Once you’ve hiked to the end of the ridge that ends in a point high above the Big South Fork River, and walked out onto the unprotected rock ledge that offers panoramic views of the river gorge in front of it, you’ll find yourself asking: “How is it that I’ve never been here before?”
It’s true that most folks who live around here — including those who occasionally or even regularly visit the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area — never visit Bronco Overlook.
There are several reasons for that, not the least of which is that Bronco Overlook is simply underrated. It’s not hard to get to, it’s not a long drive away from Oneida or Huntsville, and there’s a trail leading right to it. But that trail isn’t a hiking trail; it’s an equestrian trail that travels an old jeep road. And, for that reason if none other, a lot of folks just don’t think much about Bronco Overlook.
When you think of overlooks in the BSF, you probably think of East Rim, Sunset, Honey Creek and Angel Falls on the Tennessee side, and of Blue Heron, Devils Jump and Buzzard Rock on the Kentucky side. You probably don’t think of Bronco Overlook. We’re going to try to change that.
A spectacular view: Unquestionably, the crown jewel of the Bronco Overlook hike is the view that awaits at the end of the trail. When you step out onto the unprotected rock outcropping at Bronco Overlook, you’ll be treated to one of the most spectacular views in the Big South Fork NRRA. You’ll see the craggy rocks that stand sentry over the mouth of Mill Creek, a rugged drainage that serves as a watershed for much of the south side of Station Camp Road from Williams Creek Road to the horse camp. You’ll also see much of the gorge that encases the BSF River between the big bend just below the John Hawk Smith Place and the Station Camp crossing. And, far below, you’ll see the river itself.
The overlook’s namesake: Just a stone’s throw from the overlook — within shouting distance, but hidden by the trees and foliage — is the overlook’s namesake, a 1986 Ford Bronco II, Eddie Bauer edition, that rolled off the cliff’s edge in the 1980s. The twisted hunk of metal still lays at the base of the cliff, where it landed after probably being rolled off it by whomever stole it. Donny Kidd, who lives on Coopertown Road and knows as much about the Big South Fork area as anyone, recalls that it was stolen from North Carolina.
An unspectacular hike: The view at the end is fantastic. The walk getting there is mostly uneventful. It is along an old jeep road — except that’s not really what the old road is. It became a jeep road after the federal government acquired the area. Prior to that, it was a road leading to a private residence. In any event, the trail follows the road along Sheep Ridge, through hardwood forest atop a ridge that becomes steadily narrower as it approaches the river.
An old someplace: At the end of the ridge, the place we now call Bronco Overlook, is where the home of MP Estes once stood. The home was destroyed in the 1970s, after the U.S. Corps of Engineers purchased it for inclusion within the Big South Fork. It was at some point after that that someone drove the Bronco over the overlook. It tumbled to the forest floor below, landing upright but destroyed.
Once drivable: Only a few years ago, Sheep Ridge Road was open to vehicular traffic, and Bronco Overlook was accessible via four-wheel-drive. That’s no longer the case, of course. Now only horses, hikers and mountain bikers are permitted on the old road.
An easy hike: The road along Sheep Ridge is relatively level. And while the trail itself is sandy and lumpy — as equestrian trails usually are — the hike is a fairly easy one. It’s only 1.4 miles from the trailhead to the overlook, and there is only about 280 feet of elevation gain to the overlook and back again.
A moonshiner’s paradise: You won’t see it from the trail, of course, and you wouldn’t want to venture off-trail to try to find it because it’s an absolute thicket descending into small canyons that are encased by bluffs and sheer cliff lines, but Mill Creek, which runs parallel to Sheep Ridge and the Bronco Overlook trail, was once home to moonshining, nearly 100 years ago. If you were to venture down into that rugged wilderness area, you would find the remnants of some of those old still sites.
Getting there: Take S.R. 297 west from Oneida, continuing straight (west) on Station Camp Road at the point that S.R. 297 turns left and becomes Leatherwood Road. Once the pavement ends and the road enters the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, look for the large gravel parking lot on the right. This is Station Camp Equestrian Trailhead. Sheep Ridge Road, or the Bronco Overlook Trail, is located just across the road, just south of the trailhead.
Make it better: Once you’ve completed the trek to Bronco Overlook, get back in your vehicle and continue west along Station Camp Road. Get out and take advantage of the photo opportunities at Chimney Rocks, the twin sandstone buttes that rise from the ground like chimneys by the roadside after the road begins its descent towards the river. Nearby, take a stroll through the historic Chimney Rocks Cemetery, also known as Slaven Cemetery. Look at some of the graves that tell the story of this region, like the grave of orphan girl Angeline Moore, a 15-year-old whose badly beaten body was discovered along nearby Huckleberry Ridge. She was the first person buried at Chimney Rocks.
Be careful for: The rock outcropping at Bronco Overlook is unprotected. That is the case with many of the overlooks in the Big South Fork, but this one can be particularly dangerous because the best views of the river gorge require hikers to walk along the rock ledge to the left in order to reach a better vantage point. The going is slippery, particularly when the rocks are wet. As a result, Bronco Overlook has the potential to be dangerous, especially for small children. Keep kids and pets close at hand!
Look for: At the end of the old Sheep Ridge Road, where horse tie-outs are located just above the overlook, look for the remnants of the foundation of the log cabin that once stood there. The cabin was built by MP Estes and was torn down before the property was purchased by the federal government in the 1970s.
Don’t forget: “Leave only footprints, take only memories.” If you pack it in, pack it out!