Big South Fork Waterfalls & Hiking Guide
Something you’ll notice about Kentucky and Tennesse waterfalls is that they tend to be clustered in regions like Big South Fork. The reason is that the terrain (think a lot of porous limestones – AKA why we’re the bourbon folks) is very hilly with a ton of natural rivers. We joke all the time that we live in ‘The Rainforest of the South’, and when you start hiking in Big South Fork you’ll know what we mean.
Big South Fork is located in the Cumberland Plateau and spans the Tennessee/Kentucky border. Covering over 125,000 acres, the main highlights of the region are hiking to waterfalls, white water rafting, and rock climbing!
The map below has restaurants, hiking and where to stay by color code. Red for food, green for hiking, blue for waterfalls, and purple for lodging.
Best Waterfalls in Big South Fork
Big South Fork is probably one of the prettiest areas in Kentucky and Tennessee if you’re chasin’ waterfalls. (See what we did there?) Home to some of the clearest water and the biggest falls- it’s a region we’d definitely like to explore more of. To enjoy the trails and take time to admire the best waterfalls leisurely, you’ll be hiking over 12 miles!
Probably too much for one day for the average hiker, but it’s worth it to stay overnight we promise!
A gorgeous 113-foot waterfall in the heart of Big South Fork. Rated as moderate, the trail is 4.2 miles long and considered heavily trafficked. Whenever AllTrails says that a trail is heavily trafficked –we typically tend to go early to beat the crowds.
Two great things about this waterfall trail:
- You can also see the South Fork of the Cumberland River from different points.
- Dogs are allowed!
There’s also an arch and multiple trails that lead you to the falls. Typically when we’re hiking, we like hikes that have a glorious end goal in mind to make sweating that hard worth it? The hike to Yahoo Falls is a very picturesque Kentucky hike that showcases all of the things we love!
An easier trail than Yahoo Falls, Princess Falls is a bigger payout for those who struggle hiking! The best part about Princess Falls is that you’ll be able to swim once you get there! We swam over to get underneath the falls, our dog went for a swim, and you can walk up top on the ledge.
Princess Falls is a very popular hike so we suggest you go early!
The creek that flows from the top of Princess Falls is a branch of the Cumberland River. After a heavy rainstorm this hike is even more wroth it because the Cumberland River will have risen making the flow even stronger!
Duration: 2.4 miles
Difficulty Level: Easy (2.4 miles)
Trailhead Address: Sheltowee Trace Rd, Stearns, KY 42647
Lick Creek Trail Falls
This one we hadn’t even heard of until Alltrails showed us a ‘nearby’ suggestion while looking for trails in this region. One of the things we love about Kentucky is that you find some really interesting variations – and one of those variations happens to be in our waterfalls. Sometimes the pools at the bottom are this gorgeous blue color when the sun hits just right? And Lick Creek Falls is one of those waterfalls!
P.S. Lick Creek Trail’s waterfall doesn’t actually have a name that we’ve seen but it’s worth hiking to!
Duration: 5.4 miles
Difficulty: Moderate – Some stairs and potential for getting your feet wet when crossing the creek.
To really get the most of your hike to Slave Falls in Big South Fork – you need to come early spring or after a big rainfall! Topping out at 60ft tall, Slave Falls is an easy and worthwhile hike because there are only 150 feet of elevation changes. A little history: During the Civil War, runaway slaves used to hide in the smaller cubbies down by the waterfall.
P.S. On your hike, you’ll see signs for Needle Arch! It’s only 0.4 miles roundtrip to see the arch so it’s worth the pit-stop!
Duration: 3.8 miles
Trailhead Address: 4266 Pickett Park Hwy, Jamestown, TN 38556 (Address to the fire tower next to Divide Road before the Pickett State Park Fire Tower, then take a right on Fork Ridge Road – The Trailhead is on your left.)
A Few More Hidden Gems..
If you’re truly all about the waterfals, there are a few more hidden gems in this region!
- Big Spring Falls + Dick Gap Falls (Kentucky) – Weird name right? Also just incredibly pretty! To get there.. please follow the Catawba Overlook Trail and follow the signs for the different waterfalls that branch off for Dick Gap Falls + Bring Spring Falls. Overall – most people said that this section of trails took them around 5 hours and 8.6 miles. Make sure you pack a good lunch and that you start early! We’ll be hitting this trail soon this year and we’re so excited to find them both, and give you a more thorough review of how to get to Dick Gap and Big Spring Falls.
