The Complete Guide to Big South Fork
Introduction to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is a stunning region with unique rock formations, historical sites, and miles of activities for those that love the outdoors. Although not a national park, the land is still protected by the National Park Service and is open year-round 24/7.
We might be a bit geeky over rocks but we actually came across Big South Fork by ACCIDENT when searching for a peaceful weekend escape. A lot had happened in our family and we decided to spend a weekend away in search of nature and peace. Finding the cozy cabin, listed below, on Airbnb led us to explore Big South Fork and we can’t wait to come back to see and hike even more in the area! It was the perfect location to escape into the forest, hit the trails, and rejuvenate.
If you’re planning a trip to the area, this guide will help you in planning the perfect trip!
Where is Big South Fork?
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is located in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee stretching across the state lines. The national recreation area holds over 125,000 acres of forest, rock formations, waterways, and hiking trails. The closest towns to the park in Tennessee are Jamestown and Oneida. On the Kentucky side, the closest town is Stearns, KY.
The BEST Day Hikes in Big South Fork
There are so many incredible hikes in the area, there’s no way to complete them all in a short trip to Big South Fork. However, we’ve listed our favorites and some of the hikes still on our wishlist for next time.
The Best Hikes for Rock Formations in Big South Fork
Twin Arches Hike (Tennessee Side)
Length: Short Loop 1.1, Full Loop 4.8
If you only have time for a couple of hikes on your trip, this one is a MUST do. The short loop is perfect for those in need of something shorter as you reach the arches after taking a nice hike through the woods and still have the energy to explore the arches and surrounding rock formations.
If you have more time or more energy, the Twin Arches trail can be extended to a full loop at 4.8 miles and/or connect to other trails including the Slave Falls Trail and Needlepoint Arch.
Split Bow Arch Loop (Kentucky Side)
Length: .6 miles
A peaceful hike to an incredible rock formation. The short trail is well marked and maintained, worth the stop for the magical rock arch it leads to.
Yahoo Arch (Kentucky Side)
Length: Roughly 3 miles
Continuing passed Yahoo Falls, mentioned below, you will find the mammoth rock formation called Yahoo Arch, standing over 17 feet tall and over 70 feet wide.
Rivers, Rapids, and Falls in Big South Fork:
Angel Falls Rapids (Tennessee Side)
Length: Up to 4 miles
This trail is listed solely as Angel Falls on AllTrails, however, you will see more of river rapids than a waterfall. Starting at Leatherwood Ford, you will walk along the beautiful clear river to the rapids. Cool off with a swim in the river once you are done hiking!
Slave Falls (Tennessee Side)
Length: 1.1 to the falls, 3.2 mile loop
The waterfall is located on an easy hike that can be extended to a longer day hike by adding additional trails and rock formations. The shortest trailhead is located near Sawmills Trailhead, however, you can easily add the Needlepoint Arch or continue on to Twin Arches Loop to see even more on one hike!
Yahoo Falls (Kentucky Side)
Length: 1 mile
On this roughly 1-mile loop trail you will see Kentucky’s highest waterfall. It’s considered moderate because of some steep stairs, rock steps, and switchbacks. However, the difficulty is worth the trek because this trail provides views of Yahoo Creek, Lake Cumberland, and Yahoo Falls.
Other Hikes in the Area:
When it comes to a region like this, most visitors are coming for the incredible water and rock formations. That doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing hikes without these though. Here are a few more hikes worth checking out if you’re an avid hiker:
- Middle Creek Nature Loop, Length: 3.5 miles
- Clear Fork Loop Trail, Length: 2.4 miles
- Burnt Mill Loop Trail, Length: 4.2 miles
8 Things to do in Big South Fork Besides Hiking
There is something here for every type of adventurer. Whether you are looking for a calm walk in the woods or looking to scale some big boulders, look no further for outdoor adventure. In our list below, we have listed whether something is in Tennessee or Kentucky to help with planning purposes.
As avid hikers, most of our knowledge about the area comes from the trail. However, if you are looking for rock climbing or water sports, such as rafting, there’s even more to do than we list below.
1. Bandy Creek Visitor Center (Tennessee Side)
The Bandy Creek Visitor Center is located on Stable Road between Jamestown and Oneida, Tennessee. At the visitor center, you will find trail maps, wildlife information, and friendly park rangers that can help you plan your trip!
Out of service while in the park? Another plus of the Bandy Creek Visitor Center is the free wifi access in case you need to check in or post a picture from your hike!
