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Trail Guides

Sawmill Trailhead To Slave Falls & Needle Arch, Big South Fork N.R.R.A., Tennessee

Guide to hiking the Sawmill trail to slave falls and needle arch in big south fork Tennessee


Hiking to Slave Falls and Needle Arch along the Sawmill Trail is one of the quintessential day hikes within the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. At a little over 1.5 miles, this easy out and back trail can also be turned into a much more strenuous 4.5 mile loop, taking up a brisk two hours to complete. Located amidst the Cumberland Plateau on the Tennessee and Kentucky state line, the Big South Fork is one of the most scenic wilderness areas in the Eastern United States. All 125,000 acres of this National Park Service property are an adventurers playground filled with hundreds of towering rock shelters, waterfalls, and arches just begging to be explored. 

Sawmill Trailhead to Slave Falls | 1.5 Miles

Slave Falls to Needle Arch | 0.5 Miles

Big South Fork Trail Map 

Sawmill Trailhead Location | Google Maps

Having ventured into the West Side of the Big South Fork on numerous occasions, I’m always excited to explore a new trail and discover what hidden gems it holds. While most of the landmarks here are unofficial and cannot be found on any map, there are three located in this section of the park that are; Twin Arches, Slave Falls, and Needle Arch. The Twin Arches Loop is one of the most visited trails in all of the Big South Fork and one I explored, stumbling into a group of black bears, last fall. This time around we’ll be heading just south of the Twin Arches to the Sawmill Trailhead.


Sawmill trailhead hike to slave falls and needle arch in big south fork of Tennessee

To reach this trailhead, I drove south along Pickett Park Highway, just past Pickett State Park and hung a LEFT onto Divide Road. This gravel road is the lifeline of the West Side of the Big South Fork , extending all the way to the Yamacraw Section of the park into Kentucky. Once on Divide Road, drive straight past the Middle Creek Trailhead, turn RIGHT onto Fork Ridge Road and follow the signs to Sawmill. After roughly a 2 mile drive, you’ll see the Sawmill Trailhead parking lot on the LEFT. Despite having spotty service in this area, I was able to lock in the trailhead using my GPS Map and had no issues finding it. Another important thing to note here is that cell phone service is spotty at best if not totally non existent. Don’t rely on your cell phone to look at a map. Stop by the Pickett State Park Visitors Center and grab a physical copy and speak to a ranger while you’re there. Please make sure that when venturing out into a wilderness area, you leave a detailed itinerary of where you’ll be and what trails you’ll be hiking with someone else, in case of an emergency.


Blooming rhododendrons along sawmill trail to slave falls and needle arch in big south fork of Tennessee

From the start of the Sawmill Trailhead, Slave Falls is an easy 1.5 miles away and Needle Arch is another 0.2 miles past that. With it being mid summer, there’s no guarantee that the falls will be more than just a trickle. To help even out my odds of seeing a good flow, I picked a week with scattered rain showers as the most ideal time to visit. The primordial forests of the Big South Fork take on a whole other aura under the dim light of an overcast sky. These forests are ancient, spanning back to when the waters of a shallow sea that once covered this region began receding some 300 million years ago. Rhododendrons, forming thickets as big as a small house, fill the air with the sweet scent one can only find while hiking in the south. The first two weeks in July are prime blooming season for this plant and the large white flowers are everywhere.


Crossing bridge along sawmill trail to slave falls and needle arch in big south fork of Tennessee

The dappled rays of sunshine streaming through the thick canopy of white pine and mountain laurel are heating up the forest floor just enough to create a light, eerie fog. With the distinct smell of moss, decaying pine needles, and sweet scent of rhododendron blooms floating through the air, one can’t help but fall in love with this place. After a few twists and turns, I approach a small wooden bridge spanning a meandering creek. Looking down into the sandy embankment, I spot what look like a few dog tracks, but nothing out of the ordinary. I’m always on the lookout when I venture into the Big South Fork as black bears are common in this area, so make sure to make your presence known by hollering out every once in a while. A scared bear is a dangerous bear so as long as they hear you coming, they will have enough time to scurry out of the way. 


Slave falls loop to needle arch in big south fork of Tennessee

Our path begins a short, but steep uphill ascent out of the wet upland forest and onto the dry ridges where the sun is shining bright. The thin and rocky soil of these ridges are the perfect home for the thickets of wild blueberries on either side of us. It’s not long before we are headed back down beneath the forests canopy and onto the intersection for the Slave Falls Loop. So theres a lot of confusion when searching for details about this hike on the internet as far as “Whats the Slave Falls Loop?” Thats because there are 2 Loops associated with this trail. The Main Loop most people think of is the one that begins at Sawmill Trailhead, does the short spur to Slave Falls and Needle Arch, and then doubles back to take the 1.6 mile Indian Rock House Trail  to a local landmark known as Hippie Cave, and finally back to the parking lot for a total of 4.2 miles. 


