Wednesday, August 12, 2015

2000 Backpacking Big South Fork (KY/TN)

The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River flows north through the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee (elevation 2000 feet) into Kentucky. The National Park Service oversees the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a 125,000 acre wonderland which is comprised of 90+ gorges and valleys, natural bridges, rockhouses, sandstone arches, chimneys, waterfalls, and rapids -- a wilderness John Muir called "impressively solitary" on his 1867 journey through the area on his 1000 mile hike to Florida.

The BSF also hosts the southern starting point of the 254 mile Sheltowee National Scenic Trail which heads north to and through Kentucky. There are over 300 miles of hiking trails, some of which are shared with horses and/or mountain bikes. The Trails Illustrated map denotes which trails are solely for hikers and which are shared. Trails are rated as easy to difficult but none are rated strenuous. The BSF allows hunting during the legal state seasons, so check at the Visitors Center (606-376-3787) for dates and no hunting zone areas.

Black bears were successfully re-introduced in the 1990s, with 14 females translocated from Smoky Mountain National Park in 1996 and 1997. In February of 1999, five cubs were spotted, the first cubs born within the Cumberland Plateau in over 100 years. The park intends to monitor the population and perhaps supplement it with more transplants until a self-sustaining population is established.

The northern copperhead and timber rattler live here, and in the spring and summer there can be gnats, mosquitoes, black flies, and ticks, including the deer tick responsible for Lyme Disease. Other wildlife species include red-tailed hawk, turkey, gray squirrel, opossum, gray fox, skunk, racoon, deer, bobcat, smoky shrew, eastern mole, eastern woodrat, barred owl, various frogs and turtles, bats, swallows, kingfishers, herons, woodpeckers, tanagers, titmouses, thrush, and warblers. Fish include bluebreast darter, rainbow trout, longear sunfish, and smallmouth bass. Glowworms (larvae of the fungus gnat, diptera mycetohilidae) can be found in Hazard Cave (in the adjoining Pickett State Park) and in several areas of BSF and the Appalachian Mountains -- the only other locale being New Zealand.

The BSF consists of Upland Forest, predominantly pine and oak with occasional sugar maple, basswood, buckeye, poplar, red maple, and beech, and Ravine Forest of pine, chestnut oak, and sourwood.

The national historic John Muir Trail extends 42 miles north from the Leatherwood Ford Trailhead and commemorates Muir's 1867 journey through this area on his "1000 Mile Walk to Florida," which predated his more famous exploits in the Sierras.

We did a 30 mile loop starting at Leatherwood Ford Trailhead, north on the Muir Trail, around the Grand Gap Trail with its prominent scenic overlooks, north again on the Muir to the junction of Station Camp Creek and Laurel Fork Creek, then up Laurel Fork Creek Trail to the Black House/Jack's Ridge/Katie Trails to Bandy Creek Campground, from which it is three miles on the road back to the Leatherwood Ford Trailhead. 

The Muir Trail is fairly easy, with occasional uphills like below. The Laurel Fork Trail travels up and down ridges as it travels alongside and above the creek, but is only rated as moderate in difficulty. The connector trails (Black House/Jack's/Katie) are pretty much uphill but also rated as moderate.

Side canyon creeks supply drinking water and add to the scenic charm of the area. The larger side creeks have bridges to carry hikers over them. Carefully check out the map and trail info, though, because some trails are multi-use, allowing horses and/or mountain bikes also. The Muir Trail is hiker-only.

Our two campsites were at Fall Creek and Laurel Fork Creek, and we pretty much had the entire Big Fork to ourselves, seeing very few other parties.

Much of the rock is sandstone and shale and weathering over the eons has produced an impressive array of formations, including arches, mesas, chimneys, cracks, and rock shelters.

The Laurel Fork Trail runs 4+ miles from Station Camp Creek to the Black House Trail intersection and traverses beautiful terrain with frequent ups and downs. Here Len fords the first of three crossings as you approach Black House Trail. Beyond this turnoff, you have to ford the creek 11 more times within two miles! The fords ranged from above-ankle depth to knee depth, but check at the ranger station before doing this trail for the current depth/danger of the creek.


Trails of the Big South Fork: A Guide for Hikers, Bikers, and Horse Riders by Russ Manning & Sondra Jamieson; Mountain Laurel Press, 1995, 246 pages.


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