Fall foliage is quickly nearing its peak in the foothills of the Appalachians, and there’s no better way to enjoy the scenery that autumn offers than with an auto tour of the northern Cumberland Plateau.
With the towns of Oneida and Huntsville as staging points, the possibilities for how you explore the fall foliage along the northern plateau are endless. You can take short detours to historic sites or scenic attractions, drive into one of our region’s small towns for a quick lunch, and even grab a room and make a multi-day trip out of it.
For your convenience, we’ve mapped out a few routes to help you get started.
Fall colors are expected to reach their peak around this weekend — Oct. 18-19 — with excellent scenery provided by mother nature into the first few days of November.
The driving tours are broken into two areas, each of which consists of two routes. The Big South Fork routes (blue and purple) take you through the heart of Big South Fork Country. The Brimstone routes (yellow) take you into the heart of the Cumberland Mountains.
Big South Fork North (purple): Start your day in Oneida, dropping by RaeZack’s Grill & Deli (U.S. Hwy. 27, Helenwood) or Preston’s Longhorn Steak House (19787 Alberta Street, Oneida) for a hearty, down-home breakfast before hitting the road. From U.S. Hwy. 27 in Oneida, head west into the open farmlands between Oneida and the Big South Fork on S.R. 297. The scenic drive will take you past hundreds of acres of standing corn waiting for silage or, if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of buffalo.
Once in the Big South Fork, the drive continues on S.R. 297, winding into and out of the river gorge. You may wish to take a brief detour to the Bandy Creek Visitor Center (Bandy Creek Road) for information about the Big South Fork (the alternative route along Bandy Creek Loop is marked in red). Otherwise, continue on S.R. 297 all the way through the park and through open residential lands on the park’s west side, until you’ve reached S.R. 154.
Turn north on S.R. 154 and drive into Pickett State Forest. Again, you’ll have the opportunity for an alternative route if you’re feeling adventurous. Divide Road, marked in red on the map above, is a gravel, two-lane road directly into the heart of the northern Cumberland Plateau backcountry. You can take a short side-trip to Twin Arches, the famed natural land bridges, which are accessible via a short, 0.7-mile hike. You’ll travel through parts of Big South Fork, Pickett State Forest and Daniel Boone National Forest before crossing into Kentucky and traveling through the historic Bell Farm. Ultimately, you’ll wind around until you rejoin the original route.
If you choose to stick to the pavement, you’ll continue on S.R. 154 deeper into Pickett State Forest. Pickett State Park is on the left, and is an excellent place to stop for a picnic lunch. You can take a short hike on one of the park’s trails, or even rent a canoe for a paddle around the lake.
After crossing into Kentucky, you’ll turn onto Ky. Hwy. 1756 and begin your trip towards historic Stearns, Ky. — an old lumber and mining town on the edge of the Big South Fork. Ky. Hwy. 1756 eventually meets Ky. Hwy. 92, which will take you east to Stearns. Be sure to take a brief detour into the historic downtown area, where you can tour a museum, grab lunch, or even hop aboard a steam-powered train for a scenic trip into the Big South Fork backcountry to the abandoned mining town at the end of the line (check www.bsfsrwy.com for booking details).
Once Ky. Hwy. 92 arrives at U.S. Hwy. 27, you’ll turn south and travel back into Oneida. The entire northern route is 83 miles, traveled directly, and will take a minimum of two and a half hours to drive.
Big South Fork South (blue): You’ll begin the southern route of the Big South Fork route the same as you begin the northern route — by driving through the scenic farmlands of West Oneida and through the Big South Fork on S.R. 297. Once you reach S.R. 154, however, you’ll turn south towards Jamestown, Tenn. Once S.R. 154 reaches U.S. Hwy. 127, you may wish to take a short detour north to historic Pall Mall in the beautiful Wolf River Valley. Pall Mall was home to highly-decorated World War I hero Sgt. Alvin C. York. In Pall Mall, you can visit Sgt. York’s birthplace, gravesite, tour the staffed and stocked general store, and take in all the scenery that the Wolf River Valley has to offer.
