The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

The free flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries pass through 90 miles of scenic gorges and valleys containing a wide range of natural and historic features. The Big South Fork National Recreation Area makes a fine alternative to the Smokies, and it is always much less crowded. Although it lacks the mountains, there is plenty of remote wilderness, with steep cliffs and interesting geology, including some of the largest arches in the east.


The National Recreation Area is located in northeast Tennessee and southeast Kentucky. Park Visitors Centers are located in Tennessee 15 miles west of Oneida off TN 297, and in Kentucky in Stearns on KY 92. Park Headquarters is located 9 miles west of Oneida on TN 297. From Knoxville, take I-75 north to exit 141, then Hwy 63 west to Huntsville, then north on Hwy 27 to Oneida, then left on Hwy 297 toward Jamestown, about 9 miles west of Oneida.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
Park Headquarters
4564 Leatherwood Road
Oneida, Tennessee 37841

Operating Hours and Seasons: The park is open year round. The Visitor Center is open year round – daily 8 AM til 4 PM.

Climate and Recommended Clothing: The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is located in a humid climatic region, typified by mild winters and moist, warm to hot summers. Storm systems typically bring heavy rains from December through March, which may cause flooding. Summer thunderstorms are common. Winter snowfall occurs intermittently in the area and averages 17 inches per year. Wear comfortable clothing for the season and bring clothing for possible extremes.


To the park: The closest commercial airports are in Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee – and Lexington, Kentucky.

In the park: Personal vehicle, 4-wheel drive vehicle, bicycle and horse.

Visitor Centers / Exhibits

Bandy Creek Visitor Center (TN) and Kentucky Visitor Center (KY) provide visitor information, back-country permits, and book sales. The center is open daily, except Christmas. Hours are 8:00 to 4:30, November through May, and 8:00 to 6:00 from June through October.

Blue Heron Mining Community (KY) is an outdoor museum dealing with the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company, coal mining and life in a company-mining town.

Programs / Activities

Summer evening programs – Saturday nights from Memorial Day through September. Special events throughout the year including Pioneer Encampments, Astronomy Programs and Storytelling Festivals. For additional information on these and other special park events, visit the National Park Service Big South Fork special news page or call the park for specific dates and times.

Lodging and Camping Facilities

Bandy Creek Campground – 100 sites with water and electric, 50 tent sites and two group camping areas, restrooms, showers, dump station and a swimming pool are available in Bandy Creek. Reservations for the Bandy Creek Campground and group sites are available between May 1 and October 31; walk-ins are also permitted. Information concerning the Bandy Creek Campground may be obtained by calling the campground; reservations are recommended and available through the National Park Reservations Service.

Blue Heron Campground – 49 sites with water and electric, restrooms, showers and dump station.

Station Camp Horse Camp – 24 sites for horse camping. Each site has water, electricity and a four-horse tie stall. All have access to restrooms and showers.

Bear Creek Horse Camp – 23 sites for horse camping. Each site has water, electricity and a four-horse tie stall. All have access to restrooms and showers.

Charit Creek Lodge – a back-country lodge accessible only by foot or horseback – offers full service accommodations, but no phones or electricity.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area offers a wide variety of recreation opportunities. Whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking are popular in the spring months while canoeing and canoe camping on non-whitewater sections are available all year. Swimming is available in rivers and at the Bandy Creek Pool. Hundreds of miles of hiking and horse trails exist with no restrictions on backcountry camping. Developed campgrounds and primitive lodging exist. Mountain biking is allowed on bike trails, horse trails and 4-wheel drive roads. Hunting and fishing are allowed in season with appropriate state licenses. Scenic overlooks are located in both the Tennessee and Kentucky portions of the park.

Hiking the Big South Fork – Over 150 miles of hiking trails with plenty of loops or one-way options, as well over 150 miles of horse trails. The horse trails are used by hikers to connect with different routes. The trails are well marked with arrowhead markers of John Muir figurehead markers. Trails range from easy to difficult, with no trails listed as strenuous. This makes the Big South Fork an excellent area for first time hikers. If you begin your trip and find that you are out of shape, stick to the plateaus with side hikes into the gorge area.

Horseback riding has become one of the most popular activities at Big South Fork. There are hundreds of miles of horse trails available throughout Big South Fork. These horse trails are all marked with white blaze and yellow horse heads. The trails vary in both their length and degree of difficulty. They range from short, easy day rides to long and strenuous loops that may take several days to complete.

Paddling – The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area protects over 80 miles of navigable water for paddlers to challenge and enjoy. A favorite among paddlers is the section of the river, lying on the Big South Fork between Burnt Mill Bridge on the Clear Fork and the Leatherwood Ford Bridge, known as the Gorge. This 11-mile run offers paddlers some of the wildest and most remote whitewater in the eastern United States. During your run through the gorge, dangerous Class III and IV rapids with undercut rocks will be encountered. Proper paddling skills and the proper equipment including helmets, flotation, throw ropes, first-aid, adequate cold-exposure clothing and good quality whitewater craft are necessary for a safe trip. It is highly recommended that you scout all major rapids and set up throw ropes before running them. Whitewater paddling can be one of the best – or worst – times at Big South Fork. To make your trip safe, be sure to follow these simple guidelines while on the river:

  • Always wear a Coast Guard approved life jacket.
  • Know your limits; do not attempt a section of river beyond your skill level.
  • Never boat alone. A preferred minimum is three boats.
  • Pay attention to weather and water conditions. Wear wool clothing or a wet suit and dress for the water temperature. If the water temperature and air temperature combined total 100 degrees or less, wear protective clothing.
  • If you capsize, hold on to your craft and get immediately to the upstream side. Float on your back, feet together and pointed downstream. If you go over a ledge or drop, tuck into a ball. Release your craft only if it improves your safety. Stay upstream away from the boat.
  • Carry the proper equipment including dry clothing and a first-aid kit. Store all extra gear in a secure watertight container.

Reservations and permits for camping and back country (including school groups) are recommended and available through the National Park Reservations Service.

Additional information at