damages to the equipment.)
Explore Frozen Head: Just south of Scott County in Wartburg, Tenn., is Frozen Head State Park, a crown jewel of Tennessee’s state park system. This beautiful state park is situated in a cove between towering mountains that are part of the Cumberland Mountain range. Flat Fork Creek runs through the center of the park, offering crystal-clear and ice-cold waters that are perfect for a cooling dip on a hot summer day. The picnic facilities at Frozen Head are picturesque, with playgrounds for youth children, ball fields for older children and a campground. There are also a multitude of hiking trails that venture into the surrounding Frozen Head State Forest.
Hike to Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole: Tucked away in the center of the Cumberland Plateau along the southern edge of the Big South Fork NRRA is Rugby, Tenn., an historic colony that dates back to the late 19th century. This Victorian village was envisioned by British author and reformer Thomas Hughes (“Tom Brown’s School Days) as a retreat for the youngest sons of English gentry. The utopia did not last, but the colony has been preserved by the non-profit Historic Rugby. Today, it is both a living community and a haven for tourists. Stop for lunch at the Harrow Road Cafe and take in a film about how life used to be on the Cumberland Plateau in the town theater before heading to the Laurel Dale Cemetery trailhead for a hike to the Clear Fork River. The hike is a moderate, 3.5-mile trek, much of it along the scenic river. Along the way, you’ll find the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole — where the men of Rugby went to bathe in the 1890s (the women bathed in a separate hole of water further upstream). Today, men and women alike enjoy swimming in the cool waters of the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole. The hiking trail also leads hikers to Meeting of the Waters, where White Oak Creek empties into Clear Fork and forms another swimming hole.