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Week 3: Hiking to the historic O&W Railroad Bridge

Distance: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 420 feet
Difficulty: Easy

The first two weeks of the 40 Mile Challenge have featured very short hikes to spectacular overlooks. This week’s hike is going to be longer — but still easy. And there’s no overlook along the primary route, but we’ll tell you how to find one of the best overlooks around, if you want to “make it better.”

We’re hiking the John Muir Trail from Leatherwood to the historic Oneida & Western Railroad Bridge. The O&W Bridge is about two miles up-river from Leatherwood Ford, so the total hike is about 4.5 miles. That’s about twice the distance of last week’s hike to Cracks in the Rock. But consider this: the elevation gain on this week’s hike is very similar to last week’s hike — but spread out over twice the mileage. That means there isn’t much in the way of steep climbing on this hike, and the trail is easier overall than last week’s was.

An Underrated Hike: The hike from Leatherwood to O&W is often overlooked by people who believe it’s a boring walk along the river between two places you can drive to. You can drive to O&W, of course, but the real beauty of this hike is what is between Leatherwood and O&W, and the knowledge that you’re walking the same route that was once planned for a rail spur to access rich seams of coal below Leatherwood Ford.

In fact, the hike to O&W probably ranks among the top half of all hikes in the Big South Fork. It’s one of only two trails that we’re repeating from last year’s Twenty Week Hiking Challenge, and we think it’s worth it. Some trails are great in any season, but the Leatherwood-to-O&W hike is definitely at its best in the spring, when wildflowers are blooming. We’re still a little early for a lot of the spring wildflowers, but some species are already beginning to bloom along this river-side route.

A Gentle Start: From the parking lot at Leatherwood Ford, the trail to O&W begins gently. It’s wide, flat, and surfaced with small gravels. There are even a couple of benches along the way to sit and enjoy the scenery or listen to the songbirds that you’ll hear in abundance along the route. You’ll see a couple of established campsites along the river; this is a popular area for backcountry campers who are looking for easily-accessed spots to pitch a tent.

After crossing a wooden footbridge, rounding a bend, and passing by one of those campsites, you’ll come to a split in the trail. It’s the same trail; it’s just that the left split leads behind a huge boulder that is along the trail. A little piece beyond that is Echo Rock. It’s named because of the sound the river makes as it echoes off the house-sized boulder along the river’s edge. The roar of the river here is created by the set of rapids just below the mouth of Bandy Creek. There is a wooden observation platform near the river, but it was closed after a chunk of the boulder fell off the main rock and smashed the wooden deck.

A Short Climb: Beyond Echo Rock, the John Muir Trail takes on more of a resemblance of a typical backcountry hiking trail — which is to say it becomes narrower and rougher, and is surfaced in dirt rather than gravels. Just after crossing a small feeder stream that empties into the river, the trail turns left and begins a short ascent. This is the only real elevation gain along the route, as the trail climbs away from the river a short distance. After the climb, the trail levels out again.

The Mouth of White Oak: During this time of year, before the spring green-up, you will easily see where North White Oak Creek empties into the Big South Fork River. This is about halfway between Leatherwood and the O&W Bridge. You won’t see the stream itself, unless you look closely through the trees, but you will see the valley that the stream flows through on the west side of the river.

A short piece beyond this point, the trail intersects with what was once a road and descends slightly to a level “bench” just above the river. This is what was once intended to be a rail bed that would carry trains from the main Oneida & Western Line to the Anderson Mine downstream from Leatherwood Ford. The railroad spur was never completed.

The Bridge In Sight: A short distance beyond the intersection with the intended rail bed, you’ll be able to see the O&W Bridge through the trees. Along this final stretch of trail, you’ll also come across what is sometimes a spectacular waterfall if you catch it at the right time. Huge boulders have fallen into the stream, and after heavy rains, water surges over the edge of those rocks to create a photogenic waterfall. It’s not accessible from the trail, but there’s a small cave-like structure created by those boulders. While it’s often blocked from view by falling water, during times of drier weather, the waterfall recedes and actually tumbles through that small rock shelter. 

Time To Explore: The O&W is a popular destination on pretty days, for both locals and “out-of-towners” alike. If you venture out onto the bridge — and you’ll certainly want to, if only to snap a photo of the magnificent O&W Wall that towers over the bridge on its east side — you might be fortunate enough to watch whitewater paddlers tackle the rapids beneath the bridge, or climbers scaling the cliffs above the bridge. This is an important trail intersection that is accessed by off-road enthusiasts who are traveling the O&W Road, horseback riders who are accessing trails from Honey Creek or Bandy Creek, and hikers on the John Muir Trail, as well as the afore-mentioned climbers and paddlers. The O&W is a popular take-out for paddlers who are finishing up the gorge and canyon runs on the BSF River.  

Look For: This week’s “Look For” is a giant boulder that is in the original road grade near the O&W Bridge. When workers were early in the process of building the railroad spur to Leatherwood Ford, the huge boulder fell into their path, blocking the way. Rather than dynamite their way through it, they chose to simply abandon the project. Snap a picture of this house-sized boulder and post it on social media with the hashtag #40MileChallenge. 

Be Careful For: There are a couple of stream crossings that require rock-hopping, and the rocks can be slippery when wet. For the most part, however, there are no hazards on this hike.

Make It Better: While our route stops at the O&W Bridge and asks you to retrace your steps to Leatherwood Ford, you can choose to add some mileage to your hike if you’d like to climb the side of the gorge. On the opposite side of the O&W Bridge from the Leatherwood-to-O&W trail, the John Muir Trail leaves  the road and heads back into the forest. Just a half-mile ahead are two spectacular features: Devils Den, and the O&W West Overlook.

Devils Den is a large rock house, located near the top of the gorge. A short climb further is the O&W West Overlook, which offers stunning views of the bridge and the river gorge all the way up-river to the mouth of Pine Creek. The overlook is not marked and is not on the main trail. However, a highly-visible footpath leads to the overlook. If you come to a picnic table, you’ve gone too far. Be careful: the overlook is unprotected.

The climb from O&W Bridge to Devils Den and the overlook is certainly a workout, with 500 feet of elevation gain over a short half-mile. But it’s well worth the effort.

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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