Rocky Fork

John Quillen at Rocky Fork | Nathan Sparks

A patch of heaven worth fighting for

Prior to 2015, this rough patch of hill country was like many in our region, abandoned by timber barons to all but local adventurers. Fortunately, thanks to the rescue efforts of Unicoi native David Ramsey, this tract called Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park is one of the newest arrows in the Tennessee State Park quiver. The land was designated as a Tennessee State Park in October 2012, but not officially opened until 2015.

Rumor of backcountry camping and mountain biking lured me northeast on a cold morning rigged for a day of exploration. The drive took me through some rugged terrain on the spine of Tennessee’s eastern terminus. I crested a hill where I had crossed on the Appalachian Trail many years back.

Layered and gloved up, I mounted my bike and cruised past numerous cascades dropping from a trail leading to Birchfield Camp. Living up to its name, these pathways seemed more suited to hiking than my present conveyance. Sub-freezing temps were no longer a concern as I started an unrelenting climb to what would eventually become a 14 percent grade experience.

But the interior views of these northeast hills on the border of North Carolina were worth the pedal pushing and dismount degradation. Curled rhododendron dripped icicle whiskers. I climbed and climbed until the waning sun began to signal my inevitable retreat. Rocky Fork had gotten me, and my loop would have to wait for longer days. In for not even four miles, and my quads had ticked off 1,700 feet of ascent. I saw no one past the first mile and realized immediately why.

There are 20 miles of trails, 40 climbing routes and unlimited streams to fish in this 2,000-acre wilderness. So there are plenty of reasons to return. But next time, I may leave the mountain bike at home.  

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