Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area


One of the joys of undertaking the journey to try and visit all the units in the US National Park System is coming across special places that few people on your block have ever heard of.   Unless you live in eastern Tennessee or southern Kentucky, the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is probably just one of those areas.

A lot of factors probably contribute to the Big South Fork NRRA’s relative obscurity.  For one thing, its name, Big South Fork, consists of three adjectives desperately searching for a noun.   For another, despite my recent attempt to organize the classifications of the National Park System, this park somehow manages to be simultaneously both a national river andnational recreation area.  (For what its worth, the Big South Fork is usually included on the list of national recreation areas, and not on the list of national rivers.)  On top of all that, it is located just 100 miles away from that tourist-magnet, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is only the most-visited national park in the National Park System.

The Big South Fork NRRA is located in northeastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky, and preserves both the free-flowing character of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, as well as the surrounding gorges and plateaus.  Its not clear to me why “of the Cumberland River” got dropped from the official name of this park.  Then again, maybe I’m the only one who thinks that even if adding those words make the name longer, it would certainly give this relatively unknown park a stronger brand.

Anyhow, back in 2013 I was driving with my family from Mississippi back home to Maryland when we made the last-minute decision to add a swing past Big South Fork NRRA to our itinerary.  I had actually previously been to Big South Fork NRRA back in 2001,  but only for a short time to swim in the river in the southern portion of the park.  I had always regretted not having more time to explore this park, and so was excited to take this opportunity.

In one of those fortunate/unfortunate coincidences, we didn’t pay close attention to our GPS routing and found ourselves travelling northbound on Divide Road/Laurel Ridge Road, which forms much of the park’s western boundary.   Almost all of the park’s visitation facilities are in the eastern and southern portions of the park, so this was a side of the park that relatively few travellers get to see.  The western portion of the park includes a number of interesting trailheads, including the trail to Twin Arches – which is one of the top hikes in the park.  Also in the vicinity is the trail to the rustic cabins of the Charit Creek Lodge, one of the rare hike-in lodges in the US National Park System.

Our destination for this particular trip, however, was the Blue Heron Coal Mining Community.   The centerpiece of  Blue Heron is a preserved coal tippler.  Further exploration, however, will reveal that the National Park Service has created frame-reconstructions of the homes and buildings from Blue Heron’s hey-days.  The frame reconstructions show you the outlines of what the building would have looked like, only without walls and roofs.   The special treat, however, is that inside each building was an audio recording from the people who used to live here.   And because Blue Heron was an operating coal mine within living memory, the recordings were the voices of the people who actually lived here – telling the stories of growing up in a company-owned coal mining town in southeastern Kentucky in the early 20th Century.

The experience was totally enthralling.  I probably spent an hour listening to the recordings, and it wasn’t enough time to take them all in.   Nevertheless, it was a cultural experience like few others – and one that you really wouldn’t expect from a park with a name like Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

Of course there is much more to explore in the Park, including whitewater rafting opportunities down the Big South Fork of the Cumberland, and an excursion sight-seeing train that runs on the weekends.    Even more unusually, it turns out that the Big South Fork NRRA is one of the few units in the National Park System that permits hog hunting!

The bottom line for this park is that although you can certainly get a taste of it in a half-day visit, if you truly want to experience all that this park has to offer, you should definitely plan at least a full day, if not a weekend-trip for visiting this park.

For those of you who are collectors in the Passport to Your National Parks program, the Big South Fork NRRA has traditionally had three stamp groups to collect:

  • Oneida, TN – for the Bandy Creek Visitor Center at the southern end of the park;
  • Stearns, KY – for the ranger station/visitor center at Stearns Depot on the northern end of the park; and
  • Blue Heron – for the preserved Blue Heron coal mining community, which is the interpretative highlight of the park.

In August 2014, Eastern National announced two additional stamp groups for this park:

  • Historic Rugby, TN – for the gateway community at the southern end of the park;
  • Crossville, TN – which appears to be located well to the south of the park.

You can read more by checking out Chance Finegan’s write-up of Big South Fork NRRA for the National Parks Traveler Blog.

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