Length | To Arches 1.4 miles | Loop 4.6 miles
The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is a true treasure within the National Park system. Although actively managed, a lot of effort is made to keep this 120,000 acre park, stretching from southeastern Kentucky into northeastern Tennessee, as primitive and wild as possible. This is one of several unique places in the lower 48 where pre settlement, natural conditions still exist. Its as if you are seeing a landscape that was seen by Native Americans.
Hiking to Twin Arches in Big South Fork was one of those, spur of the moment ideas I had while visiting Pickett CCC State Park. The two areas lie adjacent to one another, to the point of sharing the same main road. You could walk from Pickett State Forest into Big South Fork without ever noticing a difference. The plan was simple, drive into Big South Fork by turning off of Pickett Park Hwy, onto Divide Rd, and follow it a few miles until reaching Twin Arches Rd, and eventually the trailhead parking lot.
The first hint that things would get interesting, was the fact that there is absolutely ZERO cell service up here. They just recently started putting up cell towers in the area and the only provider has spotty service at best. After visiting the Rangers Station in Pickett State Park and getting some clear directions and a road map, I headed off for my “short drive”. Turns out that what I thought would be a quick 15 minute drive, turned into a 40 minute, almost 10 mile drive through mud and gravel back country roads.
The road is not even wide enough for two vehicles to pass in certain areas, so drivers have to get creative in order to pass one another. State Park Rangers were present along the route, clearing downed trees and filling in pot holes with giant tractors. Some of these water filled pot holes were so large that an entire tire would disappear into it. Although I only have an all wheel drive vehicle, we still managed to climb some of the steep hills, just taking it slow and avoiding bottoming out on some of the rougher terrain. Something I found fascinating about my route here, is the fact that it straddles the eastern and central time zone divide. Depending on where you are along the road, you could be either an hour ahead or an hour behind.
When we reached the Twin Arches Recreation Area, I was pleasantly surprised to find a pretty nice and modern picnicking area with large drum fire pit grills, as well as a pair of clean vault toilets. This area is remote yet accommodating to visitors. The trailhead for Twin Arches is at the end of the parking lot, just past the picnic area. If you just want to hike to the arches, its an easy 1.4 miles. To do the entire loop is a more moderate 4.6 miles.
One thing to note is the fact that you are surrounded by pure wilderness, complete with….. wild animals. Copperheads and Timber Rattlesnakes are known to inhabit this area, sometimes found sun bathing on one of the many rock outcroppings on the cliffs here. Another resident of the Big South Fork is the Black Bear…… and yes, we had a bear encounter on this trail, but more on that later.
The hard part of this trail is really just finding your way to the trailhead, so congratulations if you made it here. Hiking along the first quarter mile is pretty easy and straight forward. The views don’t start to open up until you reach the first set of steps climbing onto the wooded ridge. From here the trail leads to the edge of an exposed cliff with wide views of Hatchfield Ridge on your left, the Station Camp Creek Valley directly below, and Fork Ridge slightly off to your right.
If heights aren’t your thing, you’re going to hate the stairs here, they’re so steep that one has to lean back as they climb down. As you land back on solid ground, you’ll be relieved to know that you are now standing on the North Arch of Twin Arches. The ridge surrounding the arch is so densely wooded that its really hard to tell where you are, luckily I’ve visited A LOT of arches, so I caught on pretty quickly.
Strolling the path across North Arch takes you to another staircase leading down into the forest below. As you reach the final landing, the arch will magically appear on your left hand side. It is so massive that it looks as if it had to be created by people. How can something this large and symmetrically proportionate, have occurred naturally?
Weaker layers of sandstone form the base of the nearly vertical walls of this narrow ridge. The weathering of these erosion-susceptible layers caused sections the wall to fall away. forming shallow rock shelters on both sides of the ridge. The collapse and shelter enlarging process continued until two “windows” were formed. North Arch Spans 93 feet and has a height of 62 feet. South Arch, the larger of the two, has a height of 103 feet with a span of 135 feet. Few natural bridges in the world equal Twin Arches in size.
Take a walk back around the staircase you descended past the Charit Creek Lodge Trailhead, and just behind the thin veil of trees, is South Arch. Pictures really don’t do these marvels any justice. Small buildings could fit inside the span of this arch. Those boulders stacked neatly beside the far pillar are almost as big as my small suv. Something would be amiss for anyone visiting this place, to not be in complete awe.
Just at the far end, underneath that same pillar, are a series of cave passageways that lead to cliffs on the other side of the ridge. Getting my flashlight out to explore the largest cavern, I stepped several inside and came to a complete stop. I could hear something in there, but I wasn’t quite sure what it is that I was hearing. It could have been the wind passing through, but there was almost a heavy panting sound to it. As the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, I calmly walked backwards out of the cave and into the wide open.
At that point, my sense of adventure dissipated and all I wanted to do was get back to the parking lot. For whatever reason, we chose to take the lower trail along the base of the cliff back, as opposed to climbing the steps onto North Arch. Walking along this path, you get to see these enormous rock shelters all along the face of the cliff. It brought to mind how early Natives used these natural shelters as homes before settling into agrarian communities. Especially the ones high above ground, where predators would have a harder time reaching them.
As I’m caught in mid daydream, something crashes through the forest just below us and bolts through the trees away from us. The sound was enough to make us all jump into fight or flight mode. looking in the direction of the noise, we can see the rear end of a black bear as it scurries away. While scanning the brush below us, we spot another large black bear, seemingly unaware or unamused by our presence. As we stood still and watched, the bear calmly poked around, picking through the leaf mulch in search of something to eat. Within several minutes, it had wandered out of sight.
While making as much noise as possible singing, “Bear bear go away, come again another day”, we rushed along the rest of the short trail until reaching the stairs going back up onto the parking lot ridge top. At the very top of the steps stood a State Park Ranger, performing maintenance duties along the trail. We told him of our encounter with the black bears and he laughed a bit as he explained how the bears are just coming out of hibernation and merely searching for food. As long as one gives it a wide berth of space to roam, bears tend to leave people alone, if not run away at the sight of them.
Form me, it had been another bucket list experience marked off the list, to see a black bear in the wild. Several years back while visiting Grand Teton National Park and Glacier National Park, I had two surprise encounters with grizzlies while hiking. This was a little different, this time I had the opportunity to share the experience with my kids. To be scared, stunned, and ultimately excited to witness something most people never get a chance to, and to see their expressions, was well….. priceless. I have a lot of respect for wildlife while I’m out on the trails. I understand that when I’m out here, I’m no longer the top predator, they are. It helps to put things into perspective. As John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks."