The Big South Fork

John Quillen

Often seen as the Smokies’ little sibling, the Big South Fork rides like an emergency $20 bill in my wallet. As leaf peepers crowd the usual, high-altitude routes, I sneak off into this gorge to feast on colors that flow downstream with the river. With 125,000 acres at my disposal, choices abound.

I park at Leatherwood Ford and begin walking along the opposite side of the water. We used to cross the old bridge, in obvious disrepair. Fortunately, there is a newer alternative which puts you astride the low-flowing rill. This is the John Muir Trail and there are 44 miles of it here. I’m only going to do about six this weekend as my terminus is a well-known overlook. Blowdowns scatter the path as I straddle logs and rock hop a sizable tributary. Remnants of a hiking bridge dangle its toes into the water along with mine, but I don’t mind the challenge. It keeps the hordes from my destination. I wonder if some of this trail neglect isn’t intentional for that very reason.

Two miles in and the switchbacks begin. We will ascend for almost a mile in the shadow of sandstone towers that beg for rubber shoes and a harness. In fact, there is an abundance of traditional rock climbing routes here on the rim and at the Blue Heron mining section of the park. I reach a cliff line with small alcoves. Blue-tailed lizards dart into the minuscule recesses as we top out on the Grand Gap Loop. Turning right, we follow this road-sized trail to the big prize: Angel Falls Overlook. No matter how many times I camp atop this bluff, the view still takes my breath away.

We bed down beneath a full canopy of stars not far from the overlook as barred owls serenade us to sleep. There is no water up here, which keeps overnight company at bay. Alone on the top of this prominence, we stare off into Kentucky as the Big South Fork River carries another season’s detritus downstream. This is an ideal place for beginner backpackers or a family outing just an hour-and-a-half from downtown Knoxville.  

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