Rocky Fork: Carving Through the Appalachians

Follow along with outdoorsman and writer Johnny Molloy as he treks through the mountains of Northeast Tennessee.

Close to the Appalachian Trail lies one of Tennessee’s newer state parks. Overlooking both Tennessee and North Carolina in the Cherokee National Forest, this magical land has a history just as dominant as the views, hikes, and the people that stood for it.

 History of Rocky Fork 

Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park is a 2,076-acre oasis carved out of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The land was part of a former logging operation, and by the early 2000s, the largest single parcel of privately-held, undeveloped land left in the entire Southern Appalachian area. 

In 2005, a large-scale housing development was planned for Rocky Fork. Local residents, along with a host of conservation groups spearheaded by Unicoi County native David Ramsey, banded together to save Rocky Fork. U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander joined the effort and took political action. Ultimately, the tract was deeded to the Cherokee National Forest, as well as the area that is now Rocky Fork State Park.

The Trails

Today at Rocky Fork, you’ll find native trout fin through its clear-as-air streams, bears roaming the wooded ridges, as attendant flora and fauna continue to thrive. For hikers, the trails can be both strenuous and relaxing, with a mix of old logging roads and newer pathways coursing throughout the mountain terrain. The state park also offers backcountry campsites.

Whitehouse Cliffs

The Whitehouse Cliffs have been a long-time destination for Rocky Fork enthusiasts. The white outcrops can be seen from I-26. The 2.2 mile out and back hike works up 970 feet across the south side of the knob from which the cliffs fall away. Tulip, oak, preserved hemlocks, and white pine trees border the rising path. You can even hear Rocky Fork Creek charging downstream below. 

The Views

Switchbacks lead you to the top of Whitehouse Cliffs, reaching the top at one mile. Mountain vistas take over the horizon, and you can look directly up the vale of Rocky Fork to Coldspring Mountain and the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. To the northwest, Buzzard Rock stands white, Rich Mountain defines the drainage of Rocky Fork, and the anvil shape of Flint Mountain rises proudly across the Fork. To the southeast, the length of I-26 stands out, and you can see where it hits North Carolina at Sams Gap. The grassy ridge of Big Bald can be seen from across the interstate. To the northeast, the dark mantle of Unaka Mountain stands.

Leave No Trace

Remember to leave our trails with no trace, so adventures can last a lifetime. Find out how you can make a difference with our leaders for litter-free Tennessee efforts.

Johnny Molloy is the author of many outdoor guides including Best Tent Camping: Tennessee, Paddling Tennessee, and Five Star Trails Tri-Cities: East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.