Camping in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area this weekend made for a wet time. Severe thunderstorms set in Friday evening, dumping copious amounts of rain, and the showers continued well into the day Saturday. As the rain began to let up at times Saturday morning, I put on my hiking shoes and grabbed my camera for a hike to the John Litton Farm.
The Litton Farm Loop is also a part of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail — denoted by the turtle signs (Sheltowee means “Big Turtle,” the nickname of Daniel Boone) — that starts in Morehead, Ky., with a southern terminus at Burnt Mill Bridge on the southern end of the BSF.
Raindrops cling to the needles of a white pine along the start of the trail. The John Litton Farm Loop begins at the Bandy Creek Campground and traverses through part of the Scott State Forest atop the plateau.
Mountain laurel crowds the hiking trail. Before it drops into the gorge by way of Fall Branch, the Litton Farm Loop travels through a mixed oak forest that includes thickets of laurel, pines and a variety of shrubs.
A pair of wooden ladders take the Litton Farm Loop trail beneath the bluff lines along Fall Branch. Draining most of the plateau lands around Bandy Creek Campground, Fall Branch is also one of the most scenic streams within the BSF. It eventually widens into a cliff-lined gorge before emptying into the BSF River just above Angel Falls.
The bigleaf magnolia is the largest simple-leaf plant — with the largest flower — of any species in North America. It’s found in large portions of Mississippi and Alabama near the Gulf of Mexico. In Tennessee, it’s found primarily in the shaded ravines and streams of the Cumberland Plateau, particularly in the BSF.
There are few times of the year more spectacular in the Big South Fork NRRA than when the rhododendron is blooming. There are various species of rhododendron in the park, and they bloom at various times, but the predominant species blooms in June and produces spectacular white flowers in large clumps.
Step for step, there is no hiking trail in the BSF with a greater concentration of rhododendron than the Litton Farm Loop. Here, the rhododendron creates a sort of tunnel along the trail. Ahead, where the light shines through, rhododendron blooms litter the trail.
Water drips from rock lichen beneath the base of Fall Branch Falls.
Eventually, the Litton Farm Loop trail crosses a bridge over the North Fork of Fall Branch, and turns up that feeder stream towards the Litton Farm itself. Near where the two forks of Fall Branch meet, this giant hemlock tree has always been one of my favorites. It sits entirely on top of a large boulder, its roots stretching like tentacles to the sandy soil beneath the rock.
The original split-rail fence is the first thing to come into view as you arrive at the Litton Farm. Built around the turn of the century by John Litton, this was a classic BSF subsistence farm. Litton and his family truly lived off the land — building their home, barn and other outbuildings from trees in the forests nearby, raising a garden and livestock, and subsiding on the berries, nuts and wildlife found in the forests.
A piece of old farm equipment is silhouetted inside Litton’s spectacular, two-story barn. The barn still stands, along with a corn crib. In the woods nearby, fenced enclosures at the base of the bluffs were once used to hold pigs. (I didn’t hike up there because I was wet and the deer flies were showing me no mercy.)
A drawing on interpretive signage placed by the National Park Service in one of the fields at the Litton Farm depicts what life would’ve been like for John Litton and his wife, Vi, in the early 20th Century.
The old home at the Litton Farm — as the blue sky begins to peak through the rain clouds (unfortunately for me, it wouldn’t last; rain would soon begin to fall again). The Littons built a one-room cabin, which was added on to by General Slaven (his name, not a title) and his wife, Did, after they purchased the farm just after World War II. They continued living there — without electricity or running water — until the federal government purchased the property for the national park in the 1970s.
The last glance at the Litton Farm is of the old English-style barn as the trail turns back down the North Fork of Fall Branch and then begins its ascent back to the top of the plateau. The last couple of miles of the trail lead hikers through another example of a mixed-oak forest, old fields that are in various stages of natural reclamation by the forest, and, finally, the gravel road that leads back to Bandy Creek.
Hungry? Why wait? Blackberries are just beginning to ripen…but beware — the Big South Fork NRRA is home to an estimated 300 black bears, and they love blackberries, too. (That didn’t stop me from sampling them. Fortunately, the bears didn’t return the favor and stop by camp to sample my food.)