The Big South Fork was made for social distancing
It’s quiet, as the narrow hiking trail winds along the rim of the gorge above Fall Branch. Maybe too quiet.
We’re still a little early in the spring for many songbirds to be singing full-throated choruses, and insects haven’t yet emerged in great numbers. That’s part of it. Perhaps another part of it is the absence from the skies. There is no drone of an airliner cruising overhead. Perhaps that’s because many of the nation’s flights have been grounded as travel demand plummets amid the coronavirus scare. Or, perhaps, it’s merely coincidence.
Either way, it’s quiet. And that’s okay. The solitude is soothing — in more ways than one.
The Grand Gap Loop hiking trail snakes towards Angel Falls Overlook and the stunning panoramic views of the river gorge that await once hikers leave the trail and step out onto the free-standing rock chimney. On a typical March Friday, there would be at least a few other people sitting on the table-top rock, taking in the views. Or, if not, there would be someone show up if you hang around long enough.
Today, it doesn’t feel like any other hikers will venture by. The weather is part of it; ominous clouds hover off to the west, and thunderstorms are in the forecast for later in the day. But it’s not just the weather. Americans are scared. They’ve hunkered down to wait out the COVID-19 outbreak.
COVID. Who would’ve even thought at Christmas that we would be talking about something called COVID-19 by the time spring arrived? The word “coronavirus” was at least in the dictionary back then, but few would’ve known it if they weren’t specifically looking for it. And if they had heard the word, they’d probably know it as the culprit behind some cases of the common cold — not a serious respiratory infection that has placed the entire world in varying stages of lockdown.
But here we are. And “here” is in the middle of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area — 125,000 acres of wilderness and few people mingling about within it. And when you think about it that way, you start to think that maybe you’ve discovered a vitamin that no doctor could prescribe. In some ways, you have. Coronavirus concerns have robbed us of sporting events, get-togethers, even jobs. But it hasn’t robbed us of the great outdoors — not yet, and hopefully not ever.
Break the gloom and doom: Get outside
The importance of getting outside — for both our physical health and our mental health — has been often written about. But, somehow, amid the coronavirus concerns, it seems especially important.
Americans are in a bad way. The threat of getting sick — perhaps even dying, for those who fall into what the Centers for Disease Control have deemed to be high-risk categories, although most people even within those categories will recover from the coronavirus — is bad enough. But the reeling economy and fears over what that means months down the road makes things even worse — and that’s especially true for those who have lost their jobs, even if only temporarily, due to the social mitigation efforts that have been put into place.
Throw in the fact that COVID-19 has taken away most of the things that Americans do to enhance their social lives — there are no sporting events to go to or to watch on television, no theaters to go to, no restaurants for going out to eat — and there’s really nothing for most people to do but sit around and ponder on the negatives.
That’s where the great outdoors comes into play.
There are a lot of benefits to getting outside and enjoying even moderate hikes. It can help control blood sugar levels, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk for heart disease — and all of those just happen to be mitigating risk factors for serious illness due to coronavirus.
Being outside and engaging in physical exercise anywhere is important, but there’s just something different about being in the woods. Hiking on uneven ground as opposed to the flat surface of a paved walking track can increase the amount of energy the body uses by 28 percent, a University of Michigan study found. The lateral movement of hiking on uneven ground also provides a lateral workout for muscles that don’t get much benefit from walks on the treadmill — especially those in the hips, knees and ankles.
But perhaps the biggest benefit from a walk in the woods — especially in these trying times — is the improved mental health that it promotes.
“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves,” wrote John Muir, America’s original adventurist who hiked through Big South Fork Country as part of his 1867 journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
Nearly a century and a half later, his words are being proven. A recent study at Stanford University found that when people walk in natural settings, they have lower levels of rumination — the word psychologists use to describe the repetitive thought centered on negative emotions that has been linked to anxiety and depression. They also had reduced neural activity in the subgenus prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with mental illness.
Hiking also releases endorphins. Considered a natural painkiller, these hormones activate the opioid receptors of the brain, which leads to feelings of euphoria.
In other words, hiking is a vacation from negativity — and it’s a healthy one, at that. In despair over the constant drumbeat of coronavirus news? We shouldn’t ignore what we’re being told; it could be the key to protecting ourselves or those we love. But a little endorphin release could certainly help us all cope!
