Off the Beaten Path: Big South Fork

Patti and Tom Burkett

We’ve often spent time at the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Green River, which runs through the park (see interactive map below), is great for swimming, fishing, and paddling.  There’s a restored mining settlement, an excellent interactive historical display, and an annual festival that celebrates mountain culture with first-rate music and storytelling.  You can also climb around on a huge old coal tipple and see how it worked.

Not too far away from the Big South Fork is Pickett State Park and Forest.  Pickett is tranquil and quiet, and it’s home to Hazard Cave.  In the late spring and early summer, you can take a hike to the cave at dusk, arriving at dark, and step inside to see some amazing animals.

The cave seems to sparkle with the stars of a night sky thanks to thousands of beatle larvae commonly called glow worms.  Unlike stars and fireflies, they don’t flash, but glow steadily.  Call the park for updates near the time. There are ranger-led walks, but if your schedule doesn’t match you can also go on your own.  Be sure to have a flashlight or headlamp for the walk back along the trail in the dark.

Glow worms are found in only a handful of places around the world.  Many folks spend lots of money to visit the famous Waitomo Glowworm caves in New Zealand.  While the caves in Kentucky aren’t quite as spectacular, they’re a lot easier to get to, and you can camp within walking distance.  Kentucky cave worms are one of several phenomena that only occur at a certain time of the year, so we keep a travel calendar with such events scheduled to recur annually.

When we’re planning a trip, we consult the calendar and try to make our route match one or more of the time-limited attractions.