Big South Fork Backpacking – John Muir Trail of Tennessee

Trip Length4 Days
Group Size4–8
Activity level
Starting from
$1,599 for REI Members
$1,759 for non-members
DeparturesApr 2024-Oct 2024

Spend 4 days backpacking through one of Tennessee’s best kept secrets: the Big South Fork backcountry.

Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is located high atop the portion of the Cumberland Plateau that protects the big south fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. We backpack deep into the park on the John Muir Trail—one of the most undiscovered and lesser traveled sections. Sandstone arches, natural bridges, deep river gorges, waterfalls and stunning overlooks are just a few of the wonders waiting in the Big South Fork backcountry. Through rugged and rewarding terrain our guides enhance the journey, helping us identify the diverse plant and animal life that inform the history of the park.

Learn how to set up camp with minimal environmental impact, brush up on the basics of packing light, and hone your backpacking skills with a great crew of fellow REI members. At the end of each day we share a hearty meal before falling asleep under a sky full of stars. This trip is an unforgettable opportunity to backpack in what is undeniably one of the most unique and uncharted landscapes in the eastern United States.

We backpack part of the Honey Creek Loop which is the most rugged terrain we encounter but the beauty is well worth it. Although relatively flat, creek crossings, ladders and some bouldering will be required.

Trip Highlights

  • View sandstone arches, natural bridges and grand river overlooks
  • Hike through hemlock cove forests where moss blankets the boulders
  • Visit the iconic rock shelters and high-roofed caves
  • Challenge yourself with rock scrambling, fixed ropes and ladders
  • Backpack twenty miles of Tennessee’s John Muir Trail
  • Professional guides lead the way and bring this majestic terrain to life

Activities

This trip is rated Vigorous [4]. We plan to hike for 6–8 hours per day most days on steep, rocky, overgrown and sometimes exposed terrain; covering distances of 5–12.5 miles daily with elevation gain and/or loss up to 1,550'. Day 3 involves some stairs and ladders, as well as large boulders that require 3-point contact and pack removal to descend. Participants will be carrying their own backpacks weighing 35–40 pounds. This is not a beginner backpacking trip. Previous experience is highly recommended. To maximize your enjoyment of the trip we suggest that you engage in a regular exercise regimen beginning at least three months prior to your departure. Most important to your enjoyment of the trip is your overall fitness level.

  • Backpacking

What's Included

Professional instruction and guiding; meals as noted on the daily itinerary; 1- and 2-person tents; group cooking gear; group first aid kit; water filter; campsite and permit fees; transportation as noted in the daily itinerary.

All operations are conducted under the commercial use authorization of A Walk in the Woods. A Walk in the Woods is an approved commercial use operation by the National Park Service.

Accommodations

Backcountry camping, 3 nights

Your Adventure Itinerary

Itinerary map for Big South Fork  Backpacking – John Muir Trail of Tennessee
Day 1

Shuttle to Big South Fork and hike to Twin Arches

Our adventure begins this morning in Knoxville, Tennessee, where we meet our guides and fellow travelers. Following a brief orientation, pack shake down and dispersal of group gear we hop in the van for a two-hour shuttle to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Once on the trail we pass the Twin Arches, one of the largest natural bridge formations in the world—one arch tops out at 103’ and the other at 62’. We also pass the historic Charit Creek Lodge and a 19th-century pioneer homestead owned by the Blevins family, known as Jake’s Place. Once we reach our campsite, we enjoy a hearty dinner and settle in for the night. Dinner included.

Backpacking: 4.9 miles, elevation gain/loss: +270’/ - 971’; Van transfer: 2 hours

Day 2

Hike south on the John Muir Trail of Tennessee

After a peaceful night's sleep and a trail breakfast, we break down camp following Leave No Trace principles and set out for another full day of adventure on the John Muir Trail. Named after the naturalist and conservationist, this trail commemorates his 1867 hike in this region. The terrain is quite rugged but it rewards us with views of the Big South Fork, tumbling waterfalls and rocky outcroppings. As we hike, our guides share their knowledge of the region’s history, verdant ecosystem and its wildlife—which includes white-tailed deer, black bear, elk, bobcat, gray fox, and more than 160 species of birds. We're actually much more likely to see critters of the four-legged variety than other hikers from here on out. We take in expansive views from rock outcroppings and may have a chance to see Angel Falls rapids when the trees are leafless in early spring and fall. Once we've made our creekside camp we enjoy a backcountry dinner. Breakfast and Dinner included.

Backpacking: 11.1 – 12.5 miles, elevation gain/loss: +1,550’/-1,400’, Terrain: Rugged—lots of ups and downs with rocky outcroppings

Day 3

Backpack part of the challenging Honey Creek Loop

Wake up to a hot beverage and breathe the fresh Big South Fork air. Our big hike today begins with a two-mile trek towards the road we need to cross to get back on the John Muir Trail heading southbound. Our trail today takes us just over 10 miles to our campsite in one of the most picturesque areas of the park. This part of the Honey Creek Loop may be the most rugged terrain we encounter but the views of waterfalls, rapids, and dramatic rock features make it all worth it. Hikers can expect creek crossings, ladders and some bouldering that requires the use of hands and knees. As the sun sets at camp, we relive the day’s adventures and relish our final evening in the Big South Fork backcountry. Breakfast and dinner included.

Backpacking: 6.6 – 7.6 miles, elevation gain/loss: +1,500’/-1,220’, Terrain: Natural rock tunnel with low ceiling; large boulders that require 3-point contact and pack removal to descend; some boulder scrambling; lots of ups and downs with rocky outcroppings

Day 4

Final hike in Big South Fork before returning to Knoxville

On our final day of backpacking we climb up a ridge and hike under pine and oak trees, taking in the lush, quiet forest. Our last two miles find us walking along a clear creek dotted with small beaches next to looming rock walls. Every spring, more than fifty varieties of native wildflowers bloom here. After many beautiful miles, we reach our pickup spot and bid farewell to Big South Fork before shuttling back to Knoxville. Breakfast included.

Backpacking 5.5 – 6.5 miles, elevation gain/loss: +900/-1,085’; Van transfer: 1.25 hours

Itinerary map for Big South Fork  Backpacking – John Muir Trail of Tennessee

Gear List

This gear list has been created to help you choose the best equipment for the trip. Try to bring only what is necessary, as this will help you and the field staff. The weather and other conditions at the time of your arrival will dictate what clothing and equipment you will be required to use each day and what (if anything) can be left behind. It may be a necessary precaution that you bring certain items on the list, even if it is uncertain whether or not they will be needed.

Already booked this trip? Sign into your online traveler profile for a more detailed list of what you'll need.

REI members can shop for gently used gear online or at most REI stores. Members can also trade in pre-loved used gear online or at any REI store in exchange for REI gift card credit. Check out Re/Supply at REI to learn more.

We provide

  • All Group Cooking Gear
  • Bear Canister
  • Group First Aid Kit
  • Large Plastic Garbage Bag
  • Stoves and Fuel
  • Tent(s)
  • Trekking Poles
  • Water Filter

What to pack

Contact Us

Feel free to give us a call at 1 (800) 622-2236 should you have any questions regarding the gear list. The staff at our stores and Direct Sales ( 1 (800) 426-4840 ) will also be happy to help you with gear questions. Or check out REI Expert Advice , which has great information to help you prepare for your trip.

Trip specifics may change over time. Reviews reflect the version of the trip that was active at the time the reviewer took it. Please review the itinerary as described above and call our team for any additional details.