ONEIDA, Tenn. — Cabin fever? Winter blues? Clear your mind by spending a day — or two — in the great outdoors.
Winter is a great time to hike in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Looking to try it? Here are five great hikes to get your started:
1.) Grand Gap Loop – The Grand Gap hike is a 6.8-mile loop offering an easy hike along the rim of the Big South Fork River Gorge and through upland hardwood forests. Panoramic overlooks — including the spectacular Angel Falls Overlook — are among the highlights of this trail, which also includes rock shelters and open forests.
There are no overlooks better — and none more famous — than the Angel Falls Overlook, which sits 500 ft. above the famed Angel Falls, a Class IV whitewater rapid on the BSF River. The overlook is actually a large chimney rock that is separated from the main sand rock outcropping, requiring hikers to step over a small gap to reach the overlook itself.
Grand Gap gets its name from Grand Slaven, an early settler in the area who housed his mules in one of the rock shelters along the trail and used a gap in the cliff line to drive his mules to the river below.
The Grand Gap Loop Trail is a shared-use trail that is also open to mountain bikers.
The Grand Gap is unique in that it does not start at an official trailhead. The nearest trailheads are Leatherwood Ford and Bandy Creek.
The hike from Leatherwood Ford is by way of the John Muir Trail from S.R. 297 to the top of the gorge near the overlook. It adds 5.6 miles to the trip (2.8 miles each direction), for a total distance of almost 12.5 miles. This route includes a foot bridge across the scenic Fall Branch, and a unique passage through a gap in the cliff line that requires the use of a hand cable to steady your balance.
The hike from Bandy Creek adds about 10 miles (five miles each direction) for a total of nearly 17 miles. It involves taking the Litton Farm Loop Trail to Fall Branch Trail, and Fall Branch Trail to Grand Gap Loop Trail.
Or, if you’d rather, you can drive directly to the start of the Grand Gap trail. To do so, take S.R. 297 to Bandy Creek Road, then right on Bandy Creek Road to Bandy Creek Campground. Take another right into the campground, then an immediate left towards the campground’s Circle A and swimming pool. Just beyond the pool, the pavement ends and the road turns to gravel (Duncan Hollow Road). Continue on the one-lane, gravel road. Keep left when the road splits at power lines a couple of miles ahead, then look for the next right, which is Alfred Smith Road. The Grand Gap Loop is located at the end of Alfred Smith Road, two miles from Duncan Hollow Road.
Interesting things to look for: The Baby Grave, which is actually the grave of Archie Smith, the infant son of Alfred and Elva Smith. He died of pneumonia in 1932. His father, for whom Alfred Smith Road is named, worked as a logger for the Stearns Company until the start of World War II, when the family moved to Oak Ridge for work.
Be careful for: Unprotected cliff edges. Use extreme caution with pets and small children.
2.) Twin Arches Loop — Twin Arches Loop is a 6-mile loop trail that is moderate in difficulty, taking hikers to the best-known geological feature within the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, as well as an historic farmstead that is still in use as a backcountry hostel.
From the Twin Arches Trailhead, the trail drops 550 ft. into the valley where Charit Creek and Station Camp Creek meet. There, one of the first settlers of this territory — a long hunter named Johnathan Blevins — built his home in the late 1700s. The home still stands, with various other barns, cabins and outbuildings. Blevins’ family lived in the valley as subsistence farmers through the 18th Century, before the farm was sold to an entrepreneur in the middle of the 20th Century. He turned it into a hunting preserve, which he operated until the National Park Service purchased it in the 1970s.
Today, Charit Creek Lodge is a remote, backcountry lodge similar to the one at Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains. There is no electricity or cellular service.
Hikers will also encounter other historic features, such as the Tackett homesite, where two brothers died during the Civil War. As the story goes, Confederate guerrillas approached the Tackett home during a raid on the region, incursions into the BSF territory that would usually lead to able-bodied males being pressed into service. To protect the boys, a female caretaker placed them under a mattress, then threw herself onto the mattress, pretending to be ill. After the guerrillas had left, she pulled the mattress off the boys, only to discover that they had smothered to death.
The Tackett home is no longer standing, but the brothers’ graves remain, marked by simple gravestones.
The Twin Arches are spectacular, more closely resembling something you would find in the West than anything you’ll find in the eastern U.S. Standing at 103 ft. and 62 ft., respectively, with a combined span of 228 ft., the arches make up one of the largest natural land bridges in the United States — and in all the world.
