The Tennessee/Kentucky border is home to good white water, fine hikes, and an 1880s town that was the dream of a British author.
By James and Dorothy Richardson
On a road map, Interstate 75 makes an impressive dogleg turn once it nears the Kentucky-Tennessee border. If you let the land guide you to the west of that blacktop formation, you’ll wind up in a wild and scenic spot: the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and the Obed Wild and Scenic River.
Encompassing more than 100,000 acres, Big South Fork is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River. The Obed River System and its surrounding area lie approximately 20 miles south of Big South Fork, and offer additional white water and outdoor activities. Visitors will find much to do and see “” not only in Big South Fork and Obed, but also in the neighboring communities, where history also awaits discovery.
With that much area, outdoor recreation opportunities are plentiful. White-water fans will climb into rafts or kayaks to explore the wilder portions of the South Fork of the Cumberland River. If water adventures are not for you, try 280 miles of trails for hiking, biking, or horseback riding. Wildflowers, waterfalls, and unusual rock formations are among the favorite trail destinations. And Big South Fork’s campgrounds will prove to be ideal bases from which to explore.
First, make a stop at the headquarters of Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. The visitors center is approximately 15 miles west of the town of Oneida via State Route 297.
This is the Bandy Creek area, where the main campground is located. Bandy Creek is also the hub of most activities and the source of information for trails, white-water rafting excursions, and all activities. Information about outfitters for white-water float trips, overnight backpacking trips, and horseback riding is also available there.
For a white-water adventure, several sections of the main river and its branches contain Class III and Class IV rapids, which translates into a very exciting ride down the river. Guided rafting and kayaking trips are arranged from commercial outfitters operating in Big South Fork. The Big South Fork River has long stretches of isolated white water, and steep rock walls line the gorge.
Hundreds of miles of trails in Big South Fork are suitable for hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding. Most of the attractions are accessible only by trail. Waterfalls, natural arches, and spectacular overlooks reward hikers seeking to enjoy the true wonder of this large wilderness area.
Angel Falls and the old O&W Railroad bridge (and exciting white-water action) are accessible via two relatively short hikes that originate from the Leatherwood Road bridge approximately two miles from the Bandy Creek area along State Route 297, which connects U.S. 27 with U.S. 127 and bisects Big South Fork.
In the extreme northern section of Big South Fork is Yahoo Falls, which, at 113 feet, is the recreation area’s highest. A short hike (only 4/10-mile) leads to the falls, but there are stairs to descend (80 metal stairs and 77 stone steps, to be exact). Descending is no problem, but coming back up may be, as the climb is steep. Check with your knees first.
The Twin Arches formation is in the western part of the recreation area and involves a 5-mile drive over a gravel road and a brief 7/10-mile hike. The natural sandstone arches are 62 feet and 103 feet tall, respectively, and the higher arch is the tallest of its kind in Tennessee.
When you’re done hiking or rafting and ready to take a relaxing ride, consider the Big South Fork Scenic Railway. The train carries passengers to the Blue Heron Mining Community along the same route used by early coal miners. It’s an economical ride worth the admission and the time invested. The takeoff point is in the town of Stearns, Kentucky. The Stearns Museum and a country store are also on the railroad station grounds. For more information, call (800) GO-ALONG (462-5664), (606) 376-5330; or visit www.bsfsry.com.
South of the Big South Fork region via U.S. 27 is the town of Wartburg, where the visitors center for the Obed Wild and Scenic River System is located. The system consists of sections of four streams: Daddy’s Creek, Clear Creek, the Emory River, and the Obed River. These waterways have cut into the sandstone of the Cumberland Plateau, forming a rugged landscape. The area includes deep gorges, plunging 400 feet, and huge boulders, which create great rapids in the streams for canoeing and kayaking. The cliffs offer opportunities for rock climbing.
The Obed visitors center is located at 208 N. Maiden St. in Wartburg; phone (423) 346-6294 or visit www.nps.gov/obed.
Historic towns, too
Two Tennessee towns, Rugby and Pall Mall, hold much of this area’s history. Rugby began in 1880 as a dream in the mind of Thomas Hughes, a British social reformer and author of Tom Brown’s School Days. Hughes was not the firstborn son in his family, and thus not heir to any of the family fortune. Such was the life for men in Victorian England. So he formed a town in America that would be class-free, agriculturally cooperative, and provide a new footing to younger sons of English gentry.
For a while the town grew remarkably. A railroad link to Cincinnati and Chattanooga was the lifeline for Rugby and provided a means of getting supplies for its citizens. The town printed a weekly newspaper, which kept the rest of the country, and Britain, current with the progress of the new community. Rugby became home to 350 residents and more than 70 Victorian buildings, including the newspaper office, a general store, an apothecary, stables, boardinghouses, a dairy, and a butcher shop, as well as the Tabard Inn, named for the one in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which became the social center of town.
From 1881 to 1884, several things occurred to hinder the dream “” a typhoid epidemic, financial problems, and harsh winters. Perhaps the biggest blow came when the famed Tabard Inn burned. But Hughes’ dream of a Utopian town never completely faded. Descendants of the original residents, although they were few, stayed on, and tried to preserve the buildings. By the middle 1960s, area residents became determined to restore and preserve what was left of the town, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Currently 20 of the original Victorian buildings still stand. Private homes have been restored, and approximately 85 people live in Rugby year-round.
The most notable of the still-intact buildings is the Thomas Hughes Public Library. Not only has the building survived, but all of its books have, too. Other original sites include a private home that now functions as a bed-and-breakfast inn, and the Rugby Christ Church Episcopal. The town is home to many special events and programs throughout the year, including the Festival of British and Appalachian Culture (May 19 and 20, 2007), and many nature programs, crafts workshops, and other events. These are detailed on the town’s Web site: www.historicrugby.org.
Rugby is located on State Route 52, which skirts the southern boundary of Big South Fork between U.S. 27 and U.S. 127. A small admission fee is charged to tour the site, and guided walking tours are offered. The new Visitors Centre and Theatre features a 32-foot wall mural of Rugby in its heyday, and a 22-minute film about the town. Call (888) 214-3400 for more information.
Keep heading west from Rugby on State Route 52 and you’ll be in Jamestown, the largest little town in the area that offers services and supplies. From there, turn north and drive a few more miles on U.S. 127 to Pall Mall, once the home of World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York.
The story of York’s exploits was made into a classic film in 1941, Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper (who won an Academy Award for his performance), but the real story is a bit different. You can learn more by visiting the Sergeant Alvin C. York State Historic Park.
York is said to have killed 25 Germans, knocked out 35 machine guns, and captured 132 prisoners, almost single-handedly, during the battle of the Argonne Forest in the fall of 1918. He received the American Medal of Honor and several foreign commendations for his bravery.
The Sergeant Alvin C. York State Historic Park includes York’s home, two large picnic pavilions and a picnic area, and the home museum. The museum contains some of York’s wartime and personal mementos, as well as historical photos and family portraits. It is open daily year-round, and admission is free. Call (931) 879-6456 for more information or visit www.tennessee.gov/environment/parks/sgtyork.
Seeing Rugby, Pall Mall, the Obed Wild and Scenic River, or one of the other attractions while in the Big South Fork region is a good way to further experience the recreation area. And experiencing Big South Fork can be in a variety of forms “” white-water adventures with raft or kayak; horseback trail rides; waterfall, natural arch, or wildflower walks; a train ride to a coal mine of times gone by; or quiet times near a mountain stream.
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
4564 Leatherwood Road
Oneida, TN 37841