With the days growing longer and temperatures warming, it won’t be long until the northern Cumberland Plateau’s tourism season is underway. And local tourism promotors are excited about what they see as a growing effort to welcome tourists to the community.
Scott County’s fledgling tourism industry has been a long time coming. While tourism has long been Tennessee’s No. 1 industry, thanks to the Great Smoky Mountains and urban tourism scenes in Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis, Scott County and the Upper Cumberlands have had difficulty cashing in. But as more and more people learn of the quieter alternative to the Smokies — the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area — and scores of visitors flock to the Cumberland Mountains for off-road adventures, that is changing.
Adventure tourism is growing in general. An increased awareness of the benefits of healthy lifestyles and a desire to unplug from the technogically-advanced world that dominates the day-to-day life of the average American is prompting more people to take up various forms of outdoors recreation. Hiking has long been the gold standard of outdoors recreation, but adventure-seekers are increasingly turning to other activities, as well. The BSF earned its stripes as a destination for mountain bikers nearly five years ago, when the International Mountain Biking Association branded the national park with its highly-sought-after “epic” rating. The BSF was already seeing an increase in cycling enthusiasts, thanks largely to the cooperative efforts of the Big South Fork Bike Club and its president, semi-retired Oneida pharmacist Joe Cross, with the National Park Service. Big South Fork park superintendent Niki S. Nicholas said last summer that mountain biking is quickly closing in on hiking as the second most popular use of the park.
Now, though, another outdoors pastime is gaining momentum . . . and it, too, is driving folks to the Cumberlands. For the past two years, recreational kayaking has been exploding in popularity. The white water of the Big South Fork River and its major tributaries has long been a draw for whitewater paddlers, but recreational kayakers represent an entirely different usage group — a group that isn’t interested so much in the white-knuckle thrill of dangerous rapids as it is in the exercise and R&R that is afforded by paddling the still waters.
The BSF features the best of both worlds. Whitewater paddlers love the rapids between the confluence of New River and Clear Fork and the O&W Bridge, and recreational kayakers have ample opportunity to float their boats further downstream, where just one rapid requires portage between Leatherwood and Station Camp. Recreational kayaking is also drawing an increased number of people to New River near Huntsville, as well as to the Flat Creek Reservoir in Huntsville.
Last fall, the fruits of a year-long effort by Silver Fir Media were realized when the production company and the National Park Service officially released a 17-minute film about the Big South Fork, “Generations.” That effort is expected to aid the BSF’s increased visibility, particularly among staycationers in the Knoxville, Nashville and Lexington markets — all of which are less than a three-hour drive from Oneida and the BSF.
Couple that with the ever-growing traffic count on the other side of Scott County, where ATVs are king, and it adds up to a steadily improving tourism scene. Brimstone Recreation has already announced its lineup for Memorial Day weekend’s White Knuckle Event, which will feature country music star Lee Brice. And Trails End Campground is also said to be planning a summer event that will revolve around a usage group other than ATV riders.
In the midst of it all, Scott Countians appear to be priming themselves to welcome tourists.
Stacey Kidd, executive director of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce, points to a growing number of specialty shops that are springing up in and around Oneida. Not all of them are directly or even indirectly related to the flow of tourists through the community, but Kidd said all of them make the community more attractive to visitors.
For starters, Virginia Bruce purchased South Fork Tack — the only equestrian outfitter on the east side of the BSF River gorge — from long-time owner Pam Cannon last year. She has revitalized the shop with increased diversity in her inventory line and told the Independent Herald recently that visitors to the BSF make up a large percentage of her clientele.
There’s also the Primitive Barn. Open seasonally on Saturdays only, the off-the-beaten-path family business draws mostly Scott Countians to its Niggs Creek Road location, but visitors to the Scott County Visitor Center who are looking for a unique shopping experience are routinely pointed towards the barn. There, they will find antiques, handmade items, home cooking and an assortment of locally-raised vegetables and locally-produced fudge, jams and honeys.
Good Ole Days, an antiques vendor mall on Industrial Lane, is jam-packed with thousands of antiques from a variety of vendors who offer their wares on consignment. Melody Cobb, owner and operator of Good Ole Days, also sees tourists stop by — especially since her shop is located on the main route from U.S. Hwy. 27 to the Big South Fork.
Kidd also points to a variety of boutiques that have opened in recent months, from The Mustard Seed in Oneida Plaza to Yellow Rose Boutique in midtown Oneida. There’s Charlotte’s Primitives, a paint and craft store in Northtown Plaza, and casual dining restaurants like Preston’s Longhorn Steak House, El Rey Azteca and RaeZack’s Grill & Deli routinely serve tourists who are visiting the region. Dustin Kennedy’s roadside barbecue stand adjacent to The Grand Vista Hotel, County’s BBQ, is also popular with tourists, particularly ATV enthusiasts who are visiting Huntsville.
The community is sprucing itself up for tourism in other ways, as well. Kidd said the Chamber of Commerce is finalizing a deal that will allow it to offer a limited number of loaner kayaks for recreational boaters who want to float the river but don’t have their own gear. And the Big South Fork’s Nicholas said that a growing number of licensed vendors are offering their services within the park. Sheltowee Trace Outfitters has long guided whitewater rafters in the BSF, but for the first time will have a station at Leatherwood Ford during the 2017 whitewater season. Backwoods Adventures is offering guided hikes in the BSF, while Borderland Expeditions in Jamestown is offering rentals for mountain bikers and kayakers alike. RM Brooks General Store in Rugby is also offering bike rentals, and two Oneida-based shuttle services have sprung up over the past couple of years. Both Big South Fork Outdoor Adventures and Wilderness Taxi offer to shuttle kayakers, hikers and other BSF visitors from Point A to Point B.
This is the March 2017 installment of "Profiles of a 3-Star Community," presented on the second week of each month by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series.