Big South Fork, TN
With two massive, natural stone arches vaulting above me, a thought popped into my head: "This is Utah...with trees." In fact, the towering arches, homey rock houses (shallow caves), and soaring overlooks you'll find in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area make it the crown jewel of the Cumberland Plateau and a great unsung hiking treasure.
The centerpiece is a dramatic river gorge with classic whitewater runs and alluring side canyons.
With more than 200 miles of trail across 106,000 acres, your hiking options are almost endless. One excellent trip is a 42-mile loop beginning at the Bandy Creek Campground. The route heads east and circles the Grand Gap Loop, where you'll find a string of crowning overlooks high above the Big South Fork. If you continue to hug the gorge's lip on the John Muir Trail before turning west to Charit Creek, you'll find a backcountry lodge with cabins and meals for hikers (reservations required). Return to Bandy Creek via Slave Falls, Needle Arch, and the Laurel Fork Trail, where you'll make 18 stream crossings in a narrow canyon.
Where: 305 miles (5 hours) north of Atlanta and 305 miles (6 hours) northwest of Charlotte. Bandy Creek Campground is 15 miles west of Oneida on TN 297.
Maps: You'll need the new editions of both Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area ($9.95, Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643), and Hiking the Big South Fork ($14.95), available at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center, (931) 879-3625.
Trail Info: Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, (423) 569-9778. For reservations at Charit Creek Lodge, (423) 429-5704.