Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is one of only two national parks designated “national river and recreation area” (the other being the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in the Minneapolis-St. Paul vicinity). Whatever you call it, Big South Fork is a diverse, unique park with numerous praiseworthy features.
Located high atop the Cumberland Plateau about 100 miles northwest of Knoxville, Big South Fork sprawls over more than 125,000 acres of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky. Big South Fork is a geological and historical wonderland filled with stunning river gorges carved by eons of erosion, historic homesteads that pay homage to the indomitable spirit of the hardy settlers of the area, and awe-inspiring rockshelters and sandstone arches,
An ancient inland sea covered this part of America some 320 million years ago. The sandbars, deltas, beaches, and dunes were compressed and cemented over millions of years, becoming fine-grained sandstone. Other sedimentary rocks were formed in some places as well, including siltstone, shale, and coal.
The sedimentary rock strata of the Cumberland Plateau are layered, and atop these strata sits a layer of rock called the Rockcastle Conglomerate, which consists of cemented-together coarse sand and small pebbles from ancient braided streambeds. The Rockcastle Conglomerate layer functions as caprock because it is very erosion-resistant, or as a local newsman describes it, “particularly ornery stuff.”
As the land rose, replacing the sea with highlands, rivers became a powerful force for sculpting the landscape. Where the running water breached the erosion resistant conglomerate caprock, it was able to carve deeply into the softer sedimentary rock (mostly sandstone) below. This vigorous downcutting created gorges, cliffs, bluffs, and arches. Over time, these processes gave birth to the Big South Fork landscape as we know it today.
Formed by the confluence of the New River and the Clear Fork, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River (called Big South Fork River for short) is a major tributary of the Cumberland River, which is itself a tributary of the Ohio River. Because the Big South Fork gathers runoff from an extensive rainy area lying more than 1,000 feet above sea level, it has a steep gradient and plenty of flow. Long stretches of the river are sufficiently constricted, steep, and rapids-filled to offer outstanding whitewater canoeing and kayaking.
This part of America has a deep history. The first people in the Big South Fork area were Paleoindians whose culture spanned the era from about 13,000 B.C. to 7,900 B.C. Beginning about 12,000 years ago these prehistoric First Peoples began living in rockshelters (openings in the canyon walls) and supported themselves by hunting and gathering in the forests of the upper Cumberland Plateau. They eventually did some farming too, and the discerning visitor today will notice small, round indentations in the sandstone floors of the rockshelters. These are “hominy holes,” so named because the First Peoples ground maize and other grains in them.
Hominy holes are not the only evidence left behind by pre-European people of the Big South Fork country. American Indians used this land long after the First Peoples, albeit in a much more transient way. Cherokees and other Indians established temporary hunting camps in the rockshelters, leaving behind pottery shards, stone projectile points, and other artifacts. Thanks to its rich heritage, Big South Fork NRRA is home to more archaeological sites than any other park in the Southeast Region.
Europeans began moving into the area in the late 1700s. The first frontiersmen, footloose hunters and poachers called longhunters, were followed by settlers who established homes along the creeks at the top of the gorge. With place names such as Parch(ed) Corn Creek, Difficulty Creek, Troublesome Creek, Lonesome Creek, and No Business Creek, it’s easy to imagine how tough life must have been for these pioneers. Scraping out a living from the poor, rocky soil offered a tenuous living at best. As late as the Civil War era, cartographers were still labeling this area “The Wilderness.”
In the early- to mid 1900s, coal and timber companies began flocking to the Big South Fork region, temporarily strengthening the settlers' lives by bringing much-needed jobs and a reasonable semblance of a cash economy. Justice S. Stearns, originally from the upper Midwest, built a state-of-the-art coal mine along the Big South Fork near its confluence with Roaring Paunch Creek in Kentucky. Dubbed Mine 18, it operated from 1938 until 1962, supplying coal for local railroads and other purposes. The town of Blue Heron, which emerged in association with the mine, was also abandoned in 1962. The Stearns Company eventually owned or controlled 128,000 acres of land in the Big South Fork area, extracting coal, sand, timber, and even oil.
Most residents of the region were held strongly in the grip of poverty. Farming yielded little more than subsistence, and the area’s two major industries, logging and mining, were both capitalized and controlled by outsiders who cared little about the people or the landscape.