The original ‘social distancing’
Folks who live in Big South Fork Country have been social distancing since before it was considered the best way to mitigate a dangerous contagion.
In essence, health experts say we need to put as much space between ourselves and other people as possible. That doesn’t mean we should stop going to work — although some states are flirting with the idea of closing everything but essential businesses. And it doesn’t mean we should stop going to school — although most schools in the U.S. are closed. It simply means we should stop congregating in places like restaurants, theaters, sports stadiums, casinos, and even churches.
It’s the last one that has hit particularly hard in the Bible Belt, where going to Sunday morning worship churches is as much a central part of life as basketball in Indiana and high school football in Texas. Our pastors would tell us that the church is the people, not the building, and that you can feel close to God anywhere you take a notion to. But, perhaps, there are few places to feel closer to God than the sanctuary of the great outdoors. Consider Isaiah 55:12 — “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”
The isolation of one’s own home can be overwhelming; after a few days of hunkering down and waiting out a pathogen that we can’t see, the walls can begin to close in on you. But nature’s isolation is good medicine.
In Tennessee, there are no shelter-in-place policies; no curfews. For now, people are free to come and go as they please. And with no crowds to place us at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus, perhaps a trip to Big South Fork Country is just what we need.
The park’s visitor center at Bandy Creek is closed, as is the visitor center in Stearns, Ky. But park rangers are roving the developed trailheads to provide information and answer questions from guests. Even if you don’t bump into a helpful ranger, all trailheads and the backcountry remain open and free to explore.
Here are five places you might go to distance yourself socially; places where you won’t experience a crowd.
1.) Angel Falls Overlook
There’s no better place to start social distancing in the Big South Fork than Angel Falls Overlook, the destination mentioned at the outset. The unprotected overlook is perhaps the most-photographed feature within the national park. And for good reason. The views are simply stunning.
There are two ways to hike to Angel Falls Overlook — via the Grand Gap Loop Trail (6.5 miles, moderate) or the John Muir Trail (6 miles, strenuous). There isn’t a significant difference between the two in terms of mileage, though Grand Gap is a loop trail and the JMT is an in-and-out hike.
The Grand Gap Loop stays on top of the Cumberland Plateau for its entire length, beginning and ending at an undeveloped trailhead at the end of Alfred Smith Road northeast of Bandy Creek. It offers several stunning views of the gorge area, and essentially follows the lip of the gorge for most of its 6.5 miles. It is best hiked in a counter-clockwise direction.
To get there, take S.R. 297 west from Oneida and across the BSF River gorge, then turn north along Bandy Creek Road and enter the Bandy Creek Area. From there, take a right-hand turn into the Bandy Creek Campground, then a left towards the swimming pool. Continue straight beyond the pool, as the pavement turns to gravel and Duncan Hollow Road begins. Alfred Smith Road is the second right beyond the campground. The trailhead is located at the end of the road.
The John Muir Trail starts along the river’s edge, following the river for more than two miles before turning up Fall Branch, crossing the feeder stream that drains much of the Bandy Creek area, and then beginning its ascent to the top of the plateau. The climb — about 500 ft. of elevation gain packed into about half a mile — is what earns this trail its “strenuous rating.” But it’s worth it. Near the top, you’ll look up and see the free-standing rock chimney that provides the overlook towering above you. A short distance beyond that point, the trail follows a rock ledge into a natural gap through the cliff line, with a steel cable put in place for hand support. At the top of the plateau, the trail intersects with Grand Gap Loop, and the overlook is just a short distance to the right.
To get there, take S.R. 297 west from Oneida and into the BSF River gorge at Leatherwood Ford. Park at the gazebo near the boardwalk and walk up to the highway, crossing the river on the highway bridge before looking for a flight of concrete steps leading back to the river’s edge on the west side of the bridge.
(From Flickr, by Sarah Dunlap)
2.) Twin arches
With a combined span of 228 feet and decks that are 62 feet and 103 feet high, the Twin Arches make up the most spectacular rock arches in the eastern United States — and one of the largest natural land bridges in North America! That’s why they’re among the most visited features in the Big South Fork NRRA. But, no worries: “most-visited” here has a different meaning than it might in some national parks. You’re likely to find solitude here, even on a Saturday or Sunday.
