There might be more spectacular rock formations in the eastern United States than the Big South Fork’s Twin Arches, but you would have to search hard to find them.
The Twin Arches are unquestionably the Big South Fork’s most popular landform, and for good reasons. Combined, they make up one of the largest natural land bridges in all of North America.
Standing at 103 ft. and 62 ft., respectively, with a combined span of 228 ft., these towering sandstone arches are simply stunning, standing sentry over the ridgeline above where the valley where Charit Creek empties into Station Camp Creek.
It was there, at the confluence of the two streams, about three miles west of the Big South Fork River, that longhunter Jonathan Blevins made his home in the early 20th century. He was one of the first white settlers in what is today the fifth-largest national park in the eastern U.S., and his original cabin still stands as part of the Charit Creek Lodge, a remote backcountry retreat that is operated by a concessionaire, similar to LeConte Lodge at Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Charit Creek Lodge is located on the 6.0-mile Twin Arches Loop Trail. And it’s certainly a spectacular hike — well worth the trip. But for the purpose of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge, this week’s hike involves only the 1.4-mile upper loop that leads from the trailhead to the arches and back again.
This shorter, inner loop is an easy hike. It earns a moderate rating because there are lots of stairs along the route, and some of them are quite steep — making them unsuitable for pets and very small children. Otherwise, it’s a hike that’s suitable for all ages, and kids in particular will enjoy the “Fat Man’s Squeeze,” a small passageway through the rock base of the South Arch.
Perhaps the toughest part of the hike to Twin Arches is the drive to get there. It’s a six-mile excursion from S.R. 154 near Pickett State Park to the arches. The way in requires motorists to travel Divide Road to Twin Arches Road, the gravel road that leads down the ridge to the trailhead. The arches are actually located in Scott County, but require driving through parts of Fentress and Pickett counties to reach.
From the trailhead, the trail starts as an out-and-back but soon forks, and the loop is best hiked in a clockwise direction. Almost immediately, a steep ladder — this is the part that is unsuitable for pets and very small children — leads hikers beneath the bluff line.
From there, it’s just a short distance to the North Arch, where there’s a set of stairs leading to the top. First, though, you’ll want to continue along the trail to the South Arch, which is the more picturesque of the two.
Back at the North Arch, the steps leads hikers to a trail along the top of the arch, then there’s another set of stairs leading back to the top of the plateau, where you can turn and see a spectacular view across the Station Camp valley towards the Big South Fork River.
For those interested in hiking with a park ranger, there will be a guided hike along the upper loop on Sunday, June 23. The hike will depart the trailhead at 1 p.m. EDT. A guided hike will also take place on Sunday, June 30, at 1 p.m.
For those who desire a bit of a longer loop, the full magnificence of the Twin Arches Loop cannot be experienced without hiking the entire six miles, leading into the valley and back again. It’s a hike that’s steeped in history with lots of photogenic sites along the way.
The loop leaves the ridgetop and heads into the valley near the South Arch, winding back and forth until it reaches Charit Creek, named for a girl named Charity who drowned there in the 19th century.
Shortly after reaching the valley floor, the trail emerges at Charit Creek Lodge, originally the home of Jonathan Blevins. Hikers will want to spend some time exploring this unique retreat and chatting with its owner and caretaker, Gregg White. Snacks and drinks are available for purchase, and hikers can even reserve lunch in advance by visiting the lodge’s website at ccl-bsf.com.
After leaving the lodge, hikers will follow a road bed that heads west along Station Camp Creek, and will soon reach the Tackett homestead, where two teenaged brothers died in the 1860s. The boys were hiding beneath a tick mattress, which their grandmother laid atop of while feining illness, when Confederates known for pressing young men into service raided the valley during the Civil War. When the soldiers left, the woman threw back the mattress and discovered that the boys had suffocated. They are buried in a grave along the trail.
Further up the trail is Jake’s Place. There’s not much to see these days; the chimney was all that remained of Jacob Blevins’ cabin, but it has collapsed. The cabin itself was dismantled and moved to Charit Creek in the mid 20th century by Joe Simpson, who operated a hunting lodge there.
A short distance past Jake’s Place, the trail begins its ascent to the ridgetop and the Twin Arches. As it reaches the base of the cliff line, those who know what they’re looking for might notice remnants of niter mining operations. Niter was a key component of gunpowder, and mining for it was one of the BSF region’s first industries.
The entire Twin Arches Loop is rated moderate in difficulty.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 west from Oneida, through the BSF gorge and into Fentress County. At its terminus at S.R. 154, turn right (north) onto S.R. 154. In two miles, turn right onto Divide Road. Continue for 4.0 miles before turning right again onto Twin Arches Road. The road ends at the trailhead in 2.1 miles.
Be Careful For: There is a ladder and two staircases along the hike. The walk along the top of the North Arch is unprotected. Use caution with pets and small children. If hiking the entire Twin Arches Loop, you will encounter muddy areas along the trail in the valley.
Make It Better: Hike with a Big South Fork park ranger on Sunday. A guided hike will depart the Twin Arches trailhead at 1 p.m. eastern on Sunday afternoon. Or, hike the entire 6.0 miles of the Twin Arches Loop, visiting Charit Creek Lodge, the Tackett Bros. gravesite and Jake’s Place in addition to the arches.
Look For: At the base of the South Arch there is a narrow passageway leading through the rock base. It isn’t signed or officially recognized by the National Park Service, but hikers have nicknamed it “Fat Man’s Squeeze.” It’s just wide enough to squeeze through.
Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with the names of all members of your hiking party, in order to log your miles.
Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you pack it in, please pack it out!
Go Big Points: While the Big South Fork NRRA’s Go Big 2019 Challenge is separate from the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge, you can earn points towards completing the Go Big Challenge while you participate in the hiking challenge. If you complete the Twin Arches hike, you will earn 2 points towards your Go Big Challenge (6 points if you hike with a ranger on Sunday, also 6 points if you hike the entire Twin Arches Loop). Also, keep a close eye out for the wildlife you encounter; if you see any of several birds, you can earn 3 points for each bird you see (blue heron, wild turkey, crow, pileated woodpecker, red-tailed hawk, indigo bunting). To log your Go Big points, download the challenge booklet at nps.gov/biso. Participants who log at least 100 points will earn a challenge patch. Or, you can earn a medallion with 200 points (silver) or 300 points (gold).