Tennessee’s newest state park isn’t in the Cumberland Mountains, so it might seem a bit weird to profile it here, given this site’s focus. But Rocky Fork State Park, the newest addition to Tennessee’s park system, isn’t your typical state park. Located on the western side of the Blue Ridge Province above Johnson City, TN, the peaks encompassing Rocky Fork form some of the last places where elevations top out above 4,000 feet when moving north from the crest of the Blue Ridge towards the heights of the Cumberlands some 40-60 miles away. Nestled within these peaks is the Rocky Fork Watershed – a rugged, wild drainage that forms one of the most unique conservation properties in the East.
Rocky Fork wasn’t always a protected area, though. Far from it. Throughout its diverse and varied history, the Rocky Fork drainage has been home to farming, logging and proposed residential development. In the late 1700s, the valley even played host to a vicious battle between Colonel John Sevier (who would later become Tennessee’s first governor) and the Creek and Cherokee Indians in a snow-covered flat nestled deep within the watershed, a battle that ended with an estimated 150 dead.
It’s this history – and a remarkable amount of biodiversity – that led to Rocky Fork’s eventual protection as a state park in 2012. Prior to that time, a huge network of government agencies, nonprofit groups, and motivated individuals worked to protect the nearly 2,000 acres forming the state park and its surrounding region permanently. The tract contains an astounding collection of rare species and habitats, from nesting peregrine falcons to rare plants, salamanders, and wetlands. Lurking in the shadows are a high concentration of black bears, thanks to the tract’s status as a formal black bear preserve. And to top it all off, Rocky Fork itself is a top-notch trout stream with virtually pristine water quality.
Trails in the tract are currently unblazed and primitive, and hike options will likely change as the park develops…meaning that we won’t be providing explicit details on hikes within the park here. More information, though, can be found at the park website and several great local online hiking sources. Even if you don’t visit in person, it’s worth just reading up on the tract’s history, since one of the most significant conservation lands in the southern and central Appalachians sits right in our backyard.