As was the case with the Grand Gap Overlook, there are two options for hiking to Twin Arches, both beginning at the same trailhead off Divide Road on the west side of the Big South Fork.
The shorter option is a 1.4-mile loop that takes hikers to the arches and back to the parking lot at the trailhead. A short distance of point-to-point trail leads to the start of the loop, with hikers taking a left and immediately descending a steep ladder to the base of the bluff line. After hiking along the bluff line for a short distance, the first of the impressive arches comes into view. After venturing on to the second arch, hikers will return to the first arch and take a set of steps to the top of the arch, which serves as a bridge for the trail to cross before another set of steps leads back to the top of the bluff line and back to the trailhead.
The longer — and better — option is a 4.6-mile loop trail that leads hikers beyond the arches and into Station Camp Creek valley, at Charit Creek Lodge. Almost 400 feet below the arches in the valley, Charit Creek Lodge was one of the Big South Fork’s original homesteads, dating back to the first of the 19th century. These days, it is a remote hostel. On up the trail from Charit Creek, you’ll find the graves of the Tackett brothers, who died during the Civil War when their grandmother hid them beneath a mattress as roving Confederate guerrillas — known for pressing boys and young men into service — roved through the area. When the soldiers finally left and the grandmother, who had laid atop the mattress pretending to be sick, threw back the cover, the boys had suffocated. Still further up the valley is Jake’s Place, where another of the BSF’s original homes once stood. The log cabin was disassembled in the mid 1900s and moved down the valley to Charit Creek, where it is still used as a bunkhouse today.
To get there, take S.R. 297 west from Oneida and into Fentress County, then take S.R. 154 north towards Pickett State Park. Turn right onto Divide Road and follow the signs to Twin Arches Trailhead.
3.) Litton Farm Loop
A year ago, a website published an article about an “abandoned town” in the Big South Fork that is hard to find, called No Business. The article, shared extensively on social media, prompted some to journey to the Cumberland Plateau in hopes of finding this forgotten town. Except for one thing: It doesn’t exist. No Business was once a thriving community, but nothing remains of it today.
However, you will find an old farm in the middle of the forest in the Big South Fork. It’s called the Litton Farm. It isn’t an entire town, but the original structures still stand.
Beginning and ending at Bandy Creek, the John Litton Farm Loop is a 6.3-mile loop trail with an elevation gain of 561 feet and a difficulty rating of moderate.
The trail parallels Duncan Hollow Road for a short distance before turning away from the gorge and following Fall Branch down the valley. One of the highlights along the way is Fall Branch Falls, a relatively small but impressive waterfall along the trail.
Deep in the backcountry, the trail intersects with Fall Branch Trail. Turning right would lead to Angel Falls Overlook, but turning left will allow hikers to continue along the Litton Farm Loop.
The trail meanders through the forest, finally beginning a slight climb and emerging at the home that subsistence farm John Litton once shared with his wife, Vi. The Littons lived off the land, growing crops and raising livestock, while gathering nuts and berries from the forests. If you were to venture off the trail and knew where to look, you’d find the wooden hog pens where Litton raised pigs for slaughter. They’re built along small rock houses, which have protected them from the elements over the years. You’ll also find black walnut trees that once provided food for the family. The family’s home still stands, as does the old barn and most of the split-rail fences. The barn was built from logs cut from the poplar trees that once grew in abundance on the hillsides surrounding the farm.
Litton died in 1935. By then, the logging industry had come to Big South Fork Country, and the way of life was quickly ended. As men went to work in the log woods, and the coal mines, subsistence farms began to fade from the scene. But the final chapter of the Litton Farm was yet to be written. In 1946, after it had stood vacant for a decade, the farm was purchased by General Slaven. He and his wife, Did, moved their family to the farm. They never had running water or electricity, but they lived on the farm until 1979, when the federal government purchased it as the Big South Fork was being established. They were among the last residents to leave the national park.
From the farm, the Litton Farm Loop winds its way back to the top of the plateau, then follows a gravel road back to Bandy Creek Campground. To get there, take S.R. 297 west from Oneida and across the Big South Fork River gorge. Turn right onto Bandy Creek Road, and later, right again into the campground. Take a left beyond the check-in station and park at the Bandy Creek swimming pool, which serves as the trailhead.
