Location: Fentress, Morgan, Pickett & Scott counties (Tennessee), and McCreary County, Ky.
Acreage: 125,000 acres
Activities: Hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, whitewater paddling, rock climbing, hunting, fishing, camping, exploring
At 125,000 acres that sprawls across parts of four Tennessee counties and extends into Kentucky, the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is the fifth-largest National Park Service unit east of the Mississippi River. It adjoins Daniel Boone National Forest. The BSF protects the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, its largest tributaries, and the rugged gorge that encases the streams. It is often considered a quieter, less-visited alternative to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Big South Fork NRRA was established by an act of Congress in 1974, as a means of protecting the river and its tributaries. At various points between the Great Depression and the 1970s, the river was proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to be dammed, in order to provide hydroelectricity for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Dams were intended to be placed at Devils Jump rapid near Blue Heron, in Kentucky, and at the confluence of New River and Clear Fork River, which meet to form the Big South Fork River in Tennessee. However, funding was never appropriated.
European settlement of the Big South Fork lands began in 1815. Prior to that, the BSF was used by several native tribes — most notably, the Cherokee — primarily for hunting. The first white longhunters ventured into the region in the mid 1700s.
The Big South Fork was never heavily settled, mostly because of its remote location and its rugged nature. However, there were a couple of thriving settlements during the 19th century: Station Camp and No Business. The settlements were located along two streams of the same names, approximately three miles apart, as the crow flies. Collectively, they were known as Elva, the name of the U.S. Post Office that was located there.
The Civil War was one of the most noteworthy events of the 155 years of settlement in the Big South Fork. While there were no major battles or skirmishes fought in the region, the lawlessness of the territory made it a prime target of guerrillas who unleashed terror throughout the countryside. The region was also subject to pillaging, mostly from Confederate guerrillas but occasionally from Union soldiers, as well.
The entire Big South Fork region was pro-Union and voted heavily against secession in 1861. In fact, Scott County voted against secession by the largest margin of any county in Tennessee. And its leaders later voted to break away from Tennessee, forming the Free & Independent State of Scott.
In the late 1800s, industry came to the Big South Fork in the form of natural resources extraction. Both logging and coal-mining were significant enterprises. Drilling was also a significant industry. In fact, the nation’s first oil well was drilled in the Big South Fork by accident in the early 19th century. Saltpeter explorers tapped into oil, and — not knowing what the tarry black substance was that could be lit afire — feared they had drilled into the pits of hell and unleashed the devil himself.
By the mid 20th century, much of the territory that today makes up the Big South Fork NRRA was owned by the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co.
At the peak of human settlement, there were about 300 residents along No Business Creek alone. But by the early 20th century, they had begun to drift away. The exodus from the Big South Fork region was accelerated by World War II, when many of the region’s young men were drafted into the Army and sent off to fight. They discovered a world that existed beyond the remote, roughscrabble life they lived, and had little desire to return to the BSF after the war was over. In 1960, the last resident of No Business died.
An adventurer’s paradise
The Big South Fork NRRA is well-known for its outdoors recreation opportunities. There are established front-country campgrounds like Bandy Creek and Station Camp. For the most part, however, the BSF is untamed lands.
Hiking is the biggest draw of the national park, and the Honey Creek Loop Trail is recognized as one of the top day hikes in all of the United States. Equestrian trail riding is also a big draw. There are more than 200 miles of established horse trails in the Big South Fork, and even more hiking trails than that.
Mountain biking is an activity that is quickly growing in popularity in the Big South Fork. The BSF was the first — and, to date, the only — national park to be recognized by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) as an “epic” designation, and it is one of the few national parks with designated trails for mountain biking.
Whitewater paddling is another key draw, especially during the peak whitewater season of late winter and early spring. Rock climbing is rising in popularity, as well, and the Big South Fork has been described as the South’s “last frontier” when it comes to rock climbing.
Other popular activities in the Big South Fork include backpacking, hunting and fishing.