The Big South Fork National River and 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, which is a fork of the Cumberland River. The focus of this post is on the best hikes in Big South Fork.
Best hikes in Big South Fork
There are wonderful 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. There is an abundance of trails in the park ending with waterfalls, creek loops, natural bridges, and overlooks.
These are not the five best, but five trails I have hiked and recommend. Other popular trails I have not hiked include Slave Falls, Dome Rock House Loop, and Honey Creek. Some of the trails in the park are hiking only and some are shared mountain biking trails.
Five Best hikes in Big South Fork
Angel Falls Trail – 2 miles one way from the Leatherwood Ford Trailhead near Bandy Creek
Angel Falls is actually not a falls, but a powerful torrent. Those who explore this trail expecting a breathtaking waterfall might be disappointed. They should not; however, as it is a picturesque path along the river with chances to explore the shoreline with sensational views of boulders along the river and bluffs towering over the river.
The trail is undemanding with scant elevation change thanks to hugging the river and is wide with decent 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. This is copperhead country although I have never seen one here.
Angel Falls overlook – 2.8 miles one way from the Leatherwood Ford Trailhead near Bandy Creek
From the Leatherwood Ford parking lot cross a low water bridge to ford the river and get to the trail on the opposite side. At the time, this bridge was under repair, so I imagine it should be completed by now. Once the bridge is crossed, a stairwell to the right immediately descends back to the trail.
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 perspectives 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 adjacent to each other. A phenomenal picture capture is available if one could get both bridges in one picture, but it is difficult enough to take a picture of one arch. The arches occupy the middle of the woods, so if you get immediately in front it is hard to get a whole arch in and if you get too remote 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 more effortless. I did not do the prolonged option, so I cannot describe what the loop trail is like.
Yahoo Falls – Out and back to the falls is just under a mile – There is also an 8.5 mile loop
This is a 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.
I was tricked by Instagram into visiting this waterfall. I saw a spring picture of the falls and it was a deluge of flowing water.
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. It is possible to skip the hiking all together if you just want to see the fantastic East Rim overlook. The road 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 shorter route. The hike from the last trailhead on the East Rim Drive to the Sunset Overlook is three total miles.
The Big South Fork is an underrated destination. With each visit, I am amazed at the paucity of visitors especially hiking the trails. Overshadowed by its eastern neighbor, 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. Check out their website for more information and to look at trail maps.
Places to stay in the Big South Fork
Two campgrounds are found in the recreation area. Bandy Creek lies in Tennessee and Blue Heron in Kentucky as the park encompasses a huge belt of territory in both states. If you want a more luxurious option, try a cabin or tree tent at Charit Creek Lodge.