To close out the 40 Mile Challenge, we decided to offer participants a choice: Rock Creek Loop or Twin Arches Loop.
Both trails are located off Divide Road on the western side of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Both trails are moderate in difficulty, with similar elevation gains. And while Rock Creek is somewhat longer than Twin Arches, both hikes offer excellent scenery and lots of history.
So why the choice? We originally were going to focus on Rock Creek as the destination for the final week of the challenge. We haven’t included the Rock Creek hike as part of the hiking challenge since the inaugural challenge in 2015, seven years ago. It is really an under-rated hike among casual hikers; serious day-hikers and backpackers know just how good this hike is. On the other hand, Twin Arches Loop is easily a Top 5 hike where the Big South Fork is concerned, and if not for the fact that we’ve included the trail in some variation on every version of the hiking challenge so far, it would’ve been included on the list. So, we decided to add them both and give hikers a choice. If you haven’t hiked Twin Arches before, or it’s been a few years, you might enjoy it. But if you’ve been to Twin Arches and you’ve never been to Rock Creek, you definitely owe it to yourself to choose Rock Creek.
Don’t let the 8-mile length of the Rock Creek Loop fool you. Except for a climb towards the end of the hike, as the trail leaves Rock Creek and travels back to the top of the plateau, the hike is mostly level or downhill. It earns a moderate difficulty rating because of its length and that singular climb, but for the most part, Rock Creek is actually easier than Twin Arches simply because of the way the terrain lays.
Beginning and ending at the Hattie Blevins Cemetery off Divide Road, Rock Creek is the western-most of the trails within the Big South Fork NRRA. The John Muir Trail follows a portion of Rock Creek Loop, and the Chestnut Ridge mountain biking route also follows a portion of the loop trail.
As the trail descends into the gorge that encases Rock Creek, it follows Massey Branch by way of a rail bed that is a hold-over from the coal mining era in this part of the country. In the early 20th century, the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. built a railroad into what is now the Big South Fork NRRA to access the rich coal and timber reserves that awaited harvesting.
From the trailhead, Rock Creek Loop first follows an old logging road, then begins its descent to Massey Branch. The John Muir Trail departs the trail and crosses a footbridge across the stream towards Divide Road, while Rock Creek Loop continues into the valley.
Eventually, signs of the old narrow-gauge railroad become evident. The exposed railroad ties are very noticeable due to erosion along one section of trail. And, if you pay very close attention thereafter, you’ll notice moss-covered railroad ties beneath your feet.
Speaking of the coal-mining days at Rock Creek, it was here — at the Rock Creek Camp — that the fateful events of 1933 played out, when Jerome Boyatt killed the Pickett County sheriff and his lawman son before later being murdered himself (along with his father).
Almost three miles into the hike, the trail finally reaches Rock Creek. It follows the beautiful, cold mountain stream for the next several miles, occasionally traveling along the old railroad bed and occasionally climbing a short distance up the side of the hill before dropping back to the stream again.
The Rock Creek Loop never enters Kentucky, but you’re only a few hundred yards from the state line when you reach the creek itself. Rock Creek supports trout further downstream in Kentucky, until it reaches a point where it is too polluted for trout to survive due to the coal mining activities from years ago.
Towards the end of the hike, Rock Creek Loop makes a rather steep climb back to the top of the plateau, then follows an old road trace back to the gravel road leading to Hattie Blevins Cemetery. The final half-mile of the hike is along the gravel road.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 through the Big South Fork NRRA to S.R. 154 in Fentress County. Turn north on S.R. 154 and continue to Divide Road. Turn right and follow Divide Road for 4.7 miles to Hattie Blevins Cemetery Road. Turn left on the cemetery road and continue for 1.3 miles to the cemetery and trailhead.
Look For: Signs of the old railroad — ties now buried in moss and dirt, along with steel rails along Rock Creek itself.
Be Careful For: A steep ascent near the trail’s end. Take your time and the climb isn’t too difficult.
Make It Better: Plan on taking a dip in Rock Creek, or just wading into the crystal-clear water. The creek offers several shallow pools, along with some deeper ones that make excellent swimming holes.
The Twin Arches are perhaps the most spectacular geological wonder in a National Park Service unit that is chock full of geological wonders. Together, they form one of the largest natural land bridges in all of North America. And when folks talk about the terrain of the northern Cumberland Plateau more closely resembling the West than anything else in the eastern U.S., they’re usually referring to the towering duo of arches.
