Five great hikes for Christmas


The once-common myth that the average American gains between seven and 10 pounds during the holiday season has been debunked by recent studies, but there is still no denying that the Christmas season is one of excess — and weight gain is real! 

The more realistic weight gain attached to the holidays is between one and two pounds, according to recent studies. Perhaps not enough to make your pants feel tighter, but as dieters the world over can attest, every pound matters. 

Besides, over-eating is just not very good for our health in general. Pigging out causes our stomach to produce more acid, resulting in heartburn. It sends more blood into the digestive system, leaving less blood available to transport oxygen to other parts of our body — which helps explain why we feel sluggish after a big meal. It causes our blood sugar to spike, and et cetera. 

So what better way to get rid of the holiday glut than with a quick hike? In this part of the world, we’re blessed with an abundance of trails awaiting exploring. 

Benefits of winter hiking

Most casual hikers don’t think of the winter months when they think of getting outside. But those who are serious about their treks into the woods know: winter is prime time for hitting the trails. 

There are several reasons why, not the least of which is the fact that you don’t have to deal with bugs or snakes during the winter months. A walk along a trail that is crowded with vegetation on either side is just more pleasant when you aren’t worrying about a copperhead being underfoot! 

You also don’t have to deal with crowds on the trails during the winter months. In the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, most hiking trails are deserted once cold weather sets in after the Thanksgiving holiday, and they stay that way until the spring peepers start to make a racket in March. In between, your chances of encountering another human along the route are quite small.

And, if bears aren’t your thing, there’s one more reason to embrace winter hiking: while hibernation is a myth, at least as it applies to black bears, the animals are much more sluggish during the winter months and don’t move about in search of food like they do in the fall and spring . . . which means your chances of encountering a bear are much lower.

Finally, there is no foliage blocking the views at overlooks and along the rim of the gorge that encases the Big South Fork River and its tributaries. In its absence, the views are unparalleled.

A few hikes for winter

If you need a brisk walk in the woods to work off some calories — or just to capture some “me time” away from the pesky in-laws — during this holiday season, here are a few of the Independent Herald’s favorites during the winter months: 

Leatherwood Loop — We start with Leatherwood Loop simply because it’s the closest available option for many of us. If you’re traveling to the national park from Oneida, East Rim Trailhead — located along East Rim Overlook Road near park headquarters — is the first you’ll encounter.

The 3.6-mile Leatherwood Loop is also an excellent choice because it offers the one thing you’re probably looking for if you’re hiking to burn calories: a good workout. It’s also a quick hike; from start to finish, the average person can complete the hike in about an hour and 20 minutes. Throw in the 15-minute drive to and from town, and you’re looking at a quick couple of hours to get in a good workout in nature.

From the trailhead at East Rim Overlook Road, the hike follows a short spur through an upland forest to the start of the loop trail. Hiked in a counter-clockwise direction, the trail treks along the edge of an old field, then follows an old road bed into the gorge, emerging along S.R. 297 at Leatherwood Ford. 

On the upstream side of the Leatherwood Bridge, the trail joins the John Muir Trail towards O&W Bridge for a half-mile, before leaving the JMT and turning up the side of the gorge.

Much of the rest of the hike is a gorge climb, and that’s where the calories really began to fall by the wayside. At the top of the hill, take a break by following a 0.1-mile spur trail to the Leatherwood Overlook, which provides views of the Leatherwood Ford area. 

Grand Gap Loop — At 5.2 miles, the Grand Gap Loop is simply spectacular this time of year. It’s a ridge-top trail, offering great views of the river gorge. As such, it doesn’t offer the steep hill-climbs that provide the greatest workout, but the entirety of the route still features more than 550 ft. of ascent, so it’s a solid workout. And if you want to really get a workout, you can save yourself some time by starting the hike from Leatherwood Ford instead of Alfred Smith Road behind Bandy Creek, which also saves some drive time. 

If you choose to hike just the Grand Gap trail, you’ll want to drive through the Bandy Creek Campground, and continue north along the one-lane gravel lane that is Duncan Hollow Road. Stay left when the road forks in the Scott State Forest, then take the first right onto Alfred Smith Road. It’s another two miles until the road ends at the start of the Grand Gap trail. There isn’t much parking, and often nowhere to park at the trailhead on a warm, sunny day.

From the trailhead, hike Grand Gap in a clockwise direction. It won’t take long before you emerge on the rim of the gorge at Fall Branch Overlook, which offers a scenic view of the stream bed far below. A little further along the trail, you’ll come to Angel Falls Overlook, which is the crown jewel of this hike, providing a panoramic view up and down the Big South Fork River.

From there, the trail simply follows the side of the ridge back to where it started, winding in and out of ravines and sticking with the topography to provide a somewhat level hike. 

If you choose to begin your hike at Leatherwood Ford, you’ll begin by walking across the S.R. 297 bridge, then down the concrete steps on the west side of the bridge. You’ll follow the John Muir Trail approximately a little more than two miles to Fall Branch, then begin a strenuous climb to the top of the gorge. It’s an excellent workout, and adds another five miles to the hike, making for a total of almost 11 miles. Casual hikers who are looking for a simple stroll in the woods won’t want to choose this option; the sheer length of the hike, coupled with the elevation change, makes for an adventure that will leave you, as our grandparents used to say, “plumb tuckered out.”

Burnt Mill Loop — Let’s throw in this option for those who live in southern Scott County and might not want to make the half-hour drive to Leatherwood. The Burnt Mill Loop is only a 10-minute drive from Robbins, offering a 3.6-mile hike along the Clear Fork River.

The trail begins and ends at Burnt Mill Bridge along Honey Creek Road. From the trailhead, hike the trail in a counter-clockwise direction, crossing Honey Creek Road and heading downstream along the river. For its first mile, the trail will parallel the river, passing several rock shelters and rock walls, before beginning a climb out of the gorge.

Just over a mile into the hike, the trail reaches the top of the ridge and forks. Hikers who are completing the loop will bear left, crossing Honey Creek Road again and continuing along the ridge top. Eventually, the trail begins its descent back to the Clear Fork River, which forms a horseshoe around the ridge the trail just crossed.

The final 2.1 miles of the trail is along the river itself. 

Burnt Mill Loop doesn’t offer quite the workout that is offered by Leatherwood Loop or by the John Muir Trail’s ascent to Grand Gap, but it’s pretty good in its own right.

John Muir Trail — Finally, here’s one that will require a couple of vehicles so that you can shuttle back to your origin. Park one vehicle at the end of Duncan Hollow Road north of Bandy Creek Campground and begin your hike at the Grand Gap Trailhead. Walk the John Muir Trail from Grand Gap to near where it begins its descent to the confluence of Laurel Fork Creek and Station Camp Creek.

The trail is flat, following the lip of the gorge. But in terms of a workout, it makes up for its lack of elevation change in length — a little more than seven miles in all. And the views are spectacular this time of year, especially if you follow one of a couple of spur trails to overlooks that are just off the main trail.

From the Grand Gap Trailhead, turn right off Alfred Smith Road and onto the Grand Gap Trail. Just out of sight from the roadway, the trail forks. Take a left to follow the John Muir Trail north towards Station Camp. 

After seven miles of wandering along the edge of the gorge, the trail intersects with a spur trail that leads back to Duncan Hollow Road for mountain bikers. When you reach the gravel road, turn right to arrive at your vehicle.

This article first appeared in the Oneida Independent Herald. It is reprinted with permission.

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