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Big South Fork home of twin mammoths

Johnny Molloy • Mar 24, 2012 at 10:52 AM

Situated on the Tennessee half of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (we share it with Kentucky), the Twin Arches are one of the most fascinating geological features on the Cumberland Plateau.

Generally considered to be the biggest natural bridge in the East, these two arches, located side by side, will meet your high expectations. But this isn’t the only highlight on this 4.8-mile loop hike.

Beyond the Twin Arches you will descend to Charit Creek, and the Charit Creek Lodge, where visitors can overnight in rustic wood buildings. The loop then travels up Middle Creek by the old Tackett homesite, marked by a small grave and chimney. At the confluence of Mill Creek, Middle Creek and Andy Creek you will come to Jake’s Place, another historic homestead from the 1800s.

Leave Jake’s Place to come along an amazing cliff line that has numerous bluffs and rock houses that will draw your attention. The loop then circles back under the Twin Arches, which deserve a second viewing, before returning to the trailhead.

The paths are well marked and well maintained. Elevation changes are gradual. The only difficulties may be found as you pass along the base of rock shelters on the latter part of the loop, where boulders and rocks make the trail a tad rough.

The trailhead has a small picnic area and restrooms. Join the hiker-only Twin Arches Trail, descending southeasterly in a dry oak forest with blueberries and mountain laurel. Sidle along the edge of a bluff to reach a trail split after a quarter mile. Stay straight, as your return route leaves left. Obscured views open into the valley below. Ahead, stairs lead over a rock bluff. A view opens of the Station Camp Creek valley below.

Unbeknownst to the first-time hiker, you are actually standing atop the sandstone deck of the Twin Arches, partially wooded with gnarly pines. Travel stairs off the Twin Arches to reach a junction at .4 mile. Now, explore the arches. Their sheer size is amazing.

The South Arch is the largest, over 100 feet across and 70 feet wide, with a sturdy bulk to it, not slender at all, even though it retains a classic arch shape. The North Arch is over 60 feet high and 50 feet wide and also has a classic arch shape. The side-by-side arches are part of the same ridge line that you were just atop. Take your time to walk under both arches and observe them from different vantages.

You will return to the arches later, but to continue the loop head toward Charit Creek Lodge, descending by switchbacks under beech and sugar maple. At 1.1 miles, come alongside Charit Creek in a rich wildflower area. Reach a major trail junction and Charit Creek Lodge at 1.4 miles. The rustic lodge, which operates without electricity, offers overnight accommodations and food. For information about lodging, visit www.charitcreeklodge.com.

The lodge and trails down Station Camp Creek and up to Hatfield Ridge are left across a bridge over Charit Creek. Keep right on a wide track, following the signs for the Twin Arches Loop. At 1.5 miles, a hiker-only trail leaves left on a suspension bridge over Station Camp Creek. Not far ahead you reach the Tackett homesite, marked by a crumbled chimney and a grave. Beyond the Tackett homesite watch for big hemlock, sycamore and beech trees in the streamside flats.

At 1.7 miles, the Twin Arches Loop splits right as a single-track path, as the wide Charit Creek Horse Trail leaves left. Continue up deep moist woods, ironically agriculture fields a century ago. Look for piled stones that were cleared from the fields. Short-leaf pines and tulip trees rise where corn once grew. Bridge Andy Creek and make a trail junction at 2.5 miles.

A connector trail leads left to Slave Falls, while the Twin Arches Loop curves right, passing a campsite and entering the remaining fields of Jake’s Place, a homesite occupied by Jacob Blevins Jr. and his family in the 1880s. Buildings from here were moved to the nearby lodge. Daffodils still come up in the springtime. The Blevinses must’ve visited the Twin Arches.

The hike continues upstream along Andy Creek amid cedars, crossing the stream at 2.7 miles. Ascend by switchbacks between huge mossy boulders, stepping over a beech-bordered tributary of Andy Creek at 3.0 miles.

The trail circles around a dry ridge, then joins a cliff line. The geological adventure resumes. Come along the first of numerous rock houses, scattered boulders and tall bluffs. Your footsteps will echo off the walls. Split a gap at 3.8 miles, then curve along the west side of the ridgeline of the Twin Arches, passing under the North Arch at 4.2 miles. Follow the sign for the parking area, now along the same cliff line of Twin Arches, except on the east side. Reach steep steps to gain the top of the Twin Arches ridge and backtrack to the parking area, completing the hike at 4.8 miles.

From Johnson City, drive to Knoxville then take I-75 north and on to Oneida. From Oneida take Tenn. 297 to Tenn. 154. Turn right on Tenn. 154 north and follow it to Middle Creek Road. Turn right on Middle Creek Road and follow it for 4.0 miles to Twin Arches Road. Turn right on Twin Arches Road and follow it 2.1 miles to a dead end at the trailhead. The major turns are signed, especially once you reach the federal recreation area. For more information about the Big South Fork, visit www.nps.gov/biso.

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