Back in Jamestown, you’ll find a number of restaurant options for lunch. On the south end of town, you may wish to take a short detour to the Highland Winery. Otherwise, turn onto S.R. 52 and head into the tiny town of Allardt, Tenn. — home of the great southern Pumpkin Festival each October.
Eventually, S.R. 52 nears the Big South Fork. Before turning into the unincorporated Mt. Helen community, you may wish to take a brief detour into Historic Rugby, marked in red on the map. Historic Rugby is a carefully preserved utopian village, constructed in Victorian English style in the late 1800s. Have lunch at the Harrow Road Cafe, stay overnight at the Grey Gables Bed & Breakfast, or take a hike on one of the historic village’s hiking trails.
Back on the route, you’ll turn off S.R. 52 and take a series of paved back roads towards Burnt Mill Bridge. Eventually, the pavement turns to a two-lane gravel road. Shortly after the pavement ends, take a brief detour to the Honey Creek Overlook. Honey Creek is the most popular hiking trail in the Big South Fork, but you don’t have to hike the entire 5.5-mile trail to enjoy the scenery of the overlook — you can drive directly to it, and it’s handicap-accessible.
After crossing Burnt Mill Bridge, you’ll rejoin paved roads and begin heading back into civilization, eventually reaching U.S. Hwy. 27 back to Huntsville and Oneida. The entire southern route is 71.4 miles and will take a minimum of two hours to drive.
Brimstone Western Route (yellow): Both Brimstone routes are out-and-back drives into the heart of the mountains. The first is situated near the southern route through the Big South Fork, should you wish to combine the drives. From U.S. Hwy. 27 you’ll take Brimstone Road into the mountains. The drive through the residential countryside includes scenic views of the Cumberland Mountains towering over the farmland in the valleys. You’ll drive by abandoned coal tipples and small country churches. Watch for the abandoned Brimstone Railroad, which parallels the road once you’ve crossed the bridge over Brimstone Creek. Also watch the tops of the mountains for the tell-tale “rings” left by strip mining in the mid 20th Century. At one time, this area was rich in coal. Later, it played a great importance in the timber industry. Now, the only natural resources being produced in this area are natural gas.
You’ll drive by lands that make up both Brimstone Recreation — the 20,000-acre ATV recreation area that has become well-known among ATV enthusiasts across the country — and the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area. The trip ends at Lone Mountain Baptist Church. Be sure to stop at the cemetery atop the hill and take in the awesome views of the mountains towering over the expansive valley. And be sure to have your camera ready — you’ll want to take pictures!
The entire route is 34.8 miles, in and out from the U.S. Hwy. 27 and S.R. 63 intersection in Huntsville, and will take a minimum of two hours to drive.
Brimstone Eastern Route (yellow): The eastern route into the Cumberland Mountains departs S.R. 63 before you arrive in Huntsville. The drive is along Norma Road to Smokey Junction. This area was a dominant player in the coal industry in the early-to-mid 20th Century. Smokey Junction was once an important railroad town. You’ll drive through residential countryside with views of the mountains, fertile farmland along the creek bottoms, and small country churches. If you’re lucky, you might see a bull elk along the roadside! This area — the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area — is home to the second-largest elk herd east of the Mississippi River.
The entire route is 20 miles, in and out from S.R. 63, and will take a minimum of an hour to drive.
If you think that one day just isn’t enough time to take in all the fall scenery in these parts, we happen to agree! Fortunately, there are a number of lodging options along the route. Along the Brimstone routes, you can rent a cabin at Brimstone Retreats or Cabins of Elk Run. Or you can camp at Trails End Campground or Brimstone Recreation. Along the Big South Fork routes, you can rent a cabin at a number of cabin rentals, or lodge at the Grey Gables Bed & Breakfast. For these lodging options and more, see our lodging page.