The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area of the Cumberland River drains an area of 1,382 square miles in Tennessee’s Scott, Fentress, Pickett, and Morgan Counties and in Kentucky’s Wayne and McCreary Counties. It threads through 106,000 acres of federally protected recreation area, established by Congress in 1974, giving the river traveler a true sense of wilderness.
This is an ancient river, cutting through gorges more than 250 million years old and is one of only three rivers in the United States designated by Congress as a “national river,” that is, distinguished by its historical significance as well as its wild and scenic beauty. The Big South Fork is also one of the few rivers in the eastern United States that has not been dammed for power generation or flood control. The U.S. Corps of Engineers first proposed to dam the river in 1933, and construction was authorized several times in the 1950s and 1960s by the U.S. Senate, but the House of Representatives never agreed.
Canoers, kayakers, and rafters of every skill level–from novice to expert–can find a stretch of the Big South Fork that offers them relaxation or challenge. The river’s rapids range in difficulty from Class I to Class V. The best period to be on the river falls between March and the first part of June, before the water supply becomes problematic.
The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area features spectacular scenery. Looking down from the Cumberland cliffs into the Big South Fork gorge hundreds of feet below, visitors have the feeling of standing on top of the world, and there is nothing quite like it. No visitor to the Cumberland wilderness can miss the extraordinary stone formations sculpted by the violent collision of continents and by the patient insistence of water flowing over–and after millions of years–through solid rock. Thousands of rock shelters and scores of natural arches are in the area, but the most spectacular are the Twin Arches, one of the largest natural bridges in the world. Within the Tennessee section of the park, the larger South Arch has a clearance of seventy feet and a span of more than 135 feet. The North Arch has a clearance of fifty-one feet and a span of ninety-three feet.
The area boasts massive sandstone bluffs carved in semicircles, and white and scarlet oaks, tulip poplars, sugar maples, umbrella and cucumber magnolias, white ash, willows, sycamores, sweet gums, and river birch and hickory trees populate the forests. The spreading branches of hemlocks and the smooth bark of the gray beech stand out amid a profusion of rhododendron, dogwood, holly, sassafras, mountain laurel, and azalea.
Animals are plentiful and include white-tailed deer, black bear, wild hogs, southern flying squirrels, gray squirrels, red and gray foxes, chipmunks, beaver, muskrat, mink, otter, bobcats, coyotes, long-tailed weasels, cottontail rabbits, and eastern spotted skunks. Birds–132 catalogued varieties–are seen and heard everywhere, including the ruffed grouse, the bobwhite, the hairy and the pileated woodpecker, the screech owl, the red-tailed hawk, an occasional osprey, the scarlet tanager, the crow, the whippoorwill, the cardinal, the mockingbird, the turkey, and the turkey vulture.
Human history in the Big South Fork area began about twelve thousand years ago with the nomadic tribes of hunters who followed the elk, bison, deer, bear, and other large game animals to what is now Tennessee and Kentucky. The rock shelters that nature created were used as homesteads by these hunters, and about four thousand such shelters can be found within the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. The National Park Service lists eight thousand archaeological sites in the area. (The Park Service also estimates that at one time there was one moonshine still for every 116 acres of the Big South Fork.)
There is evidence at these ancient sites of tremendous activity between twelve thousand and seven thousand years ago. There is evidence of mussel gathering and of intentional burning of forests to clear land for primitive planting. Evidence also indicates that beginning about seven thousand years ago, and for the next twenty centuries, human life in the Big South Fork area virtually vanished.
When they returned after two millennia, the people of the Big South Fork were hunting smaller game, collecting plants, living in primitive campsites, and moving with the seasons. Between A.D. 900 and 1000, these people left the plateau for good and founded agricultural communities along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Occasional hunting forays into the mountains were all that linked people with the Big South Fork for the next thousand years.
Long hunters changed all that when they first came to the area in the late 1700s. By 1800 several permanent homesteads had been established, but the fact that life was as hard for these settlers as their prehistoric predecessors is obvious from their choice of place names such as Difficulty, Troublesome, and No Business. Identified historic farm sites include the Clara Sue Blevins Farm and Oscar Blevins Farm near the park’s Bandy Creek Visitor Center.
The nature of hardscrabble agriculture helped to make local settlers more Blue than Gray during the Civil War. Unlike planters further south, farmers in the Big South Fork region could not grow cotton and did not rely heavily on slaves. Most residents were fiercely loyal to the Union, sending more troops to serve in the Grand Army of the Republic than with the Confederacy. Indeed, when Tennessee finally seceded from the Union, Scott County seceded from Tennessee and briefly became the Independent State of Scott. The world little noted, nor long remembered, these passionate politics. On most maps of the era, this part of the country was referred to as simply “wilderness.”
A portion of that “wilderness” now makes up the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Planned and constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this multi-purpose facility operates under the management of the National Park Service. The Park Service is determined to manage this area in a manner that is responsive to the varying needs and desires of a wide constituency of users while protecting and preserving the diversity of its natural and cultural resources.
The Big South Fork is a wilderness area from the bluff lines down, which means in the parlance of the Park Service, “no vehicles, comforts, or conveniences.” On the plateau, however, the Park Service must foster peaceful coexistence among four-wheel drive vehicles, bikers, horses, hikers, hunters, fishermen, and even trappers. Mountain biking and horseback riding continue to be the major draw to the area, which makes for an interesting mix, as horses do not much care for bicycles, nor cyclists for horses. Those coming to view fall colors must remember that they share the area with those in pursuit of deer–we are all learning to share this very special place.