Camping at the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

Spread over southeastern Kentucky and north central Tennessee, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is an unheralded gem. The Cumberland Plateau’s rugged beauty is on full display, a mixture of waterfalls, shady hardwood forests, and ancient rock walls. In the first part of the 20th century, the area was claimed by coal mines, and denuded of harvest-able trees. The Big South Fork’s recreation potential was long noted by local conservationists who advocated for protected status, which was ultimately granted in 1974. Today, the Big South Fork is a wilderness reborn, laced with nearly 300-miles of trails catering to hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers, and equestrians. The churning Big South Fork of the Cumberland River serves as the centerpiece of the park and is rich with paddling potential.

What Makes it Great

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is like the Holy Grail for outdoor lovers, bursting with recreational opportunities, and breathtaking scenery. Best of all, the place is still off-the-radar. The park also offers a wide range of overnight options. There are two amenity-loaded campgrounds: family-friendly Bandy Creek, featuring a patchwork of ball fields and a swimming pool, located in the Tennessee portion of the park, or the Blue Heron Campground. Blue Heron is 9 miles outside the town of Stearns and provides easy access to some of area’s cultural highlights, like the Blue Heron Mining Community and the Big South Fork Scenic Railroad. Campers craving a back country-style overnight can head for more rustic digs at Alum Ford Campground. Located in the Kentucky section of park, the campground is adjacent to the Alum Ford Boat Launch, offering paddling access to Lake Cumberland. The 260-mile Sheltowee Trace trail meanders directly through the Alum Ford camping area. Equestrians can stake out a spot under the stars in the Kentucky slice of the Big South Fork at the Bear Creek Horse Camp.

Don’t forget about the backcountry. For a touch of luxury, head for the recreation area’s coziest back country accommodation, the Charit Creek Lodge. This lodge is only accessible after a mile long haul on foot, bike, or horseback. Nestled in the Station Camp creek drainage, an area once frequented by the 18th century fur traders, there are several overnight options. Field cabins are the traditional option and there are also unique tree tents for those looking for something new.

For backpackers, aside from the long-distance Sheltowee Trace Trail, 44-miles of the John Muir Trail (named for the legendary naturalist’s 1867-traverse of the Cumberland Plateau) mosey through the Big South Fork. Or, opt for a scenery-loaded overnight loop, like the 16-mile Yamacraw-Yahoo Falls loop, showcasing highlights like Princess Falls, Yahoo Arch, and of course, 113-foot Yahoo Falls, the highest cascade in the state of Kentucky.

All campers at Big South Fork are treated to a celestial spectacle. Efforts to minimize light-pollution make the recreation area a dark-sky hot spot for star-gazers, with astronomy programs offered throughout the summer and early fall in partnership with the University of Tennessee.

Who is Going to Love It

The Big South Fork has plenty to appeal to all sorts of outdoor adventurers, from seasoned weekend warriors to casual day-hikers. Options include everything from family-friendly day hikes to highly-technical, adrenaline-inducing stretches of whitewater. Take younger kids on the short, 0.1-mile stroll to the Devil’s Jump Overlook, accessible from the Blue Heron Trailhead, hop on your bike for a lengthy haul on the Kentucky Trail, or choose from one of the park’s International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) recognized trail rides. Climbers can tap into the abundance of crags adorning the Blue Heron area, offering a mix of about three dozen sport and trad routes.

Directions, Parking & Regulations

The dual state recreation area has several points of entry. The town of Stearns is the gateway to the Kentucky portion of the park, and the location of the park’s Stearns Visitor Contact Station.

Originally written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.