There are plenty of overlooks and stops to make throughout the recreation area that doesn’t require a long hike.
2. Take in the Views at the East Rim Overlook (Tennessee Side)
Take in a stunning view of the river and forest, without the need to be an avid hiker. The East Rim Overlook is about 100 yards from the parking lot on a wheelchair-accessible path. It also has a Colorblind Viewfinder.
3. Picnic Under the Natural Arch (Kentucky Side)
Rustic picnic area with a short walk to an overlook with views of the Natural Arch. It is possible to hike to the arch, however, for those that are not avid hikers, it is a stunning view from the overlook alone.
4. Look Out Over the Blue Heron Overlook (Kentucky Side)
This short hike is near the old mining community with spectacular views. The trail to the overlook is paved leading to views of unspoiled nature.
5. Escape the Sun at the Devil’s Jump Overlook (Kentucky Side)
Beautiful views from two overlook platforms, a short walk from the parking lot. There is even a covered overlook here to escape the rays of the sun while enjoying the view.
6. Go For a Swim at the Leatherwood Ford (Tennessee Side)
A beautiful area to walk down to the river. This is not the overlook connected to a trail but a short walk from the parking lot will take you right to the river to walk along or jump in for a swim! It is also the location to access the Angel Falls Hike.
7. Take a Train Ride
The Big South Fork Scenic Railway is a unique experience as it gives you a totally different perspective to exploring the area. The depot is located in Stearns, Kentucky and provides a scenic ride through the region. Explore Appalachia in a new way by taking a ride on this historic track.
Ticket and tour information can be found here!
8. Horseback Riding
Ride along the trail and take in stunning sandstone formations, fluttering wildlife, and river rapids. Another unique way to experience the beauty of the region is on horseback. Because this is a super popular activity in BSF, you’ll find plenty of tour options throughout the area.
Since we didn’t go on any horseback riding trips on our trip, we cannot share from personal experience. However, we found that Southeast Pack Trips out of Jamestown, TN was loved by a lot of visitors to the area.
Places and Parks to Visit Near Big South Fork
Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area
Canyon Overlook Trail: At 1.5 miles, this trail is another shorter and milder hike that still comes with grand rewards. Hiking this trail will lead you to a stunning overlook and is just outside the Big South Fork National Recreation Area.
Colditz Cove State Natural Area:
Northrup Falls Trail: This 1.4-mile loop includes stunning rock formations and a waterfall. We really enjoyed this trail but be careful because it can be VERY slippery in some areas, wear good shoes!
Pickett CCC Memorial State Park
We wrote an entire post all about this stunning state park (COMING SOON). But it’s worth noting in this guide since it is located right near Big South Fork and Jamestown, Tennessee.
Where to Stay Near Big South Fork
If you are planning to stay overnight near Big South Fork, we recommend looking for accommodation in Jamestown, Oneida, or Stearns. We stayed closer to Jamestown and really enjoyed being close to the trails and having access to a grocery store for cooking at our cabin.
Camping in Big South Fork
There are 5 established campgrounds within the national recreation area including Bandy Creek Campground located near the visitor center. Reservations are required for these sites and this can be done through Recreation.gov.
Backcountry camping is also allowed in the park but permits from the visitor center are required!
Camp Near Big South Fork at Pickett CCC Memorial State Park
This nearby state park has a campground for tents, RVs, and even rentable cabins. We’re writing more about Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, but wanted to list it as an option for camping near Big South Fork!
Cabins near Big South Fork
There are plenty of cabin rentals to choose from in the Big South Fork area. These can be found on sites including Airbnb.
We HIGHLY recommend this Airbnb cabin located 10 minutes from Big South Fork. We spent the weekend at Cougar Cabin and it was so peaceful, that we had a hard time motivating ourselves to leave the back deck and do some hiking. The hosts are wonderful, the cabin is so cozy, and the hot tub is perfect for sore muscles after a long day of hiking.
Where to Eat & Drink During your Stay
Walmart – Well, we aren’t in Big South Fork to eat first right? If you’re in need of groceries for the campsite or your cabin, there’s a nice Walmart in Jamestown.
Sawbriar Brewery and Hillside Manor Winery – Did someone say free tastings? Head to the winery to try their local made wines! If wine isn’t your thing, the brewery has quite the selection of local brews and the flights are perfect to try a few. If the Strawberry Lager is on the menu, DON’T SKIP IT.
