The Big South Fork National Recreation Area along the Kentucky and Tennessee border in the Cumberland plateau is a large swath of federally protected wilderness centered around the Big South Fork River. The Big South Fork encompasses the National Recreation Area, but there is also Pickett State Park to the west and a huge section of the Daniel Boone National Forest to the north.
There are great overnight hiking opportunities in the park with the 269 Sheltowee Trace Trail, the John Muir Trail, and over 150 miles of trails overall in the park. This post will feature five great day hikes. There are tons of day hikes in the park ending with waterfalls, natural bridges, and overlooks. These are not the five best, but just five trails that I have hiked and recommend.
Five Big South Fork Day hikes
Angel Falls Trail – 2 miles one way from the Leatherwood Ford Trailhead near Bandy Creek
Angel Falls is actually not a falls, but it is a powerful rapids. Those hiking this trail expecting a beautiful waterfall may be disappointed. They shouldn’t though as it is a nice hike along the river with many opportunities to explore the shoreline with sensational views of boulders along the river and bluffs towering over the river.
The trail is quite easy with little elevation change thanks to hugging the river and is wide with good footing. Once you hit the rapids you can explore hopping along the boulders to get better views of the rapids. Be careful hopping on the boulders as they can be slick and also look out for snakes. Copperheads and water moccasins are both common in the park.
Angel Falls overlook – 2.8 miles one way from the Leatherwood Ford Trailhead near Bandy Creek
From the Leatherwood Ford parking lot there is usually a low water bridge to cross the river and get to the trail on the other side. This bridge is currently under repair. With the current financial crisis seizing our government, who knows how long this will take to fix. You will need to go out to the road and cross the bridge on the road. Once you cross the bridge there is a stairwell to the right that immediately descends to a trail once the bridge is passed.
I thought this trail would be exactly like the trail on the other side of the river, but with different views of the bluffs, but it was a little different. It goes up a little higher and farther away from the river therefore giving nice views of the river and it is more of a woodland trail than a river trail.
Once you cross Falls Branch Creek the trail goes straight up to the Angel Falls overlook. The last .8 miles are just about straight up. You then flank around the rock outcropping and come up to one of the most beautiful overlooks in the eastern United States. You can also get to this overlook from Bandy Creek.
Twin Arches – .7 miles one way for short option – 6 mile loop for longer option – Twin Arches Road off Divide Road
Twin Arches are two natural bridges right next to each other. It would be a phenomenal picture to get both in one picture, but it is difficult enough to take a picture of one arch. The arches are right in the middle of the woods, so if you get too close it is hard to get a whole arch in and if you get too far away there are too many trees in the way.
This is a nice hike through the woods and fairly easy if you do the shorter route. There are a couple of stairways that make the hike a little easier. I did not do the longer option, so I cannot describe what that route is like.
Yahoo Falls – Out and back to the falls is just under a mile – There is also an 8.5 mile loop
Nice trail through the woods in the Daniel Boone National Forest, but the main attraction is Yahoo Falls, which is the tallest falls in Kentucky. Unfortunately, it was Yahoo trickle when I visited. Save this hike for the spring or after heavy rains the rest of the year.
Leatherwood Loop and Overlook Trail – 5 miles total – Near Bandy Creek
My favorite aspect of a trail is options. I prefer a loop to an out and back. The best thing about this trail is you can do a loop or an out and back depending on where you start and your objective. You can also skip the hiking all together if you just want to see the fantastic East Rim overlook. The road goes ends at the overlook parking lot.
Due to several different trailheads you can do the whole section out and back, which would be a 10 mile round trip hike or you can do a smaller route. The hike from the last trailhead on the East Rim Drive to the Sunset Overlook is 3 miles total.
The Big South Fork is an underrated park. Every time I go there I am amazed at the paucity of people I run into. It is overshadowed by the Great Smoky Mountains, but with 150 miles of trails and many great day hikes, it is a spot that will keep me coming back again and again.
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