ONEIDA, Tenn. — The footpath linking East Rim Overlook Road to Leatherwood Ford will be the subject of this weekend’s ranger-led hike at the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.
BSF interpretive ranger Mary Grimm will lead the hike along the Leatherwood Loop Trail, a 3.6-mile hiking trail rated moderate in difficulty.
The hike is the latest in a series of every-other-weekend guided hikes that the BSF is organizing as part of its Centennial Challenge. Started in January, the challenge encourages visitors to the BSF to travel 100 miles in the national park by foot, horseback, bike or boat as the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary. The self-paced challenge utilizes the honor system, with a log sheet that can be downloaded from the BSF’s website at nps.gov/biso. A ceremony is planned for December to celebrate the completion of the challenge.
From Sunset Overlook Trailhead on East Rim Overlook Road just inside the BSF’s eastern boundary on S.R. 297 near Oneida, the hiking trail meanders through an open hardwood forest, skirts one of the many farmsites that are slowly being reclaimed by nature, then follows the old roadbed into the river gorge before eventually returning to the top of the plateau.
The trail is mostly easy, except for the climb from the river to the top of the gorge, a 500-ft. ascent that utilizes a series of switchbacks to cover the elevation change over the course of a half-mile walk.
The Leatherwood Loop Trail is most spectacular when rhododendron or mountain laurel are blooming. Both are plentiful along the route. Mountain laurel has finished blooming this year, but some varieties of rhododendron are currently in bloom.
From the trailhead, which is located just off S.R. 297, a spur trail leads to the loop itself, passing through a mixed-growth forest that includes hemlock, maple, oak and other varieties of hardwoods.
The trail winds down a slight incline and crosses the earthen dam of an old farm pond, which is inhabited by a variety of lifeforms, including bullfrogs and salamanders.
After crossing a narrow foot bridge over the small pond’s spillway, the trail turns towards the Big South Fork River and skirts the edge of a field before meeting up with Old Leatherwood Road.
Today, Old Leatherwood Road is little more than a slight indention on the forest floor, but it was once the primary way in and out of the river gorge before S.R. 297 was constructed to link the communities on either side of the river gorge.
The hardwood forest becomes dominated by laurel and rhododendron as the trail travels out a narrowing ridge that towers over the river gorge. Eventually, though, it weaves its way through a gap to the bottom of the bluff line, where hemlock forests that typify the BSF’s feeder streams becomes dominant. The trail winds down a series of switchbacks, occasionally meeting Old Leatherwood Road and passing a series of wet-weather waterfalls, before eventually emerging along S.R. 297 at the river crossing.
From there, Leatherwood Loop merges with the John Muir Trail segment between Leatherwood Ford and O&W Bridge, following the JMT for a half-mile upstream. Along the way, there are several points of interest, including Echo Rock, where a wooden viewing platform near the river’s edge allows hikers to hear the sounds of the river rapids near the mouth of Bandy Creek.
After the Leatherwood Loop departs the John Muir Trail, it’s a mostly uphill climb for the next mile, as the trail slowly winds its way up the side of the gorge. Eventually, the trail makes its way up a small stream and the steady climb levels out, allowing hikers to catch their breath.
Near the top of the gorge, a short spur trail leads to Leatherwood Overlook, a protected rock outcropping that offers expansive views of the BSF River Gorge, including Leatherwood Ford.
Back on the main trail, the climbing is nearly done and the trailhead is only a short walk away. The trail crosses another small, wooden foot bridge and skirts another field that is being reclaimed by nature before meeting the spur trail that leads back to the parking lot.
Saturday’s ranger-led hike will depart the Sunset Overlook Trailhead at 10 a.m. Eastern. Hikers should take water, snacks and comfortable shoes built for hiking.
Hikers who are completing the 100-mile challenge can add Sunset Overlook Trail to their afternoon for an additional 2.6 miles. The out-and-back trail leads to an unprotected rock outcropping just downstream from the mouth of North White Oak Creek and offers an easy hike.