We Southerners share a deep pride in the glories of our land. We regard the Smokies as our home mountains. We claim the Everglades as our own wetland wonder. The Mississippi, that sprawling giant, courses along a storied route through our heartland and our history. Far fewer among us, though, realize that our region possesses another landscape marvel, just as fantastic but far less celebrated. The South's arch country is a geological rarity, a surprising jewel of nature's careful creation.
Known as the Northern Cumberland Plateau, this upland region slants through north Tennessee northeastward into Kentucky. Part of a tableland laid down by ancient seas, then lifted up during the uneasy ages of our Earth, it appears today as anything but the level bed of an ocean floor. Blanketed with thick forest and cut through by a web of streams, creeks, and rivers, the area features some of the most astounding gorges and dramatic formations in the entire Eastern United States. Here, the plateau boasts more natural arches than any place outside the famed arch land of Utah, and the best time to study these wonders is when winter has stripped the trees of their leaves and laid bare the surrounding vistas. Follow us to some of the area's best and most accessible sites.
Two for One
The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area contains a number of arches across its 100,000-plus acres in Tennessee and Kentucky. Best known among them are the Twin Arches near Jamestown, Tennessee. Located less than a mile from a trailhead off the unpaved Twin Arches Road in the western part of the park, the two stand end to end, carved from the same narrow finger of mountain ridge and crafted by the same headward erosion. Rainwater, pouring off both sides of the ridge's more resistant sandstone cap, splashed into the softer stone below. Aided by wind and ice in cold weather, water gradually pierced its way through, fashioning an ever-larger opening.
The results are spectacular, especially at this time of year, when the arches grace the ridge like a crown. The nearly perfect South Arch, larger by almost half than its neighboring North Arch, arcs to a height of 70 feet and covers a span of more than 135 feet. In the sandy soil around its base lie massive boulders, including some car-size pieces of rock chiseled off by the elements, a solid reminder of the ongoing process.
Still at Work
Nowhere are the lessons of geology more visible than at Split Bow Arch, located on the east side of the recreation area near Stearns, Kentucky. Here, a seasonal stream fed by a waterfall flows directly under the arch's 51-foot span. Wooden steps also climb through the gaping opening, affording an unusual vantage point within its 33 ½-foot height.
Split Bow was formed when similar flows spilled through a crack in the once-solid ridge. Over time, the water widened a joint in the rock until it split off the arch, leaving it a high, thin bridge of stone, almost obscured by tall trees.
The Split Bow Arch Loop Trail begins at the Bear Creek Overlook parking area, less than a mile from the arch, and winds alongside the ridge. During winter, long dagger-like icicles persistently cling to the rock cliff, securely shadowed from the weak sunlight. Here, along the sandstone wall, the effects of weathering have produced what look like decorative medallions sculpted freehand by an artist--a small-scale example of nature's continuing efforts.