4.) O&W Bridge
The John Muir Trail between Leatherwood Ford and the historic O&W Railroad Bridge is a 4.6-mile, out-and-back hike with only 100 feet of elevation gain.
The hike to the old railroad bridge is not difficult. And perhaps the best thing about it in the spring is its wildflowers. They are plentiful along the trail during the spring season, as the path wanders in and out of old road beds along the Big South Fork River.
The trail begins with an easy stroll from the parking lot at Leatherwood Ford. The trail is flat, surfaced in gravel and even includes several small benches for resting. After crossing a wooden footbridge, a couple of camping sites along the river’s edge and a large boulder, the improved section of the trail ends and it takes on a look that is more typical of the hiking trails within the BSF.
One of the highlights of the hike to the O&W is the observation platform at Echo Rock, a streamside boulder just below the mouth of Bandy Creek that creates a unique echo as the water rushes over the rapids in front of it. Unfortunately, years of erosion recently led to the rock breaking and a portion of it falling onto the platform, resulting in its closure.
The O&W Bridge was put into place in 1915, as the Oneida & Western Railroad was constructed between Oneida and Jamestown. The bridge, a steel whipple truss style that was once popular in America, was originally constructed in the late 1800s, then moved to the Big South Fork to bridge the river. While the exact construction date of the O&W Bridge is not known, it is one of the last of its kind remaining in the U.S. today.
The old railroad, which was used from the 1910s to the 1950s before being abandoned, served as an important link between Oneida and the coal and timber reserves west of the Big South Fork River. The O&W Railroad is an indelible part of Scott County’s history. And once you’ve hiked from Leatherwood to the O&W, ponder this: the route along which you just hiked was once intended to be an extension — a side track, of sorts — of the O&W. A mining operator planned to build a rail from the O&W Bridge to the Anderson Branch Mine just below Leatherwood Ford. This never happened, and the plan was scrapped, but you can see signs where construction of the rail grade began before the idea was abandoned.
To get there, take S.R. 297 west from Oneida and into the Big South Fork River gorge to Leatherwood Ford. Park near the gazebo, and the trail leads past the gazebo and under the highway bridge. Beyond O&W Bridge, if you wish to continue your hike, you can hike up the side of the gorge to Devils Den, an impressive rock house. Even further beyond Devils Den is the unprotected Jake’s Hole overlook, which provides a stunning view of the river gorge and the bridge far below.
5.) Yahoo Falls
At 113 feet tall, Yahoo falls is the tallest waterfall in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area — and the tallest waterfall in the entire state of Kentucky. The trail leading to it is a 2.0-mile loop trail that’s easy to hike.
The hike itself is generally unremarkable, but the waterfall is stunning. And behind it is one of the largest rock shelters in the Big South Fork NRRA, which legend says was the site of a slaughter of the region’s last Cherokee Indians in the early 1800s.
As legend tells it, Princess Cornblossom was born in 1765, the daughter of Chief Doublehead, or Chuqualataque, of the Cumberland Cherokees. She married Big Jake Troxel, a trader from Wayne County, Ky. The Troxels had seven children, but died in the Yahoo Falls massacre of 1810 — a completely different legend that tells the story of defenseless Cherokees, mainly women and children, being murdered by Indian hunters under the direction of John Sevier.
One of the daughters of Big Jake and Cornblossom was Catherine “Katy” Troxel, the first wife of Jonathan Blevins — who established the farmstead that is today known as Charit Creek Lodge in the Big South Fork.
Before the internet made genealogy research easier, the legend of Princess Cornblossom was generally accepted. However, as Troxel descendants researched their family and exchanged notes via the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they began to doubt that the validity of the legend.
Today, both the Yahoo Falls massacre and the very existence of Princess Cornblossom are doubted by historians.
Genealogy experts say it’s unlikely that Cornblossom existed because there’s no evidence to support the claim, and Cherokee women did not bear the title of princess; there was no royalty in the Cherokee tribe. Jacob Troxell, they say, likely did not marry an Indian woman.
In any event, the hike is well worth the effort!
To get there, take U.S. Hwy. 27 north from Oneida to Whitley City, Ky. A short distance beyond, at Marshes Siding, turn left onto Ky. Hwy. 700 and travel west for four miles before turning right onto Yahoo Falls Road.