Standing at 103 feet and 62 feet, respectively, the arches have a combined span of 228 feet. For years, the arches were something of legend. It was rumored that they existed deep in the backcountry, but outsiders weren’t quite sure where they were, and the roads leading to them were almost impassible. Once the Big South Fork was formed in the 1970s, a trail was constructed to the arches, and today it is the most-hiked trail in the entire BSF.
But the Twin Arches aren’t the only site to see along this 5.6-mile route. It is a spectacular hike for a lot of different reasons, although the Twin Arches certainly rank towards the top of the list.
From the parking lot at Twin Arches Trailhead off Divide Road, there’s only one way to start the hike. But early on, the well-won trail forks. To the left is a steep ladder; to the right is a footpath that continues down the ridge. It, too, will eventually drop in elevation by way of a set of steps.
Hikers can take either fork in the trail and wind up in the same place. We prefer to hike it by taking the left fork and descending the steep ladder. This option takes you beneath the North Arch, while the right-hand fork leads you along the top of the North Arch. The two trails meet up again at the base of yet another set of steps between the two arches, forming a 1.4-mile inner loop that is popular among leisurely hikers. But don’t cheat! If you skip the rest of the loop trail, you’re missing out on some excellent scenery.
After you’ve passed the North Arch, and just as you’re coming into sight of the South Arch, the trail splits and heads deeper into the gorge. Before you take the left-hand fork in the trail, you’ll want to take a moment to explore the South Arch, including Fat Man’s Squeeze — a narrow passageway or cave through the rock on the south side of the arch.
Back on the main trail, hikers quickly descend to a stream below. This is Charit Creek, originally named Charity Creek and named for a girl who drowned in the stream many years ago. The exact identify of the girl named Charity is unknown, but she may have been the daughter of Jonathan Blevins, the first white settler of the valley.
A short distance later, the wooded creek bottom opens into farmland, and the trail emerges at Charit Creek Lodge. This was a subsistence farm for generations, then was purchased by Joe Simpson and operated as a hunting preserve from 1963 to 1982. The federal government purchased the land in the 1980s, and today Charit Creek is operated as a backcountry lodge catering to hikers, horseback riders and hunters.
After leaving Charit Creek, hikers will head west along Station Camp Creek, soon arriving at the Tackett someplace. Today, the old homeplace is only a partial rock chimney, but just off the trail nearby are the twin headstones marking the graves of the Tackett brothers. As the story goes, Confederate sympathizers were searching the area of Station Camp Creek and surrounding villages for new recruits during the Civil War. In an effort to save the young brothers from being pressed into service, an elderly relative had them hide beneath a feather mattress and lay atop it, pretending to be sick. When the guerrillas had left the home, she got up to allow the boys out, only to discover that they had died of suffocation.
A short distance further up the trail is Jake’s Place, the homeplace of Jacob Blevins Jr. and his wife, Viannah. Jacob — or Jakey, as he was known — was the grandson of Jonathan Blevins and is buried near Bandy Creek. His cabin stood until Simpson dismantled it and moved it to Charit Creek. The chimney remained for many years but has since fallen.
From Jake’s Place, the trail begins its ascent back to the top of the plateau, emerging back at the main trail at Twin Arches.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 west through the Big South Fork to S.R. 154 in Fentress County. Turn right on S.R. 154 and continue north to Divide Road, then turn right again and follow Divide Road northeast to Twin Arches Road. The trailhead is located at the end of Twin Arches Road.
Be Careful For: The ladder near the start of the hike is very steep. Use extreme caution with pets and small children. The trail along the top of the arch is unprotected.
Look For: The earliest industry of the Big South Fork region was saltpeter mining. Potassium nitrate — “rock niter,” as it was called — was a key component in gunpowder, and a high quality of it can be found in many Big South Fork rock shelters. Niter mining was especially prevalent during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. As the Twin Arches Loop Trail climbs back to the top of the gorge, there are large rock shelters where signs of niter mining can be found. Look for piles of rock rubble and faint signs of chiseling on the rocks.
Make It Better: Stop and see Gregg White, the proprietor of Charit Creek Lodge. He’ll have cold drinks and snacks for sale. And you can even reserve a sack lunch or a sit-down dinner ahead of time by going to his website at ccl-bsf.com.