Week 1: A visit to Leatherwood Overlook

The Forty Mile Challenge begins with a quick, easy hike to Leatherwood Overlook in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

The hike begins a hiking challenge that starts this week and ends Memorial Day weekend, covering 40 miles in 10 weeks while visiting 10 different parts of the Big South Fork NRRA. It is a spin-off of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge that the Independent Herald issues every other year, last in 2021.

» 40 Mile Challenge main page

As is the case with the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge, the Forty Mile Challenge will start with simple, easy hikes that are designed to gently break in anyone who is new to hiking. The hike to Leatherwood Overlook is an easy one, covering 1.2 miles with only 160 feet of elevation gain. However, if the 1.2 miles isn’t enough, we’ll give you the opportunity each week to hike additional mileage nearby. On each of the 10 hikes, we’ll ask you to snap a photo of a particular object along the route, posting it to social media (Instagram or Facebook) with the hashtag #40MileChallenge. In doing so, you’ll log your participation for that week’s hike.

So, let’s get started…

The hike to Leatherwood Overlook begins with a fun stroll along a well-maintained trail along a heavily-forested ridge top | Ben Garrett/IH

Hitting the Leatherwood Loop: There are actually two overlooks of Leatherwood Ford, one on either side of the river. The west overlook is actually the more scenic of the two, but it requires a long drive along single-lane gravel roads that tend to be rutted and muddy — not something that a lot of people want to drive the family sedan across. So, for the purposes of this challenge, we’re sticking to the east overlook, which is part of the Leatherwood Loop Trail.

Not as bad as it sounds: If you’re familiar with Leatherwood Loop, you may be saying, “Wait… I thought we were starting easy?” Indeed, Leatherwood Loop is one of the more strenuous hiking trails in the Big South Fork — if you complete the entire 3.5 or so miles of it, which takes you into and back out of the gorge. We aren’t going to do that. We’re going to tackle the easy part of it.

From the trailhead… There’s actually a short spur trail connecting Leatherwood Loop to the East Rim Trailhead. From your car, you’ll take a left through the grasses and into the forest, following the spur trail until you reach the start of Leatherwood Loop, which is only about two-tenths of a mile from the parking lot. From the trail intersection, you’ll take a left, as if you were hiking the loop in a clockwise direction. 

Mixed forest experience: The first part of Leatherwood Loop is a level stroll along a ridge top through a hardwood forest that typifies the ridge tops of the Big South Fork region. When you come to a thicket of mountain laurel that crowds over the trail from either side, you’ll know you’re getting close to the rim of the gorge. (Fun fact: Mountain laurel and rhododendron are related, but different. Mountain laurel typically grows in sunny, well-drained ridge tops above the cliffs that line the gorge, while rhododendron is typically found in shaded, moist areas below the cliffs within the gorge.) This is a spectacular hike when the mountain laurel is blooming in the late spring. But there’s nothing wrong with hiking it now, before the spring green-up. 

Dense thickets of mountain laurel crowd the trail from either side near the rim of the river gorge. This section of the trail is spectacular in late spring, when the laurel is blooming.

A short descent: Once you reach the mountain laurel, you’ll know you’re close. You’ll encounter a short downhill section before the trail levels out again and a spur trail leaves the main trail for the overlook. You’ll take the spur trail for the final tenth of a mile or so to the overlook.

A view of Leatherwood Ford: From the protected overlook, you’ll see the S.R. 297 bridge at Leatherwood Ford, and during the early spring before the green-up, you can see the occasional vehicle descending into the gorge on the west side of the river. The expansive view includes the mouth of Bandy Creek almost directly in front of the overlook, as well as the plateau lands towards the Bandy Creek Campground. Once you’ve enjoyed the view from the overlook, retrace your steps to the trailhead.

Look For: This week’s “Look For” is a huge sandstone boulder created when erosion caused it to break away from the main rock. It is tilted at a severe angle, as if it started to roll away but couldn’t quite gain enough momentum, and at the same time it looks like it could be neatly fit back into place like a puzzle piece. You’ll find it along the spur trail between Leatherwood Loop and the overlook. Snap a picture and post it on social media with the hashtag #40MileChallenge. 

Each week’s hike will feature a search for a point of interest along the trail. This week, it’s a huge boulder created when erosion broke off a piece of the cap rock. Find it along the spur trail that leads to the overlook. Take a picture and post it on social media with the hashtag #40MileChallenge.

Be Careful For: The short descent just before the overlook spur trail can be a little slippery if the ground is wet. Use caution with pets and small children. The overlook is protected, but it’s easy for small animals (and small kids) to squeeze between the rails.

Make It Better: If the 1.2-mile hike to Leatherwood Overlook isn’t enough, no problem! Make it a two-for-one by also hiking to Sunset Overlook. It’s also an easy hike, and you won’t even have to get back in your vehicle. Sunset Overlook Trail is directly across the road from the parking lot at East Rim Trailhead. It is a 2.6-mile, out-and-back hike that features only 170 feet of elevation gain. Also, take the opportunity to enjoy the spectacular view from East Rim Overlook, which is located nearby at the end of East Rim Overlook Road. The overlook is accessible via a short, paved walking path. If you do all three, you will have experienced three of the four overlooks in the East Rim vicinity, and hiked a total of 3.9 miles. It will be a half-day well-spent.

Getting There: To get to East Rim Trailhead, take S.R. 297 (Coopertown Road) west from Oneida and into the Big South Fork. Directly across from park headquarters, turn left onto East Rim Overlook Road. The parking area for the trailhead will be on your right, less than a quarter of a mile from the highway.

Remember To: Leave Only Footprints, Take Only Memories. Please pack out anything you pack in!

GC Staff
GC Staff
Go Cumberlands is the premiere source of information for visitors to Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains and Cumberland Plateau region.

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