As the coal mines gradually closed and the regional economy deteriorated during the 1960s, the residents of the region turned to their elected officials for help. Howard H. Baker, Junior, is fondly remembered for the efforts he made on behalf of Big South Fork area people, which included going door-to-door at one point to help the Scott County government raise money needed to purchase the local telephone company.
In 1966, the people of Scott County and the surrounding area elected Baker to the United States Senate. (His father had served in the Senate from 1951 to 1964). In Congress, Senator Baker worked tirelessly to get better roads, schools, health care facilities, and other needed infrastructure for his east Tennessee constituents. And he understood full well that what the people of the region needed most of all was more and better jobs.
Senator Baker first entertained the idea of building a dam on the Big South Fork River. “In those days, the way to progress was to build a dam,” he recollected in a TV interview. If constructed, the new dam might have emulated the success of the TVA dams and brought jobs, electricity, tourism, and other areawide benefits, but at a the expense of some of the best scenery and recreational resources in this part of America that would lie at the bottom of the new lake.
Senator Baker and Senator John Sherman Cooper (R-Ken.) recognized that the Big South Fork, with its gorges, homesteads, rockshelters, and arches, was worth more preserved than flooded. The two Senators sponsored and shepherded through Congress the legislation that created Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which was signed into law on March 7, 1974, by President Nixon. The new law directed the Corps of Engineers to acquire land for the park and build the facilities before turning the park over to the National Park Service for administration.
The Corps quickly drew up plans for what some were calling 'The Yellowstone of the East” and started buying land. By 1986, National Park Service personnel were staffing a small visitor center on the East Rim, and the Bandy Creek Campground had opened its gates for the first time, welcoming visitors with hot showers, a camp store, stables, and craft store.
In 1989, the Blue Heron Mining Community opened with much fanfare. Mine 18 of Stearns Coal and Lumber Company fame had been reborn as semi-restored ghost town. “Ghost structures” consisting only of framing, the bare bones of buildings, stood at places marking homes, the company store, churches, machine shops, and more. Supplementing these ghost structures were oral histories that visitors could listen to while viewing artifacts, photographs, and other items from Mine 18's heyday.
The original coal tipple, a central facility for loading coal to be transported, was restored for exhibit. A mine opening was also carefully preserved and stabilized so that visitors could enter it.
The establishment of the Big South Fork Scenic Railway was also a milestone in the park's early history. Run by the McCreary County Heritage Foundation, the train departs the historic Stearns Depot atop the river gorge and travels down to Mine 18. Visitors who ride the train don’t have to drive the winding road that leads into the depths of the canyon.
By 1991, most of the land had been bought for the park and the majority of the facilities were in place. The Corps, having realized a much smaller version of the grand park they originally sought to create, turned everything over to the National Park Service. The 1991 transfer coincided with the dedication of the new Headquarters and the 75th Anniversary of the National Park Service.
2005 brought the completion of the park's first General Management Plan, which implements some widespread changes and positions the park for a new era.
Visitors to Big South Fork find a wide range of activities to entertain the entire family. Camping is popular, and the park’s camping facilities are exceptionally good. While the camp and craft stores at Bandy Creek are no longer in operation, the park still boasts one of the cleanest and most peaceful RV-friendly campgrounds in the park system, complete with stables, a public swimming pool, hot showers, volleyball courts, and playgrounds. The Park Service has met the needs of tent campers as well, with a special tents-only section of the campground situated atop a small wooded hill.
Families will delight in the park’s hiking trails, which wind past homesteads, bluffs, arches, overlooks, and the river. Horseback riders take to the more than 200 miles of horse trails in the area, and river rats flock to Big South Fork each spring and fall. Mountain bikers are welcome to use Big South Fork’s three bikes-only trails as well as most horse paths. Rock climbing and rappelling are also favorite activities. Each September, the park hosts the “Haunting in the Hills” Storytelling Festival, which attracts several thousand visitors and showcases the area's mountain heritage, music, crafts, and the talents of local storytellers.
Though it doesn’t get the publicity it deserves, Big South Fork is surely a beautiful and unique component of the National Park System. Here at the Traveler we hope that you, our readers, will find your own quiet, uncrowded park and create your own memories