Believe it or not, I don’t only hike on rainy days (but you have to admit that rainy days are the best days to hike during the summer months).
This rainy day, my destination was Twin Arches in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. But the hike didn’t stop at the massive twin rock bridges. Most folks who travel to Twin Arches — and it is the most-visited site in the BSF — hike the 1.4-mile inner loop and miss most of the splendor that Twin Arches Loop Trail offers up.
To be sure, the Twin Arches are the awesomest features along the trail. But this trail also encompasses history and culture — and even more rock formations — along its seven miles if you just take a few hours to hike it all.
After meandering through a mixed pine-oak forest for a piece, the trail splits. You can take either direction; either will drop you over a set of steep steps. The left fork takes you beneath the bluff line and below the North Arch. The right fork takes you above the bluff line — with a spectacular view down Station Camp Creek Valley — and on top of the North Arch. The two trail segments meet again at the base of a set of wooden steps between the two arches. (That’s my son, thinking he is ducking out of the picture…obviously he didn’t succeed.)
If you take the right fork (and you might as well, if for no other reason than when you’re finished you will have hiked a figure-8 of sorts), you’ll miss the North Arch on the way in. Well, not completely; when you get to the base of the second set of steps and the loop reconnects, you can turn to your left and see it. But don’t worry going back over there to explore; you’ll be there soon enough.
Instead, take a right at the base of the steps and continue around to the South Arch. (Note the trail leading down the hill to your left almost as soon as you leave the steps behind. This is the main trail. You’ll back-track to it in a bit.) The southern-most of the twin rock formations is the largest, with a height of 103 ft., a 70 ft. clearance and a 135 ft. span. It is simply massive. (Smile for the camera, Jerry.)
Once you’ve stood and gazed at South Arch for a while, be sure to explore it a little more closely to find “Fat Man’s Squeeze.” It’s a rock passageway — think a small cave — all the way through the base on the south side of the arch. It truly is a squeeze (don’t get stuck!). It’s not only a neat sight to see and explore, but you would be surprised how many people hike to the Twin Arches and then hike out without ever knowing it’s there.
After proving that you can wiggle through Fat Man’s Squeeze, head back to the trail that led down the mountain, and head on into the gorge.
For the next mile, the trail meanders its way down the side of the gorge through a series of switchbacks. You can watch the forest change from mixed pine-oak to include more hemlocks, rhododendron and the other plant species that dominate the gorge areas of the BSF.
It doesn’t take long to reach a small stream flowing through the valley. This is Charit Creek, so named for a girl named Charity who drowned during a flash flood along the creek in the 1920s.
Once you reach the creek, you aren’t far away from the oldest homestead in the BSF that is still preserved today. These days, it’s known as Charit Creek Hostel, a backcountry resort that is much like Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains. There’s no electricity, no air conditioning, and no cell reception. Charit Creek Hostel is truly off the grid. The first building you’ll see, besides a small outbuilding, is the main house, which was built by Jonathan Blevins in the early 1800s.
Jonathan Blevins is one of those names that just keeps popping up if you study Big South Fork folklore. A long hunter from Virginia, he moved here in the late 18th Century and became one of the first white settlers of this area. He picked the spot where Charit Creek and Station Camp Creek merge to clear land for his farm.
While Blevins was a long hunter, his family became subsistence farmers in the style of the BSF settlements. Their occupation was working the land to carve out a living. There are two barns on the farm. One (pictured) is along the banks of Charit Creek; the other is on the east end of the farm, along Station Camp Creek. The latter is used to stall horses today. Several horse trails intersect at Charit Creek Hostel.
There are several cabins at Charit Creek, all of which are available for paid lodging today. They were mostly constructed long after old Jonathan Blevins was dead (he’s buried a short distance down Station Creek from his farm; the gravesite is accessible via the Station Camp Creek Trail, an equestrian trail connecting the hostel to the Big South Fork River, which is three miles away). In 1963, Joe Simpson purchased the farm and opened a hunting preserve, which remained in operation until the federal government purchased the property in 1982. One of the bunkhouses added by Simpson was built using logs from the cabin at “Jake’s Place,” which the hike will visit a little further upstream. Simpson purchased that farm, too, and dismantled the cabin to move it to the main farm.
You can reserve lodging at Charit Creek by visiting ccl-bsf.com. And while I’ve never done it, you can call ahead to reserve a spot at the breakfast table (served at 8 a.m.) or the supper table (served at 6 p.m.) while you’re hiking through. Breakfast is $10 and dinner is $20. And anyone who has eaten the food raves about it. You can even pick up a homemade pie, have a glass of wine or enjoy craft beer while you’re there.
For first-time visitors, it might seem a little strange to stumble upon a working homestead so far into the backcountry. But that’s exactly what Charit Creek Lodge is. The lodge welcomes visitors from all over the place. (The last time I was here, two years earlier, the lodge was hosting several members of the Tennessee Titans football team.) In the foreground, summer squash grows that will soon need picking (and cooking). In the background, a woman carries fresh linens to one of the bunkhouses.
After you’ve explored the lodge, head back to where your feet first hit the gravel on the way in, and rejoin the trail, which is actually a gravel road at this point. It’s used for administrative access. The road turns north along Station Camp Creek and soon enters a spectacular hemlock grove. This is one of those places that makes you stop and think about what this region is going to look like if the hemlock woolly adelgid — an invasive pest accidentally introduced from Asia — manages to strip it of all its majestic hemlocks.
