The recreation area consists of 125,000 acres (51,000 hectares) surrounding the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and is managed by the U.S. National Park Service.
Most of the land within the recreation area was owned by the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company. After the decline of decline of the company in the 1960s, efforts by senators from Kentucky and Tennessee to have the area preserved as a national park began. In 1974, President Richard Nixon signed legislation creating the national recreation area. Between 1974 and 1991 the US Army Corp of Engineers purchased the land for the recreation area and turned over administration to the US National Park Service.
The park is on the Cumberland Plateau. Geologically this area is characterized by a erosion resistant sandstone cap covering softer layers of sedimentary rock. Over millions of years the streams and rivers of the region have carved deep gorges into the plateau. Water erosion has also formed one of the highest concentrations of natural arches in the eastern United States.
Flora and fauna
There are several routes that can be taken to access the park. The four main travel corridors are I-75, I-40, US 127, and KY 92. The gateway cities are Oneida and Jamestown in Tennessee and Stearns in Kentucky.
Fees and permits
There are no fees to enter the park.
- 1 Twin Arches. Two large natural arches accessible by a short hike.
- 2 Yahoo Falls. At 113 feet, it is the highest waterfall in the state of Kentucky. There is a one mile loop trail that provides access to the top and bottom of the falls. The parking lot is near Alum Ford Campground.
- 1 Big South Fork Scenic Railway, 100 Henderson St., Stearns, KY 42647, toll-free: . Offers train rides from Stearns, Kentucky to Blue Heron. The trains run from April through November and the round trip takes approximately one and a half hours.
- 2 Blue Heron (9 miles west of Stearns, Kentucky), ☏ . A recreated mining community operated as an outdoor museum. Open year round.
There is no lodging available within the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, but there are several surrounding cities and parks that offer a variety of options.
- Corbin, Kentucky
- Williamsburg, Kentucky
- Jellico, Tennessee
- Pioneer, Tennessee
- Cumberland Falls State Resort Park (Kentucky)
- Pickett State Park (Tennessee)
- 1 Alum Ford Campground (7 miles west of Whitley City, Kentucky). A campground operated by the National Park Service and located within the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Alum Ford consists of 6 primitive campsites on the shore of Lake Cumberland. There is no source of potable water and any water drawn from the lake needs to be purified. Sites cost $5 per night and are available on a first come first serve basis. The campground has a boat ramp, pit toilets and is open year round.
- 2 Blue Heron Campground (9 miles west of Stearns, Kentucky), ☏ . A campground operated by the National Park Service and located within the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. There are 45 sites with water and electric hook ups. The campground has shower houses with flush toilets and is open April 1 through October 31. Reservations are accepted and all campsites are $17 per night.
- 3 Bandy Creek Campground (15 miles west of Oneida, Tennessee), ☏ . A campground operated by the National Park Service and located within the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. There are 96 trailer sites with water and electric hookups, 49 primitive tent campsites and 2 group camping areas. Shower houses are available with flush toilets. There is a swimming pool in the campground that is open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Trailer sites are $22, tent sites are $19 and the group campsites are $75 (up to 25 people). All rates are nightly. The campground is open year round and campsites can be reserved. Food storage restrictions are in place due to black bear activity.
Permits are required for backcountry camping. The permits may be purchased at the visitors centers at Bandy Creek and Blue Heron, or purchased through the park website. Prices vary by group size and groups larger than 24 people require special permission. The maximum length of stay is 14 days.
Most fatalities in the recreation area are caused by drowning. The white water in the Big South Fork of the Cumberland ranges from class I to class IV. Know your skill level and have a plan for emergencies. The river passes through some rough and remote terrain, rescue may take some time.
There are many cliffs within the park. Be careful around the cliff edges.
Black Bears are active throughout the recreation area. If venturing into the back country, familiarize yourself with bear safety and always securely store your food.
- Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
- Daniel Boone National Forest
- General Burnside Island State Park
- Lake Cumberland State Resort Park