by Angie J. Mayfield, Loogootee, Idaho
Tennessee is a beautiful state, especially in the mountains when the leaves are changing colors and the air is perfect for a warm campfire. I physically mourned when I heard the gorgeous Gatlinburg area was on fire. As a kid that was our annual family vacation, and I have so many fond memories of the mountains and wildlife there.
Another gorgeous area of Tennessee not, affected by the fires, lies further north, bordering Kentucky, and that is the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. It encompasses 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau and surrounds the free-flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. With miles of scenic gorges and sandstone bluffs, there is a wide range of equine trails and other outdoor recreational activities. Rich with natural and historic features, it’s a great place to pack up the family and the long ears and spend a weekend or a week.
There’s a lodge and several equine campgrounds in the Jamestown and Oneida, TN areas of Big South Fork. The first time we went we stayed at True West, which was very nice, but I must admit as an extreme trail rider I was a little disappointed at the wide, road-like trails. However, our November trip this year gave me a whole new appreciation for South Fork. This time we stayed at Honey Creek Campground, about 30 minutes north of Jamestown near Allardt. More secluded but with a bunkhouse, a clean, roomy shower house, and numerous stalls and electric campsites, we were impressed. And the owners are sweethearts who were so helpful and friendly. We even met some great mule Facebook friends from Nashville, Debra and Wilbur Brooks, who came over to visit, sit around the campfire, and listen to Tucker play the banjo.
The trails, however, really won me over to the Honey Creek area. The camp connects to 150 miles of scenic equestrian trails that vary from easy to OMG! We loved it. One trail was literally named the “Oh Sh**” trail, and some rock hopping was required. Little Tucker was with us, and he managed the trail fine, except when he lost his toy pistol and was quite upset. But we ended up finding it and then he was back to having a blast on his little mule, Booger.
Many of the trails out of Honey Creek run along the beautiful winding White Oak River. The White Oak runs along the old O&W Railroad bed, which served the old mining and timber camps in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, and has since been turned into part of the park's equestrian trail system. After a firm swat on the rear, we convinced the mules to cross the old O&W railroad bridge over the river. It was quite exhilarating and great practice for our upcoming adventure to the Grand Canyon with our mules in March.
Friday it was 73 degrees and sunny. Saturday it was 42 degrees and cloudy. And I thought 30 degree changes only occurred in Indiana! Thankfully I had packed our long underwear, gloves, and hats. The cold front didn’t stop us from riding 20 miles Saturday, making a big loop along the scenic overlooks and then following the river. Then we explored some of the more adventurous trails on the way back to camp, barely making it in by dark. Fortunately, it didn’t rain as predicted. The outcroppings, giant boulders in the river, and various flora from holly bushes and mountain laurel to pines and hardwoods were breathtaking and distracted us from the cold wind. Most of the trails were covered with a layer of colorful leaves or pine needles, and we didn’t see a soul on the trails all weekend. It was magical and one of the most relaxing weekends I’ve had in awhile. And oh, how good that campfire felt after the ride.
Our trip reminded me never to let a first impression of a place be my last one. Big South Fork is definitely on our annual trip list now. It’s not far from home but offers great trails, scenery, and camps for all types of mule riders. There are also plenty of gravel roads and fire trails around to bring your wagons so we plan to bring our mini mule and cart next time. We’re going to spend a few days at Honey Creek and then drive down and ride at Cades Cove next year. My New Year’s resolution is to trail ride as many miles and visit as many places as I can, including the final two states in the U.S. I haven’t ridden in. So many trails, so little time!
Angie J. Mayfield is an author, professor, and columnist for three magazines who has ridden in 48 states and six countries on her mules and logged more than 6,000 trail miles just since she started keeping track in 1999.
View from the O&W railroad bridge at Big South Fork
Doug, Tucker, and mules at the Double Arches near Honey Creek Campground