Down in a valley near Jamestown, Tennessee, we round a bend in the middle of the woods. My family's eyes grow wide at the rough-hewn lodge sitting by a gin-clear stream. "Hungry?" I say. "They're expecting us."
We lunch inside Charit Creek Lodge, where barbecue beef and homemade yeast rolls cook over kerosene. Delicious Ranger cookies, full of chocolate chips and raisins, await for dessert. Like its sister resort, LeConte Lodge in the Smokies, this 1814 lodge serves up hospitality unplugged.
It's a bluebird day, and there should be a crowd, but the crowds don't know about the Big South Fork. That river gave this land a shape and a name, carving sandstone arches and a yawning gorge.
The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area lies more than off the beaten path. It's off the radar of most Tennesseans―and certainly most Southerners. Yet it's one of the prettiest places in the state. Rangers from the Smokies vacation here. Straddling the Kentucky state line, about three hours from Nashville, it's not as remote as it seems.
View From a Horse
Our sure-footed steeds carry us into the gorge, a sandstone chasm 500 feet deep. The horses pause to drink from a stream and then rest as we break atop a boulder for lunch. We climb our way to the summit for a photo.
The guided half-day ride proves a fine way to cover a lot of ground and drink in the landscape. With hundreds of miles of trails, this is one of the region's top riding destinations. Our outfitter, Southeast Pack Trips, shows off the area's highlights on two-hour rides and custom backcountry camping trips.
Cabin in the Woods Our rental cabin at Laurel Fork Rustic Retreat sits just minutes from the park, but we're tucked in the woods, no neighbors in sight. This is twice the place we'd get for our dollar in the Smokies. Three bedrooms, a game room, two fireplaces, and a wraparound deck―what more do we need?
Twilight. On the deck, we set an outdoor table for supper and while away hours of family time playing Ping-Pong and pool,watching movies, and counting stars from the bubbling hot tub. Hours stretch out. Life is fine.
Need To Know
Charit Creek Lodge: Accessible by 0.8-mile Charit Creek trail or 1.7-mile Twin Arches trail (preferred). Overnight bunk-style stays cost $64.50 with dinner and breakfast; lunch $8 (reservations required). www.charitcreek.com or (865) 429-5704.
Southeast Pack Trips: Half-day rides for $95, all-day rides for $150. www.southeastpacktrips.com or (931) 879-2260.
Laurel Fork Rustic Retreat: Deluxe cabins starting at $125 a night. Pets allowed in some units for $25 extra per pet. www.laurelfork.com or (423) 286-5135.
"Tennessee's Secret Outdoors" is from the July 2008 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.