Caves and rock shelter along slave falls loop to needle arch in big south fork of Tennessee

The second loop is much smaller at only about 0.75 miles continuing past Slave Falls, hops onto part of the Twin Arches Loop, and doubles back towards Needle Arch and the way you hiked in from the parking lot. This second, much smaller loop is the one we are trekking on today. While Slave Falls is only 0.3 miles from the start of this smaller loop, it’ll take a while to get there because you’ll probably get stuck exploring the plethora of cliff overhangs and rock shelters along the way. At one point early on this loop the trail appears to be heading into a black cavernous hole, when suddenly you emerge out of a thicket and onto the base of an expansive cliff carved out with numerous small caves. 


Caves and rock shelters along slave falls waterfall loop to needle arch in Tennessee

The entire ridge above us is leaking with tiny waterfalls from all of the precipitation the area has experienced this week. It’s hard not to feel like a modern day Indiana Jones while you’re ducking in and out of the various caverns, inspecting every fine little detail. Archeological digs throughout the Big South Fork reveal that most of the landscape surrounding the river gorge was uninhabitable due to its rugged terrain, but was in fact used as a massive game preserve in prehistoric times spanning back thousands of years. Instead of setting up large settlements, prehistoric Native Americans would use these same rock shelters as small camps during their hunting expeditions that would range from a few days to several weeks. While most of the land encompassing the Big South Fork was inhabited by a nation comprising 7 different tribes, this particular area was home to the Cherokee. The U.S. Government took control of this part of Pickett\Fentress County during the Tennessee Native Land Cessions that spanned between 1784-1894.

Slave falls waterfall in big south fork of Tennessee

Squeezing through a narrow passage tucked between two sandstone bluffs, the trail descends into the hidden cove containing Slave Falls. Even if you don’t see it, you’ll definitely be able to hear this 60 foot waterfall splashing even with a light flow. Thats because it emanates from one of the deepest cave overhangs found within the Big South Fork, which acts as a giant loud speaker projecting even the slightest sounds. Our path splits off in front of us with and we head on over to the overlook right in front of this beautiful waterfall. A wood railing guards guests from wandering too close to the rim of this over sized rock shelter, which has a steep drop hidden by overgrown brush.


Slave falls waterfall trail in big south fork of Tennessee

As the name suggests, the alcoves surrounding of Slave Falls were once used to hide slaves fleeing from captivity in Tennessee, into the neutral state of Kentucky. With the lands of the Big South Fork barren of any profitable industry, most of its residents were poor subsistence farmers whom had more in common with enslaved folks than they did with rich plantation owners. This led to a small and largely forgotten “Underground Railroad” through the rugged and inhospitable terrain of the Big South Fork that helped free slaves whom would one day return to shape the land of this park. The NPS website has a great article titled, “Invisible People”, which details some of this early history. 


Needle arch landmark along sawmill trail in big south fork of Tennessee

After enjoying a long chat with some of the other hikers picnicking at the falls overlook, I began to backtrack my way to the start of the Slave Falls spur trail to commence my journey to Needle Arch. Once back to this point, it’s a 0.2 uphill hike to the clearing containing this natural landmark. Arches of various sizes can be found throughout the Big South Fork, but only 8 of them have hiking trails leading to them. Needle arch is a thin , delicate arch that was left standing alone when the back of a rock shelter, of which it was once a part of eroded. Theres very little information about this arch so I could only guess at its height and length. This is easily one of the most photogenic arches I’ve visited. With such a dainty and perfectly shaped bridge, I could spend an entire afternoon thinking of different ways to shoot it. 

Needle arch landmark along slave falls loop in big south fork of Tennessee

Plans to continue onward to another hidden arch another .25 mile away named Mill Creek Arch were spoiled by the sudden sound of thunder in the distance. This was my chance to scurry back to my car before the onslaught of a coming thunderstorm. With that in mind I skipped completing the loop, visiting Indian Rock House\Hippie Cave, and just headed back along the Sawmill Trail the way I came in. For those of you with extra time, I highly encourage hiking the entire loop and doing some research to locate a few of the unofficial arches in this particular area.


Needle arch landmark along slave falls loop in big south fork of Tennessee

Up next, I’ll be heading across the road, Pickett Park Highway to be exact, to Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area. This 3,000 acre property is one of my absolute favorite places to visit whenever I’m in this part of Tennessee and on a previous visit I hiked the Overlook Trail to an awe inspiring overlook at the top of the canyon. An often overlooked gem, Pogue Creek Canyon has it all; waterfalls, breathtaking canyon vistas, massive rock shelters, and of course arches. On this trip, I’ll be hiking the Mesa Top Trail to another incredible overlook and finishing off my visit on the  Upper Canyon Trail to see Killdeer Arch. Stay tuned for this upcoming article and until next time, see y’all on the trails!


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