Duration: 8.6 Miles
- Hidden Passage Loop Trail (Tennessee) – A three-tier waterfall is located on this loop! It will take you every bit of half a day so be prepared!!
Duration: 8 Miles
- Hazard Cave Trail (Tennessee) – This trail is slightly uneventful and just when you think you haven’t seen anything you’ll stumble upon a mega rock cave!
Duration: 1.5 miles
Best Easy Hikes In Big South Fork
Besides waterfalls, you have to remember that you’re still in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. That means that every time you turn around in Big South Fork, there will be another mountain just waiting to show you its pretty views. For a few easy hikes with gorgeous views:
- Bear Creek Overlook (Kentucky) – You’ll walk through one arch and then walk out to views of a river splitting two mountains!
Duration: 0.5 miles
- Gorge Overlook Trail (Kentucky) – Highly recommend starting your day with this trail! It’s short, the views are epic and you may see a few bald eagles flying around.
Duration: 0.5 miles
- Indian Rockhouse Trail (Tennessee) – On the Tennessee side of Big South Fork – this is another tral with spectacular rock formations. When we’re looking for places to go and hike – sometimes these easy trails are the best between your bigger hikes to give you a little reprieve! With water trickling from the edge of the rock shelter, and sunlight streaming into the huge cavern-like shelter, it’s a must-see!!
Duration: 0.4 miles
- Middle Creek Nature Loop (Tennessee) – Take you along some of the prettiest rock formations we’ve seen. It’s almost otherworldly once you reach the natural rock shelters portions of the hike. While this is a longer hike – it’s still not difficult because there aren’t a ton of elevation changes.
Duration: 3.5 miles
Arches in Big South Fork
Along with the waterfalls that form in our porous limestone – another thing you’re going to find is natural arches. They’re all over this region of the mountains, with over 2,500 arches in Kentucky alone! Here are a few of our favorite easily accessible arches in Big South Fork:
- Split Bow Arch Loop (Kentucky) – A great Instagram-worthy easy trail! There’s a really beautiful set of stairs that go up under the arch perfect for family photos!
Duration: 0.6 miles
- Twin Arches Short Loop (Tennessee) – There is a longer version of this trail but you’ll get to the arches the same way and still see these stunning formations no matter which way you choose!
Duration: 1.1 miles
Other Outdoor Activities
Big South Fork is a river inside of a very moutnainous area. Just like the waterfalls that formed off of different streams of the main river, there are still drop offs in the bigger park of the river – giving us rapids.
- For anyone looking to take their adventure to the water – there are three main white water rapids on Big South Fork. Double Falls Rapids, the Washing Machine, and The Ell. Doing all three of these is called ‘The Big Three’! If you’re up for the challenge – book a white water rafting trip here!
If you’re looking to go rock climbing at Big South Fork:
- You’ll need to head to Blue Heron Overlook.
- Follow the Superintendent’s Compendium guide for where rock climbing is allowed.
If you’re coming from out of town – we highly recommend trying to mix in waterfall hikes, overlook and arch hikes, along with whitewater rafting!
Where To Stay Around Big South Fork
To really get a good feel of the area, you’ll want to spend at least 2 days hiking and exploring! With that being said you’re going to need someplace to stay over night.
- The Tree Top Round House – You really need to see this one to believe it! A big wooden cabin up on stilts in the middle of the forest? Count. Us. In. We like to be alone and chances are you do too if you’re venturing into this area? Seems like the most peaceful place to sip a cup of tea in the morning!
Address: 330 Lake Shore Dr., Parkers Lake, Kentucky 42634
- The Cumberland Falls State Resort Park – Best for us boujee hikers who are absolutely not about the camping/motor park life. Which is totally ok.
For all other cabin recommendations on the Kentucky side, click here for McCreary County (Kentucky side of Big South Fork), and click here for Fentress County recommendations (Tennessee side of Big South Fork).
