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Hike of the Week: Split Bow Arch

Split Bow Arch is one of the largest natural land bridges in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. It’s also one of the most easily accessed of the BSF’s impressive geological formations | Ben Garrett/IH

Distance: 1.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 236 ft.
Difficulty: Easy
Trailhead: Bear Creek
Features: Arch, Overlook

Since its inception in 2015, the goal of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge has always been to start with easy trails that slowly progress in difficulty, giving novice hikers an opportunity to ease into things before more challenging hikes are presented. The goal is to also start as close to home as possible.

As such, the first three hiking challenges — in 2015, 2017 and 2019 — featured Sunset Overlook and Angel Falls Rapid as the first-week destinations. Both trails are easy, and both are located as close to Oneida as possible.

We start the 2021 version of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge with a drive to the Kentucky side of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area and a visit to Split Bow Arch.

It’s a bit of a further drive than the East Rim or Leatherwood Ford trailheads, but not terribly far (Bear Creek Trailhead is about a 30-minute drive from Oneida). We feel that most participants will agree that the few extra minutes of time on the road will be well worth it, and that the hike to Split Bow Arch will be our best opening-week hike thus far.

At 1.2 miles, this week’s hike is tied for second-shortest of the entire hiking challenge. But for such a short hike, this week’s destination packs quite a punch. Simply put, it’s a beautiful stroll through the forest. No know on either the Sunset Overlook or the Angel Falls trails, but both of those are a little bit boring compared to the hike to Split Bow Arch.

This hike actually combines two trails. The trail to Split Bow Arch is a combination of out-and-back and a small loo, for a total distance of 0.7 mile. Bear Creek Overlook is a 0.5-mile out-and-back hike. Both trails are located at the same trailhead.

The trail gets an official difficulty rating of “easy.” But, truthfully, if the trail were of an average length — say three or four miles — it would have a moderate rating, simply because there is some elevation loss and gain along the way, along with a set of steps and some uneven terrain. Step for step, it’s a more difficult hike than Sunset Overlook or Angel Falls. But it’s shorter than either of those trails, and its short distance makes it a suitable hike for just about anyone of any age or skill level — a 3-year-old completed our scout hike on the trail over the weekend with no problem.

Getting to Bear Creek Trailhead is part of the adventure of the Split Bow Arch hike. After leaving U.S. Hwy. 27, the route soon turns from pavement to gravel. But the roads are well-maintained, and they go through a part of the Big South Fork backcountry that many Scott Countians have never seen before, even if they’re familiar with parts of the national park on the Tennessee side.

The trail itself is also well-maintained. From the trailhead, the hike to the arch leads down a ridge, then switches back below the bluff line before forking. The loop portion of the trail can be hiked in either direction. Taking a left at the fork allows hikers to complete the loop in a clockwise direction, approaching the massive arch from below. This is the recommended approach; seeing the arch from its lower side reveals its impressiveness.

Split Bow Arch is magnificent. It doesn’t quite compete with the massive Twin Arches on the Tennessee side of the park, but it’s still one of the most impressive of the dozens of natural arches found within the national park. It has a clearance of 34 ft. and a span of 50 ft., making it one of the largest natural arches in the BSF.

A set of steps leads hikers through the arch and to its back side. You’ll notice a crevice to the left that resembles a sort of small slot cave with a waterfall at the back. Exploring this feature is an added bonus (please use caution if you venture off the trail — not only to avoid injury to yourself but also to avoid damaging sensitive plants and terrain features). At the top of the steps, the trail travels between massive stone walls and eventually rejoins the main trail back to the trailhead.

Once back at the trailhead, it’s a short, quarter-mile stroll along level ground to Bear Creek Overlook, one of the most easily-accessed overlooks in the Big South Fork. From the observation platform, hikers can see several miles of the Big South Fork River upstream and downstream from Bear Creek, which empties into the river just below the overlook and slightly to the left.

Getting There: From Oneida, take U.S. Hwy. 27 north to Strunk, Ky. Just across the TN-KY line, turn left onto Ky. Hwy. 1470, which is also named Mt. Pleasant Road (it’s the third left after crossing the state line). Continue for 5.5 miles along Mt. Pleasant Road, which becomes Ross Road, then turn left onto Tappley Ridge Road. Continue for 1.3 miles along Tappley Ridge Road, and Bear Creek Trailhead will be on your left.

Fun Fact: Bear Creek, which the trailhead is named for and which empties into the Big south Fork River below the overlook, is the same Bear Creek that heads up in Oneida and has a ballpark complex named after it. One fork of Bear Creek begins in the Sandcut area; the other begins at Brown Pond along Fed Phillips Road.

Make It Better: A short distance north from Bear Creek Trailhead is the Split Bow Arch Overlook. You can see a protective railing from the trail if you look at the top of the cliff line. Once you’ve returned to the trailhead from your hike to the arch and to Bear Creek Overlook, the Split Bow Arch Overlook is within walking distance along Tappley Ridge Road, or you can drive to a small parking area at the overlook. The overlook provides a bird’s-eye view of Split Bow Arch. Another way to make it better? Plan your hike late in the evening. Bear Creek Overlook is one of the best places within the Big South Fork to watch the sun set.

Look For: Across the road from the trailhead is the foundation of a home that was once located here, before the days of the Big South Fork NRRA. The home itself is long gone, but the foundation is evidence that it would have been one of the more elaborate homes within the national park (and also one of the more modern homes within the park). The tabletop lands surrounding the overlook and arch are old farm pastures that are slowly being reclaimed by nature.

Be Careful For: There are wooden steps that wind through Split Bow Arch. They’re not especially steep, but the steps represent the only hazard of the hike.

Share the Adventure: Tag your photos on Facebook and instagram, #20WeekHikingChallenge, for an opportunity to win prizes (please be sure your post privacy is set to public in order to be ligible for a drawing; otherwise we might not be able to see the pictures).

Want a T-Shirt? Help build Byrdi’s Playground at Oneida Middle School by purchasing a commemorative Twenty Week Hiking Challenge t-shirt. Order one here.

Remember To: Leave the area better than you found it! Take your trash with you when you leave, and consider packing out any trash you find along the trail. Remember the adventurer’s creed: “Leave only footprints, take only memories.”

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