With its unique mix of arches and waterfalls, overlooks and streams, the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is truly an all-seasons park, offering something special for every time of the year.
But ask most people their favorite time to hike in the Big South Fork and the answer, overwhelmingly, will be autumn.
Climatological norms favor the Big South Fork and the greater Cumberland Plateau region during the fall season. Whereas summer is much too hot and humid for most hikers’ liking, and winter is typically on the wet side, typical autumn weather features crisp, cool mornings and warm afternoons with lots of dry days during the month of October.
In a normal year, fall foliage is peaking by the third week of October. Hotter-than-average fall seasons have both delayed and muted the fall colors the past few years. Last year, leaves were still clinging to the trees well into November. Early indications are that Fall 2020 will not feature a repeat. Hints of color are already beginning to show, and most weather enthusiasts feel that relatively average temperatures and rainfall during the month of September will lend themselves to optimal fall colors in this part of the country.
There’s no bad trail to hike in the Big South Fork during the fall months. But there are some that just seem to stand out a little more than others. Here are five of those:
» Twin Arches Loop
You would be hard-pressed to find a prettier trail anywhere in Tennessee during the month of October than the Twin Arches Loop. Beginning and ending off of Divide Road on the west side of the Big South Fork NRRA, the loop trail is made popular by the massive natural arches for which it is named, but the fall colors add something extra.
There are two options for hikers: the short and relatively easy 1.4-mile inner loop that delivers hikers to the Twin Arches and then takes them back to the trailhead, or the 4.7-mile complete loop that also includes Charit Creek Lodge and Jake’s Place.
The shorter hike is fun for hikers who don’t have enough time or physical stamina to complete the entire loop, but the longer hike should definitely be considered by anyone who wants to explore the true beauty of the Big South Fork. Charit Creek Lodge, the backcountry homestead of Jonathan Blevins that is situated where Charit Creek empties into Station Camp Creek, is scenic perfection in the fall, when the colors are at their peak. The same can easily be said for Jake’s Place, the home site of Jake Blevins that is further west along Station Camp Creek.
» Middle Creek Loop
Another of the Divide Road trails, Middle Creek is a 3.5-mile loop that is super easy for hikers of any skill level. The trail is perhaps best known for its spectacular rock formations, and it also meanders through a variety of hardwood forests.
There’s not much to say about Middle Creek Loop, except that you have to see it to truly appreciate it. The hike begins and ends at Middle Creek Trailhead on Divide Road, just a short distance from S.R. 154 (near the entrance to Pickett State Park). It features only 100 ft. of elevation change, first following the top of the bluff line before dipping beneath the bluffs.
There are a lot of picture-taking opportunities along the Middle Creek trail.
» Grand Gap Loop
When it comes to hiking trails in the Big South Fork, the Grand Gap Loop may be one of the most under-utilized of them all, especially among the hiking trails in the Bandy Creek area. It was so under-utilized, in fact, that the National Park Service opened it to mountain bikers; hikers and bikers now share the trail. That isn’t a bad thing; there’s enough trail — at 6.8 miles in total length — to go around.
If the length seems daunting, don’t let it dissuade you from trying this trail for the first time. It’s an easy walk, with minimal elevation change. And the views are spectacular.
One of the reasons Grand Gap Loop is so under-utilized is that it doesn’t feature waterfalls or streamside views or some of the other features for which the Big South Fork is famous. But that’s actually what makes it a great hike for fall. During this time of year, the waterfalls have mostly dried up anyway, and trails that are spectacular in the spring aren’t so much so in the fall. Meanwhile, Grand Gap Loop offers a relatively leisurely stroll through the hardwood forests, where hikers can view the fall colors in all their beauty. And it’s the view from Angel Falls Overlook that earns this trail a spot on this list. (The views from Fall Branch Overlook are an added bonus.)
The trail begins and ends at a trailhead at the end of Alfred Smith Road, northeast of Bandy Creek Campground (via Duncan Hollow Road).
» Burnt Mill Loop
Burnt Mill Loop is one of those trails that is great in any season, for various reasons. It’s one of the Big South Fork’s most underrated trails, and it holds lots of beauty during the autumn months as the leaves are turning. Beginning and ending at Burnt Mill Bridge on Honey Creek Road near Robbins, this 4.5-mile loop begins and ends with strolls along the Clear Fork River, climbing to the top of the ridge line for a jaunt through an open hardwood forest in between.
Like Middle Creek Loop, there isn’t a whole lot to say about Burnt Mill Loop, except that you have to experience it to appreciate it. And be sure to take your camera along. You’ll be glad you did.
» Oscar Blevins Farm Loop
This 3.6-mile, easy loop near Bandy Creek Campground is perhaps the most under-appreciated hiking trail in the Big South Fork. Most hikers find it a boring journey because it doesn’t feature waterfalls, or overlooks, or rock formations (the Muleshoe rock shelter is an exception) or any of the myriad other features that make Big South Fork great. Its signature feature, the Blevins farm, can actually be driven to.
But hiking is much more fun than driving on a sunny October afternoon when the temperatures are hovering in the upper 60s and a gentle breeze stirs the colorful foliage. And the Oscar Blevins Farm is simply spectacular in the fall. Families frequently choose to have photographers accompany them to the farm for fall portraits, and for good reason. The farm’s rustic features, with the backdrop of autumn, make excellent backgrounds.
As you stand in the middle of the Blevins farm, it isn’t hard to imagine how peaceful life must have been here for the Blevins family. And it isn’t hard to see why Oscar Blevins resisted the federal government’s purchase of his farm as the national park was being formed.
The trail begins and ends at the trailhead just past Bandy Creek Visitor Center. There’s minimal elevation change, and the hike is an easy one.