A short distance further, and the trail splits. A foot path turns to the left, crossing the stream via a suspension bridge. This is the Charit Creek Trail, which leads to a trailhead at the top of the gorge about a mile away. Don’t take that route, unless you want a long — and by long, I mean very long — walk back to your vehicle. Instead, continue along the gravel road.
A short distance ahead, you’ll find the remnants of an old stone fireplace. This is the Tackett Place, though the cabin that once stood here is long gone. This is the site of an interesting bit of history that played out in what is today the Big South Fork Country. To understand that history, first you need to look for the Tackett Brothers’ graves, which are marked by simple sandstone headstones.
The Tackett Brothers were two teenage boys who lived in the cabin where the fireplace remnants are today. In 1863, Civil War was gripping America. Tennessee had joined the rest of the Southern states in breaking away from the Union over issues of slavery and states’ rights. But Scott and Fentress counties, into which the rugged Big South Fork River fell, were very much pro-Union. There weren’t many slaves owned in the Upper Cumberland region, and folks here wanted to preserve the Union. More than that, they simply wanted to be left alone. This was a remote region, well behind the times compared to places like Nashville and Knoxville, and life was different here.
In fact, Scott County — where the Tacketts lived — voted against secession by the largest percentage of any county in Tennessee (94%). Later, county officials met in the county seat of Huntsville and voted to secede from Tennessee, forming the Free and Independent State of Scott. Their secession was never recognized by Tennessee, but it wasn’t until 1986 that Scott County officially petitioned to rejoin the rest of the state.
As the war raged, the Big South Fork region — given its rugged and remote nature, and the fact that it was well away from the nearest law enforcement — was perfect for guerrilla warfare. Confederate loyals (such as Champ Ferguson — the notorious Confederate outlaw who murdered dozens along the Cumberland Plateau during the war) — often led raids in the region, where they stole horses and crops and caused general mayhem. That led to the formation of Dave “Tinker” Beaty’s Home Guard to help guard the settlements in BSF country. (Beaty himself testified against Ferguson after the war, as Ferguson was convicted of murder and hanged as one of only two people to be tried and executed for war crimes committed during the Civil War.) One famous run-in between the guerrillas and the home guard came a few miles downstream at the Peter Burke cabin near Parch Corn Creek, the next valley north of Station Camp Creek, in 1863. Guerrillas (not led by Ferguson, but by a man from Pickett County) raided the Parch Corn Creek area, then holed up in Burke’s home for the night. Members of the Home Guard surrounded the cabin that night, killing nine of the men in ambush. A 10th drowned in the river as he tried to make his escape.
Part of the guerrilla mayhem was recruiters who attempted to find young men in the settlements to force into service for the Confederacy. In 1863, they arrived at Station Camp Creek. When an elderly relative who was caring for the Tackett Brothers heard they were coming, she hid the brothers beneath a feather mattress, then lay atop it, pretending to be ill. It finally convinced the soldiers to leave. After they had gone, she pulled back the mattress to free the brothers, only to discover that they had died of suffocation.
Continuing along the trail, you’ll soon arrive at “Jake’s Place.” Jacob Blevins Jr. — also called Jakey — was a descendant of Jonathan Blevins and lived here in the 1880s with his wife, Vivian. They’re both buried in the Katie Blevins Cemetery at the Lorna Blevins farmstead near Bandy Creek. Eighty years later, Joe Simpson purchased Jake’s Place and tore down the home there, moving it to his hunting preserve at what is now Charit Creek Hostel.
Jake’s Place has traditionally been a favorite place for backpackers to camp — and they still do, although the National Park Service has attempted to eliminate camping at the historic location, which is still periodically cleared to prevent reforestation.
After leaving Jake’s Place, the Twin Arches Loop will soon begin to ascend the side of the gorge, working its way through a series of switchbacks to the top of the plateau. It doesn’t go all the way to the top, though. Instead, it reaches the base of the bluff line, and follows the bluffs for a ways. That’s good, because you’ll see a series of impressive rock shelters, including a spectacular curved rock shelter with a wet-weather waterfall tumbling over.
Beneath this rock shelter, if you look closely, you’ll find remnants of niter mining. Niter, also known as saltpeter but officially known as potassium nitrate, was once a key component in gunpowder, as well as a meat preservative and fertilizer, and the rocks of the Big South Fork contain a high concentration. Former Big South Fork archaeologist Tom Des Jean once wrote that niter mining may have been the first industry in the BSF — pre-dating the logging and coal mining that would follow. It is believed that these areas were mined for niter as far back as the early 1800s.
The trail will finally intersect itself at the base of the North Arch. Somewhat smaller than its counterpart just down the ridge top, North Arch stands 62 ft. with a clearance of 51 ft. and a span of 93 ft. Together, the Twin Arches make up one of the largest natural bridges in the world.
For all intent and purpose, you’re finished. You can continue back to the parking lot, either by hanging a left from North Arch and taking a different route back, or by going right to the staircase between the arches and reversing your steps from earlier. But while you’re here, you might as well take the short walk over to South Arch and explore it again. It isn’t every day you see rock formations this spectacular. And if you stopped for dinner at the lodge, you might want to try Fat Man’s Squeeze again just to make sure you didn’t eat more than you worked off.