Another National Park site that is just a short distance from Knoxville is the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. In fact, the Big South Fork is about the same distance west from Knoxville as the Great Smoky Mountains are to the east. Yet Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area only gets a fraction of the people that visit the Great Smoky Mountains. The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area had 835,000 visits in 2021 and Great Smoky Mountains had 14.1 million.
It is a shame that so many people visit the one park and ignore the other park because they have a lot in common. They are similar in size and have a similar history. There are trees and mountains and scenic creeks. The number of visitors is the most striking difference between the two National Park sites. On the day that we visited Big South Fork National River, we were the only people in the Visitors Center. Everywhere we went in the park, we were the only people. We did see one other couple in the distance at an overlook, but that was as close as we got.
Encompassing 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area protects the free-flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. The area boasts miles of scenic gorges and sandstone bluffs. It is rich with natural and historic features and has been developed to provide visitors with a wide range of outdoor recreational activities.
There are no roads going through the recreation area. Instead, you choose an area of the park to explore and drive in to it from US 27 on the east side of the park or TN 154 on the west side of the park. There are five campgrounds at Big South Fork. Bandy Creek Campground, the largest, even has a pool and electric and water hook-ups. Bear Creek Horse Camp has 23 water and electric sites with accommodations for horses.
Although Big South Fork has multiple Visitors Centers, most are only open on weekends or seasonally. The only Visitors Center that is open year-round and during the week is the Bandy Creek Visitors Center. This was our first stop on the day we visited. We talked to the ranger about what we could see and do and watched the movie. The ranger gave us the park brochure and highlighted the places we might be interested in seeing on the map.
The Big South Fork River begins in Tennessee at the confluence of the Clear Fork and New rivers. The river flows north through a gorge that is 600 feet deep. It enters Kentucky and empties into the Cumberland river. The recreation area preserves the wildest and most rugged territory on the Cumberland Plateau. There are miles of hiking trails, mountain bike trails, and bridle trails. Although there are developed trails, people are encouraged to explore any part of the park. Kayakers and rafters take advantage of the undeveloped land to take long, back-country trips.
Tom and I stopped at several overlooks. The views were spectacular at East Rim, Gorge, and Devil’s Jump. Hiking trails enticed us to explore the park and see some of the many arches and waterfalls in the park. We looked around the Blue Heron Mining Community and dreamed of taking the scenic railway from Stearns to Blue Heron. I think it would be awesome to hike in to Charit Creek Lodge and spend several nights. We definitely needed more than one day to explore this beautiful place.
Visiting Big South Fork was quite a contrast to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We couldn’t believe we had never stopped at this beautiful spot before, so close to I-75. We will definitely return to spend more time and explore. If you want to spend some time in the mountains hiking and exploring, with plenty of solitude, head to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. There are plenty of places to stay in the communities around the area and none of them are overdeveloped, tourist-crowded places like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Discover Big South Fork before the rest of the world ruins it!