I learned a while back that when you’re a Smokies hiker, trails in every other Southeastern national park seem easy. The hills are rolling and not as steep as in the Smokies or on the mountain section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
But each park has to be taken on its own merits. You can’t compare Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a maximum altitude of over 6,600 feet at Clingmans Dome with Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BISO), which protects the South Fork of the Cumberland River and the canyon it created. Here on the Cumberland Plateau, the maximum altitude in the park is only 1,745 feet. But it’s not the absolute altitude that counts but the relative between the top and the valley.
BISO is not a national park but a recreation area, which means it’s more macho. Here You can hunt, run your ATV in selected places, raft, kayak, mountain bike, and even take your dog on hiking trails, if it’s leashed. But you aren’t going to find any of that, except maybe dogs, if you stick to hiking trails. The park was established in 1974 but it was years before there was enough infrastructure for visitors.
At Bandy Creek Visitor Center, Ranger Mary Grimm is behind the desk eager share her park with me. She grew up in the BISO area.
“My great great … I lose the number of greats … Jonathan Blevins built the first hunting camp here in 1817,” she says. This camp eventually became Charit Creek Lodge, a walk-in lodge in the park. She offers several hiking suggestions.
“My favorite is Angel Falls Overlook Trail to the overlook.” And she doesn’t even warn me that the trail is considered “strenuous.” Thumbs up for Ranger Grimm.
I drive back down to the river, park, cross the bridge and follow the John Muir Trail. Spring has arrived at BISO. Sessile trillium, bloodroot, trout lilies, hepatica… The trail meanders between steep rock walls and the river. After a series of switchbacks, I reach the rocky overlook with great view of the curve in the river. But where are the falls? Two backpackers, father and son, eating lunch up here are just as puzzled. Together, we figure out that the falls must be the rapids in the river. It turns out that in 1954, before the park was established, some local fishermen blasted huge boulders in the river to improve boating and fishing. Instead, it created a dangerous rapid. I’m still amazed at people who feel they can damage property that isn’t theirs.
At the end of my hike, I check back with Ranger Grimm to let her know that I found the falls. And who should be there behind the desk with her, Ranger Bill Herman? He used to work at Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Smokies and is now a permanent ranger here. This is not the first time (or last) that this has happened. That’s why I always wear something of the Smokies. I never know who I’m going to run into in a national park.
BISO, with 400 miles of trail, isn’t just about the river. The appeal is the isolation that you feel in the gorge lined with high rock walls. On my second day in the park, I see no one on what may be the most popular trail in the park, Twin Arches loop.
Twin Arches are magnificent and just as impressive as arches out west. The difference is that here the arches aren’t in the desert, where they stand out.
Our arches have trees in the way, so they don’t photograph as well. So don’t judge the arches by my photograph. Then onto Charit Creek Lodge, a walk-in lodge that can be reached in 1.8 miles.
I get to the lodge at about eleven o’clock and Matt Peterson makes me some coffee. Matt works for Charit Lodge, a hostel, as they call it, that serves meals, offers a place to sleep and even has showers and alcohol. The secret is that, though guests have to walk in or ride a horse, the lodge is on a dirt road. So the staff can go into town, presumably Jamestown, TN, and resupply as often as necessary. With new ownership, the emphasis is on farm to table food, which as Matt points out, is what it was in the old days.
Charit Lodge used to be a hog farm and hunting lodge. Unlike the Smokies, which found itself with a hog problem not of its own making, here the then owners brought in hogs for hunting, albeit before BISO became a park.
On the continuation of the loop, the rock shelters and cliffs really pop out. The trail is above, I assume, Charit Creek. Rock shelters were used by Native Americans, settlers and miners digging for saltpeter. Water drips through pocket canyons and down rock ledges, creating multi-colored streaks. I could be here for a week, just photographing the rock formations.
But I need to be moving on to a different part of the park.