Campfire Coffee – It’s hard to pass up a coffee shop, especially when you need some energy to hit an extra trail. Campfire Coffee is definitely worth the stop if you are staying near Jamestown and need a pick me up before or after a day of adventuring!
Gather Coffee Lounge – Amazing coffee, friendly staff, and even cute souvenirs to bring home from the trip. We love that they offer vegan snacks as well as coffee in this Oneida based coffee shop.
Element Asia Restaurant – Finding vegan options in small towns can be hard but Asian restaurants, like this one in Oneida, make it easier.
Tips for Visiting BSF
No matter what time of year you plan to visit, your packing list for BSF must include good walking/hiking shoes and layers. Make sure to bring comfortable clothing that you don’t mind wearing on the trail, swimming, or horseback riding.
The area surrounding BSF is limited when it comes to groceries and food, especially if you are planning a trip that falls over a Sunday. Make sure to plan your meals ahead, and double-check opening times. Many things are closed on Sundays (except Walmart!)
If you are planning to camp in Big South Fork, check out this Ultimate Camp Packing List (COMING SOON) to ensure you don’t leave anything at home!
The weather can change quickly in Big South Fork so make to check your weather app ahead of time and before heading out on a long hike.
We visited in June and had the perfect weather for 3 days. However, the temperatures the week before and after were in the 90s, which is a little warm for some visitors.
Make smart and safe choices while in the park and on the trail.
There is very little cell reception in the area. Because of this, it is best to get a map of the park at the visitor center beforehand and talk to a park ranger about any current concerns at the time. In addition to a map, you can download the trail maps using an app such as AllTrails.
Do not climb or scale any rock formations that are not designated for such activities. If you plan to swim, make sure the current is safe.
Always have a first aid kit in your daypack. All kinds of accidents can happen and it’s better to be prepared ahead of time!
Leave No Trace
Spending time in nature is one of the most incredible things to do. To make sure that we continue to have access to places like this, we need to take care of them.
Make sure to follow the Leave No Trace principles while spending time in the park. This includes respecting the environment and wildlife, staying on the trail, and taking care of your belongings and trash.
For more information on how you can do your part, feel free to head to Leave No Trace to educate yourself on making the best choices in the great outdoors.
Big South Fork FAQ
What is Big South Fork known for?
Well, it’s in the name. Big South Fork is known for the fork in the Cumberland River, gorgeous gorges (ha!), rock formations, and wildlife. There is so much natural beauty here, you’ll have to make the trip and find out for yourself!
How big is Big South Fork?
Big South Fork stretches across part of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee for a total of 125,310 acres. It encompasses the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, the Cumberland Plateau, and the former mining town of Blue Heron. There is roughly ## miles of trails throughout the recreation area.
How much does it cost to visit Big South Fork?
Entrance to the park is FREE! There is no national park entrance fee or permits required to visit Big South Fork. However, there are fees for backcountry permits, campgrounds, and other special use permits. More information on these can be found here.
When is the best time to visit Big South Fork?
Spring through Fall is the best time to visit Big South Fork because winters can be quite chilly. In the spring, the region does receive a good amount of rainfall so it’s important to check the forecast ahead of time.
The summer temperatures can reach into the 90s however, during our visit in June the weather was perfect and didn’t get higher than 85.
Fall is another exciting time in Big South Fork because the changing colors of the leaves drastically shift the landscape and bring even greater beauty to the area. It’s on our bucket list to make it back during the color change one year.
Can you drive through Big South Fork?
Yes! The park is free to enter so driving through the National Recreation Area is allowed. There is not a single road that connects the entire park itself. You can drive through part of the park from Jamestown to Oneida and enter other parts of the park at various roads as well.
Are dogs allowed in Big South Fork?
Yes! Another great thing about visiting Big South Fork is that you do not have to leave your furry friends at home. However, they must be on a leash and be cleaned up after to protect the environment and wildlife.
Visiting Big South Fork
In this guide to Big South Fork, we included:
- The Best Day Hikes in Big South Fork
- 8 Things to do other than Camping in BSF
- Where to Stay + Eat near BSF
- Tips for Visiting the Park
- and have answered FAQ’s for Big South Park.
We hope this guide to the park helps you plan your next trip to this wonderful place! Although we came across it on accident, we are making sure to plan another trip back to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in the future. We hope you have an amazing trip and look forward to hearing about it in the comments below.