The hike begins off Divide Road, so named because it divides the Big South Fork NRRA and Pickett State Forest. Get there by taking S.R. 297 from Oneida to near Jamestown, then taking S.R. 154 north to Divide Road. Signs lead to the trailhead, which is located on Twin Arches Road.
Interesting things to look for: The far bunkhouse cabin at Charit Creek Lodge is made from logs that were once the cabin at Jake’s Place, which you will have already encountered on the hike or will soon encounter, depending on which direction you took from Twin Arches. Charit Creek, the stream that flows by the lodge, is named for a teenage girl named Charity who drowned in the stream in the early 1800s. Back at the top of the gorge, near the Twin Arches, is the remnants of a niter mining operation. Niter, used for gunpowder, was the first industry in this region.
Be careful for: Steep steps, unprotected rock ledges. Use caution with pets and small children.
3.) Yahoo Falls — Located on the Kentucky side of the Big South Fork NRRA, Yahoo Falls is an easy-to-moderate hike, and the shortest hike on this list. It is only a one-mile round trip to and from the parking lot, unless you choose to take side trips to interesting rock formations. But Yahoo Falls is spectacular during the winter months, especially after days of freezing weather during prolonged cold snaps, when gigantic ice piles form at the base of the falls.
Yahoo Falls is the highest waterfall in the BSF, as well as the highest in all of Kentucky. It protects a huge rock house behind the falls, where more than 100 Cherokee squaws and children were allegedly slaughtered by Indian hunters in August 1810. As oral legend has it, the perpetrators were operating under the direction of John Sevier, the future governor of Tennessee, and staged an ambush at the waterfall, where the Indians were gathered to escape the growing hostilities of a region where white settlement was growing. Among those who are said to have died there were Princess Cornblossom, the daughter of Cherokee war chief Doublehead.
To get there, take U.S. Hwy. 27 north from Oneida to Whitley City, Ky., and Ky. Hwy. 700 west (left) at the Marathon Food Mart (a caution light just beyond McDonald’s in Whitley City). Follow the highway to the gravel road that leads left 1.5 miles to the Yahoo Falls picnic area and trailhead.
Interesting things to look for: At the intersection of Ky. Hwy. 700 and Yahoo Falls Road, look for the tombstone of Jacob Trowel on the right. Trowel was the husband of Princess Cornblossom from the legend of the Thunderbolt Cherokees.
Be careful for: Steep stairs and high cliffs.
4.) Oscar Blevins Farm Loop — There’s nothing particularly exciting along the easy Oscar Blevins Farm Loop Trail, a 3.6-mile loop that begins and ends at Bandy Creek Trailhead. But the farm at the end of the trail is well worth the trip, especially on a snowy winter day.
The Oscar Blevins Farm is one of only four farmsteads in the Big South Fork that have been preserved through the years. The original cabin at the farm was built in 1879 by John Blevins, a direct descendant of Johnathan Blevins, one of the region’s first white settlers. The cabin is still standing, along with several other structures that were added later.
The hike to the farm takes hikers past Bandy Creek, the namesake of the entire area, and Muleshoe Shelter, where farmers once shoed their mules.
To get there, take S.R. 297 west from Oneida to Bandy Creek Road. A right onto Bandy Creek Road will lead directly to the trailhead, which is the first left turn past the visitor center.
Interesting things to look for: Look at the huge trunks of rotted pine trees that are still standing. These were once stately yellow pines, killed by the southern pine beetle infestation from 1999-2001. A couple of those trunks are so large that two adults can barely wrap their arms around them. In other areas, piles of those dead trees lay in piles on the ground, now decaying and covered in moss.
Be careful for: Muddy areas along the trail.
5.) Burnt Mill Loop — The 4.3-mile Burnt Mill Loop is moderate in difficult, combining a gentle stroll along the Clear Fork River — one of the two main tributaries of the Big South Fork River — with a climb up and over the plateau.
Along the way, a number of small bluffs and waterfalls make for spectacular ice formations during the winter months. The Burnt Mill Trail is a trail for all seasons. Later, in the spring, redbuds and dogwoods line the path. During the summer, the Clear Fork River is excellent for swimming and wading.
Interesting things to look for: A side trail leads to Burnt Mill Shower, a 30 ft. waterfall that offers an excellent place to cool off in the summer, and a great place to find natural ice sculptures during the winter.
Be careful for: A short set of stairs.