ONEIDA, Tenn. — It’s Memorial Day weekend, and traffic is picking up along the O&W.
While ATV-themed events 30 minutes down the road dominate a lion’s share of the headlines, thousands flock to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area to celebrate the holiday weekend each year. The 125,000-acre national park — the fifth-largest in the eastern United States — plays host to a wide variety of usage groups. And here, along the railbed that once served as the main way to haul coal and timber out of — and workers and supplies into — this rugged terrain, those varied usage groups intermingle perhaps more than anywhere else.
On Saturday, it was difficult to find any single usage group that was not represented as locals and visitors alike enjoyed excellent weather and the scenic beauty of the Big South Fork. Besides rock climbers, they were all present: hikers, campers, swimmers, anglers, off-road riders, horseback riders, mountain bikers and whitewater paddlers.
Each usage group has its own area of the BSF that is most popular. For bikers, it’s the Bandy Creek area; for horseback riders, the Station Camp and No Business areas. Most folks who camp head to the Bandy Creek campground and most who paddle launch their boats at the confluence of New River and Clear Fork. But nowhere do they mix and mingle like they do along the historic railbed.
The O&W Bridge — where the road, the horse trails, the hiking trails, the river and the rock wall that climbers love to tackle all meet — was not designed to be a central point of the BSF. It just sort of happened. Only seven roads enter the BSF River gorge, and this one is the most remotely located. It’s the only vehicular access point to the river between Burnt Mill Bridge upstream along the Clear Fork River and Leatherwood Ford a couple of miles downstream along S.R. 297. It’s at the lower end of one of the Southeast’s most popular stretches of whitewater and the last place before Station Camp that horseback riders can cross the river.
Hiking: The John Muir Trail crosses the O&W Bridge as it traverses the Big South Fork backcountry from Pickett State Forest to Honey Creek. Thru-hikers make up only a minority of the foot traffic that cross the bridge, though. The Leatherwood-to-O&W segment of the JMT is a popular day hike, and the O&W Bridge is the starting point for the short but strenuous hike to Devils Den.
Camping: With the exception of Station Camp River Access, there are few backcountry camping spots on the river that can be easily accessed by vehicle, and most of them are on either side of the O&W Bridge. And while they’re not directly accessible by vehicle, Jake’s Hole on the upstream side of the bridge and the Mouth of White Oak Creek on the downstream side are popular camping spots.
Swimming: A few folks like to swim at the bridge itself, but the more popular swimming hole is along North White Oak Creek a couple of miles beyond the bridge. There, where vehicular access comes to a dead end, many Scott Countians enjoy swimming in the hole of water where the railroad bridge once crossed the creek, and just upstream at the modern-day crossing.
Horseback riding: Few riders venture past the O&W Bridge towards Oneida. There is an uptick in vehicular traffic on the east side of the bridge, and cars and horses often don’t mix well. But riders frequently venture from the Cumberland Valley Loop Trail to the bridge itself. There’s also an unmarked and seldom-used loop trail between the bridge and North White Oak Creek that links the O&W to the Hurricane Ridge trail network atop the gorge.
Fishing: The fishing isn’t great above the bridge; the water is often too swift and the river is often too difficult to get to. There are some exceptions, like the Mouth of Pine Creek and Jake’s Hole, but the best fishing is below the bridge. The most popular time for fishing here may be during the early months of the year, when walleye are spawning, but catfish and smallmouth anglers take advantage of the area as well.
Mountain Biking: The five trails near Bandy Creek — rated “epic” by the International Mountain Biking Association — get all the attention, but the O&W Road is a great place for beginners. It’s relatively flat, with just enough climb heading east for a good workout, and smooth. Cyclists often start near Toomey Road and ride to the bridge, then back. Some venture beyond the bridge and across the creek, where the old railbed becomes an equestrian trail.
Whitewater Paddling: The O&W Bridge marks the end of the most popular stretch of white water in the BSF. The stretch of water between the confluence and the bridge marks the Canyon and the Gorge runs. It’s home to the famed “Big Three” rapids, Double Drop, the Ell and the Washing Machine, and many smaller Class III rapids. Many paddlers take out at the bridge, while others choose to float the calmer stretch of river to Leatherwood Ford.
Rock Climbing: It’s a relatively new usage type, but rock climbing is growing in popularity in the Big South Fork, and the O&W Wall — the large cliff that towers spectacularly over the bridge — is ground zero for climbers. Several routes have been charted up the side of the cliff, bearing such names as “Cheap Seats,” “Stellar Regions” and the “Dog and Pony Show.” Most of those routes have been developed by climbing pioneer Jeff Noffsinger.
Off-Road Riders: The Big South Fork’s ATV usage guide states, “For the recreational ATV rider, there are no designated ATV trails within Big South Fork NRRA at this time.” That’s technically accurate, but many Scott Countians enjoy recreational ATV use along the O&W. It isn’t listed as a trail because it’s a county road, not a trail, but state law provides for ATV use along the O&W from its intersection with Verdun Road in Oneida to its terminus at the North White Oak Creek crossing. With the exception of a portion of S.R. 63 two weekends each year, and streets within the Town of Huntsville, it’s the only public road in Scott County where ATVs can legally be operated, and it’s also the only road within the BSF where ATVs can be used by non-hunters (big game hunters can use multi-use trails during hunting seasons). The BSF’s General Management Plan calls for the development of ATV trails in the Darrow Ridge area of the park, in Fentress County, but those plans have not yet been put into action.
The Future: Vehicular access to the O&W Bridge survived a standoff between Scott County and the National Park Service in the 1990s and early 2000s. Originally, the park service debated turning the railbed into an excursion railroad, but the idea was scrapped. Then, a plan was discussed to close the road before the bridge, keeping the bridge itself open only to foot and equestrian traffic. But Scott County claimed ownership of the road to the county line, which falls on the west side of North White Oak Creek, and County Commission passed a series of resolutions opposing its closure. Eventually, a compromise was reached that saw the park service close the road at the creek, but allow vehicular access to that point.
While the steel structure of the bridge — it’s one of the last whipple truss bridges left in America, and was originally built in the 1880s before being dismantled and moved to Scott County in 1915 — is sound, the timbers have deteriorated significantly and the bridge could actually be in danger of being closed, perhaps forever. The Scott County Chamber of Commerce is currently working on a grant to secure funding for the bridge’s repair.