Rocky Fork State Park (11-11-18)
Rocky Fork State Park is a 2,036-acre piece of public land located in the rugged hills of Unicoi County in northeastern Tennessee. Situated right inside the state line the park is bounded by the venerable Appalachian Trail atop the high ridges to the west while Cherokee National Forest surrounds it to the north and south. The park encompasses a landscape of steep ridges, narrow gorges, and deep forests as well as a significant historical site dating back to the Chickamauga Wars of the 1780's. The park is relatively new, formed in 2012, and it wasn't until the last couple years that the trail system and access to the park saw significant improvement. As such Rocky Fork remains relatively undiscovered though, located as it is just off I-26 midway between Asheville and Johnson City, I doubt it will stay that way for long. In the coming years I'm certain that the many natural wonders of the park will continue to draw more and more people as word of its existence grows. If for any other reason this is why I decided to finally make my way over and make my first visit.
So the plan for the day would be this...I'd make a comfortably long 10-mile loop through the interior of the park stopping by along the way at the Flint Creek Battle Site and the parks most well-known natural attraction, the Whitehouse Cliffs. The starting point for the hike would be at the new parking lot off Rocky Fork Road. This is the primary access point for the State Park. From the parking lot an old logging road, now designated the Rocky Fork Trail and open for foot travel only, leads into the interior. The pathway follows Rocky Fork closely for the first mile and climbs very gently. This would be a wonderfully easy stretch of trail if one just wanted to get out for a short stroll in the woods. The river is incredibly pretty as well as it tumbles its way over numerous cascades through the deep gorge. The Rocky Fork Trail passes the spur to Whitehouse Cliffs about 3/4-mile in and then, shortly thereafter, ends at a large opening where the loop portion of my hike would begin. I'd travel the loop in a clockwise direction, bearing left at the junction onto the Flint Creek Trail. The path ascends gently as it continues to follow Rocky Fork a short distance before making a crossing at a new footbridge and then heading up the valley of Flint Creek. At a point just after the first crossing of Flint Creek, a bit over a mile from the trailhead, the path comes alongside a large open field. This is the site of the Battle of Flint Creek. The struggle which took place here was part of the Chickamauga War in which native Cherokee were fighting against encroachment by settlers moving into Tennessee from the east. The fight took place on January 10, 1789 when a large force of militia under the command of John Sevier attacked an encampment of Cherokee. It was a terrible loss for the Cherokee, who lost around 145 men. The militia force only lost five in the rout. Unfortunately there are no interpretive signs to denote the site (hopefully that is remedied in the future) but the setting remains as wild as it was over 200 years ago which goes a long way in allowing you to form a mental picture of what once happened here.
Beyond the battle site the Flint Creek Trail continues to climb gently and makes numerous crossings of its namesake stream. At a point about 3/4-miles above the battle site I made a turn onto the Blockstand Creek Access Trail which would, for the first time, take me up out of the river valleys and onto the high ridges surrounding them. The path follows another old logging road as it makes a moderately steep v-shaped ascent of Snakeden Ridge before connecting with the Blockstand Creek Trail a mile later. Turning right onto the Blockstand Creek Trail I now was headed into the truly wild heart of the park. For the next three miles I'd be following a route high above the valley of Rocky Fork as the path winds its way through many small drainages and around numerous ridges. It's a fairly uneventful stretch of trail but the wildness of landscape is wonderful to experience...as are fleeting views through the trees of surrounding ridgelines above and deep valleys below. At a point just above where the trail once again crosses Rocky Fork it takes on a new name, the Headwaters Trail, and turns back easterly as it bounces its way along the northern slopes of the Rocky Fork gorge. A mile later the trail becomes the White Oak Flats Trail which, just before dropping into the drainage of Long Branch, passes a small but beautiful overlook of the cliffs and hills to the southeast...including the Whitehouse Cliffs, which is where this trek was headed next.
Reaching the end of the White Oak Flats Trail I closed the loop portion of the hike and retraced by steps back down the Rocky Fork Trail a few hundred feet to where the Whitehouse Cliffs Trail switches back into the woods above. This trail, though only seven-tenths of a mile long, is by far the toughest part of this hike. From Rocky Fork the path climbs nearly 800-feet to the overlook at the summit...and this isn't a trail that bothers with things like switchbacks, it just goes straight up. The higher it gets, the rougher it gets as well. By the time the path reaches the narrow summit ridge it's picking its way among boulders of all shapes and sizes. The reward for the effort though...spectacular. The summit is partially wooded but incredible views are still to be had. Across the gorge to the south is Flint Mountain. To the west the view looks up the steep valleys of Rocky Fork and Flint Creek, into the heart of the park, towards the high peaks along the state line. To the east Interstate-26 can be seen climbing to Sam's Gap with the towering Unaka Mountains beyond. It's a grandstand view of incredible majesty and, I thought, the perfect place to finish up my visit to this remarkable State Park. After enjoying the view it was time to carefully pick my way back down to the valley floor and make the easy stroll from there back to the car.
My first visit to Rocky Fork State Park was therefore a complete success. Even though the most visually stimulating portion of the hike wasn't until the end, I still thoroughly enjoyed the simple pleasures of a stroll through the deep woods. A bit of history along the way also helped the experience. I can certainly see the potential of this park. It has something for everyone. It's remote but not too far off the highway. It offers strenuous mountaintop trails but also wide and gentle stream-side paths. It's a park I'm sure will continue to become more popular, and it will do so deservedly. I'm happy I had the opportunity to visit early on and will be interested to see what the future holds for this remarkable park. So, without further adieu, I present to you the incredible Rocky Fork State Park of Tennessee...as always ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 36.048599, -82.557724
Route Type: Loop + spur Difficulty: HARD
Hike Length: 10.2 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 35'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 2,380' Max. Elevation: 3,350'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,800' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 177'
Trails Used (blaze color): Blockstand Creek (blue), Blockstand Creek Access (orange), Flint Creek (green), Headwaters (blue), Rocky Fork (red), Whitehouse Cliffs (white), White Oak Flats (orange)