Best Campgrounds Near Big South Fork
There are a ton of campgrounds in the Big South Fork National Park, and some of them are also home to trailheads for some of the best trails in this post.
- Alum Ford Campground – The Sheltowee Trace Trail runs through this campground. This trail connects to many others in the region! First come first serve – there are pit toilets but no access to water.
Fees: $5 a night
Address: State Hwy 700, Whitley City, KY 42653
- Blue Heron Campground – Water and electric hookups, fire pits, restrooms, and showers. Much more our idea of camping! This campground is also close to the Blue Heron Mining Community for anyone looking to rock climb.
Fees: $20 a night – Reservations required.
Address: 9 miles west of Stearns off Highway 742 (See Map Above)
- Bear Creek Horse Camp – As the name suggests – it’s good for equestrian and non-equestrian campers! They also note ‘access to modern restrooms with hot showers‘ which is desperately needed after a long day hiking!!
Address: Lee Hollow Rd, Strunk, KY 42649
- Bandy Creek Campground – Good for tent camping and RV’s.
Fees: From $20- $125 depending on group size!
Address: Bandy Loop, Oneida, TN 37841
- Station Camp Campsite – Gor equestrian campers and regular campers – ‘Each campsite offers water and electricity, tables, grills, tie-outs for four horses, access to modern restrooms with hot showers, a dump station, and access to miles of horse trails. There is free Wi-Fi available at the bathhouse.’ – This place would be a good pick for content creators as well if you need Wi-Fi!
Address: 3604 Station Camp Rd #3602, Oneida, TN 37841
Restaurants in the Area
If you’re camping, you already know to hit the grocery store and cookout for the weekend if you’re staying. But raise your hand if you’re a part of the ‘finds it difficult to walk and chew gum at the same time’ kind of folks? Since not all of us are camping and outdoor cooking savvy simultaneously, there are a few great local restaurants to check out!
P.S. After hiking or kayaking all day… we can imagine the last thing you want to do is cook! All of these restaurants will be able to fuel you for the next day of hiking!!
Kentucky Restaurants: You’re going to find a few of your typical chains in the area like McDonalds – but you can also find a few local favorites!
- The Dairy Bar – Also an awesome Instagram photo op because the place looks like it came straight out of the ’50s and we love it!
Address: 198 Main St, Whitley City, KY 42653
- Giovanni’s Pizza – Family-owned and all the hikers we know love pizza so get in early!
Address: 174 E Hwy KY-92 Pine Knot, KY 42635
- Sante Fe Mexican Restaurant – Is there actually anyone in the world that doesn’t love queso?
Address: 57 Oaks Ln Ste 5 Whitley City, KY 42653
- RaeZach’s Grill & Deli – They even have breakfast food! The one thing we cannot go without!
Address: 14428 Scott Hwy Helenwood, TN 37755
- El Rey Azteca – Again with the salty savory goodness of queso Blanco…
Address: 19816 Alberta St Oneida, TN 37841
- Phillip’s Drive-In – Walk-up service or sit down. Good burgers and such! (Best if you’re on the East side of the park!) – Also it gets 4.5/5 stars on Google and Yelp.
Address: 18499 Alberta St, Oneida, TN 37841
If you’re not staying in the area… I’d still suggest packing your lunch and water for the day! Highly recommend our favorite hiking sammich – The Feta Veggie Hummus Mandoline Sandwich. We made it up and it’s truly our favorite hiking meal!
The Best time to Visit Big South Fork
Whether the leaves are changing, it’s the first hints of spring, all summer long to kayak, or winter hiking – Big South Fork is gorgeous all year long. Even the waterfalls are stunning in the winter; Have you ever seen a 70-foot fall of ice? It’s pretty incredible!
The waterfalls listed are some of our favorites of the area but there are a ton more! For maps of the entire area as well as the John Muir Trail – click here for a downloadable PDF from the National Park Service. The John Muir Trail covers a large majority of the main attractions in the area and takes about 4-5 days. You’d definitely want to stay overnight for that!
For all other waterfall hiking gear that we typically pack, see our post with all of our most used gear. As always when you’re hiking the trails – make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles! Enjoy Big South Fork!
Make sure to snag all of your road trip basics (below) and have fun jamming to a new playlist!
Until next time friends,