Straddling Kentucky and Tennessee, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area offers stunning autumn sights and delights.
By Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area of northeastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky is a land of wild and scenic rivers, the rugged Cumberland Plateau and more than 100 sandstone arches. After reading about Charit Creek–an isolated lodge in Big South Fork–we decided to plan an overnight at the lodge then explore parts of this recreation area straddling the Tennessee-Kentucky border. We added adjacent Pickett CCC Memorial State Park and the Victorian community of Rugby to complete our itinerary.

South Fork

In Title and above: Fall is a splendid time of year at the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

Pickett State Park

This park is known for its geological features. Several short trails wind through wooded hills, natural arches and rock shelters. Glowworms shine softly under the massive overhang of Hazard Cave on a nighttime hike, while colorful brown and orange stripes in the sandstone, created by ore deposits, give the look of southwest décor to the walls of the Indian Rock House. A 12-acre lake provides swimming, boating and fishing opportunities.

Pickett offers a variety of lodging options, from rustic cabins to modern chalets, as well as a wooded hillside campground. It makes a good jumping off point for a morning trip to Charit Creek.

Charit Creek Lodge

Charit Creek Lodge, located in the west central portion of Big South Fork, is composed of several cabins grouped around an original built in 1817. The lodge–accessible only by foot, horseback or mountain bike–is nestled in a small valley where two creeks, Charit and Station Camp, meet. On clear nights the stars seem to rest on cliffs that rim the valley.

A number of trails for hikers, horseback riders and cyclists lead to the cabins. The shortest, 8/10 of a mile, allows novice backpackers to get there quickly, drop off their gear, then explore at leisure. Another 1.8-mile trail winds past the massive Twin Arches. Hardier backpackers, horseback riders and cyclists can take longer routes past waterfalls and sandstone arches to overnight lodging for both people and horses.

It’s possible to bring and cook one’s own food, but those who do will miss out on a home-cooked country-style dinner and breakfast served in the lodge’s dining room that’s lit by kerosene lamps and heated by a pot-bellied stove. The dormitory-style cabins, which rent for about $65 per person per night (meals included), are also lit by lantern and heated by stove, creating a backcountry experience.

Wooded hills, wild rivers

The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries run the length of the park, providing more than 80 miles of navigable river. From lazy paddling to whitewater canoeing or kayaking, this river has it all. Several overlooks provide inspiring views into the canyon far below, where kayakers must maneuver through rapids and over ledges. Commercial whitewater rafting trips are also available. The nearby Obed Wild and Scenic River also provides whitewater paddling and some spectacular overlooks from hiking trails.

One hundred and fifty miles of hiking and 180 miles of horse trails lead to waterfalls, sandstone arches, river overlooks and other scenic areas.

Ghost stories, dulcimer music and pioneer life

Big South Fork’s main visitor center is at Bandy Creek in the southern part of the park. A second center in Stearns, Ky., focuses on the history of coal mining around Stearns and the Blue Heron mining community. These centers present free interpretive programs and special events. Periodic astronomy programs and festivals such as the Haunting in the Hills Storytelling Festival in September are hosted at Bandy Creek. The park service sponsors Cumberland Heritage Month at the Blue Heron interpretive site on October Saturdays.

Developed campsites are available at the Blue Heron and Bandy Creek campgrounds. A primitive campground, two horse camps and a concessionaire-managed stable for boarding horses round out the camping opportunities. Wildlife found in the area includes coyotes, deer, possums and raccoons. There are 40 to 50 black bears in Big South Fork, so an occasional sighting is possible. Fishing, hunting and trapping are allowed in season.

The Stearns Coal

and Lumber Company operated Blue Heron, or Mine 18, from 1937 to 1962. Not much remains of this company-owned coal-mining town, so the park service has built an interpretive trail with open, metal shells of buildings on some of the foundations. They mark structures like the schoolhouse, several residences and the bathhouse. Each site on the trail, including a mine entrance, has photos and oral history recordings of former residents telling about life in the town.

The most impressive remains at the site are a large coal tipple and railroad bridge across the Big South Fork. Raw coal was dropped into a 120-ton hopper, sorted and separated into marketable sizes, and loaded into waiting coal cars under the tipple. It was then transported by train to markets like Cincinnati and Chattanooga.

A train depot contains not only exhibits but serves as the depot for Big South Fork Scenic Railway. In addition to regular round-trips, children and adults can enjoy special train rides such as the Haunted Hollow Express and the Trick or Treat Train for Tots in October. The Santa Express and Painted Rocks Twinkle Train rolls in December. The McCreary County Museum located in the former Stearns Coal and Lumber Company headquarters gives further insight into coal mining in the area.

Rugby, a Victorian village

The town of Rugby is adjacent to the south end of the park. It didn’t pan out as a utopian experiment, but its buildings and story remain to intrigue present-day visitors.

Thomas Hughes, the British social reformer and author of “Tom Brown’s School Days,” founded Rugby in 1880 as a class-free agricultural community for artisans, tradesmen, farmers, and the younger sons of the English gentry. In its heyday, Rugby numbered around 350 people.

Some of the young people, however, preferred sports, music and dancing to the hard work necessary to survive in the rugged Tennessee mountains. By the turn of the century, many of the original settlers had moved away, but some remained for life and helped preserve the village.

Twenty of the original buildings remain. The Schoolhouse Visitor Center offers a film and tours of the village, including Hughes’ English cottage, the tiny, picturesque Episcopal church and the Thomas Hughes library. Shop the Rugby commissary and several more shops for history, handicrafts and British products. A café, a bed-and-breakfast inn and cottages in original or reconstructed buildings offer food and lodging.

The community hosts several festivals and almost two dozen craft and nature workshops ranging from wild mushrooming to English willow basketry. Festivals include the Halloween Ghostly Gathering in October, a Thanksgiving Marketplace, Christmas in Historic Rugby, and the Festival of British and Appalachian Culture in May. It is quite an attractive little village and well worth a visit.

Whether you want music and craft workshops or whitewater canoeing and hiking, you’ll find it in the Big South Fork area. This fall, spend some time in this multi-faceted, colorful area.

Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

Sept/Oct 2008 Issue

For more information, contact:
• Pickett State Park online at, or call (931) 879-5821;
• Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area:, visitor information (423) 286-7275 in Tennessee, (606) 376-5073 in Kentucky;
• Charit Creek Lodge, www.charit, (865) 429-5704;
• Rugby,, (888) 214-3400.

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