At 5.5 miles in length, the John Litton Farm Loop is the longest trail that has been featured on the 40 Week Challenge thus far. And the 420 feet of elevation gain are tied for the most in a single hike on the challenge.
But the trail that John Litton Loop ties with — the John Muir Trail segment from Leatherwood to O&W — wasn’t overly difficult, as anyone who hiked it can attest, and the John Litton Trail isn’t that difficult, either.
The John Litton Loop is one of a handful in the Big South Fork that combine excellent scenery with a nice history lesson, making it an attractive hike.
A preserved homestead: There are only a handful of original homesteads in the Big South Fork that have been preserved. One is the destination of this week’s hike, the John Litton Farm. The others include the nearby Lora Blevins Farm, the Oscar Blevins Farm, and the farm that is today known as Charit Creek Lodge. The John Litton Farm and Charit Creek Lodge share the honor of being the only ones in the entire BSF that are not accessible to the general public by motorized vehicle, meaning you’ve got to hike in to see them.
The history: John Litton and his wife, Vianna (or “Vi,” as most folks knew her) settled along the north prong of Fall Branch in the late 1800s, building a one-room cabin, an English pole barn, and raising four children on the land they cleared. The farm is a typical Cumberland Plateau subsistence farm. The Litton family truly lived off the land, raising pigs for slaughter, crops for both their livestock and their table, and gathering the nuts and fruits that grew natively in the forests surrounding their farm. John Litton died in 1935 and is buried in the nearby Blevins Cemetery, along with his wife. By then, heavy logging had come to the Big South Fork region and a way of life was quickly ending. As men went to work in the log woods, subsistence farms faded from the scene. Still later, the younger men went off to serve their country in World War II and returned home eager to seek a life far away from the isolation of this rugged backwoods countryside.
The farm’s final chapter: In 1946, after the Litton Farm had stood dormant for a decade, it was purchased by General Slaven. He and his wife, Mary “Did” Slaven, moved their family to the farm. The Slavens never had running water or electricity, but continued to live on the farm until 1979, when the federal government purchased the land to establish the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. General and Did Slaven were among the last residents to leave what would become the national park. General Slaven died in 1985. Did died in 1993. Both are buried at Taylor Place Cemetery in Jamestown.
The farm today: Hikers who visit the John Litton Farm will find the original home, the pole barn and various other structures. The barn was built of logs cut from the poplar trees that grew in abundance on the hillsides surrounding the farm, and evidence of the ax-hewn timbers can still be seen. Some of General Slaven’s farm equipment can still be found inside the barn. While they aren’t located on the trail, there are wooden hog pens that John Litton built at the base of bluffs on the hills surrounding the farm.
From Bandy Creek and back: The John Litton Loop Trail begins and ends at the Bandy Creek Campground swimming pool. Hikers will park in the paved parking lot adjacent to the pool, and the trail begins just across the road from the pool. Look for the signs. The trail is best hiked in a counter-clockwise direction.
Following Fall Branch: When hiking in a counter-clockwise direction, hikers will quickly descend into the drainage of Fall Branch, the stream that drains everything on the east side of the Bandy Creek area and eventually empties into the Big South Fork River just above Angel Falls. There are a couple of short ladders as the trail makes its descent. The trail then travels beneath rock shelters and continues to follow the stream downhill.
Fall Branch Falls: The highlight of the first half of the hike is Fall Branch Falls, a waterfall that is located along the stream. It is one of the larger waterfalls located on a trail in the Big South Fork. For hikers who care to venture down to it, it’s possible to travel behind the falls and find the shallow rock shelter located there.
The trails join: Further down the trail, hikers who are paying close attention can look up and see the Tennessee Valley Authority’s transmission lines overhead. These are the same transmission lines that you pass under in a car on Leatherwood Road just as you start to enter the river gorge. A short distance beyond that point, the hiking trail crosses a wooden footbridge and reaches a junction with the Fall Branch Trail that serves as a connector between Litton Farm Loop and Grand Gap Loop. Don’t take that trail. Instead, turn left to continue towards the farm.
The north fork: The first half of the hike was almost exclusively downhill. Once the trail passes the junction with Fall Branch Trail, however, it begins a slight uphill climb as it follows the north fork of Fall Branch towards the Litton Farm. The elevation gain is only slight, however. There aren’t any steep climbs along this section of the trail.
Arriving at the farm: Eventually, the trail will emerge at the front door of the Litton/Slaven home. You will find wildflowers, the original split-rail fences, and more. It’s possible to enter the home; the Litton home is the only original homestead in the Big South Fork — besides Charit Creek Lodge, of course — that can be entered by the general public. If you do go inside, please use caution not to disturb anything, and be sure the door is securely closed after you leave.
Leaving the farm: Once you’ve fully explored the John Litton Farm, you’ll begin following what is today an administrative access road away from the farm. After just a short distance, though, the hiking trail leaves the gravel road and turns into the field. There’s a sign board with information about the farm, and it is from this vantage point that pictures of the farm are usually taken. From there, the trail enters the forest on the far side of the field and begins an ascent out of the small valley and to the top of the plateau.
Returning to Bandy Creek: The trail will pass through several fields in varying stages of regrowth until it re-emerges at the administrative access road. From there, the last part of the hike back to Bandy Creek involves walking the gravel roads.
Getting there: From Oneida, take S.R. 297 west to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Continue through the gorge, then turn right onto Bandy Creek Road. Take another right into Bandy Creek Campground, then turn left just past the registration booth and continue to the swimming pool.
Be careful for: There are a couple of short ladders early in the hike.
Look for: Among the features at the John Litton Farm is a spring-fed farm pond. The pond supports a variety of life, including plant life, frogs, salamanders and fish. If you stand on the earthen dam for a moment, small blue gill will swim towards the bank, probably anticipating food.
Make it better: The Litton Farm Loop is just about the maximum length that most people prefer for a day hike, but if you do want more, you can make the Angel Falls Overlook a part of your hike. To do so, turn right at the Litton Farm Loop-Fall Branch Trail intersection, and take Fall Branch Trail to Grand Gap Loop. Then turn right on Grand Gap Loop to travel to the overlook. After leaving the overlook, retrace your steps to the Litton Farm Loop. The total added distance is almost seven miles. A much easier way to “make it better” is to explore the Lora Blevins Farm and Oscar Blevins Farm once you’ve finished the hike. Both are accessible via the West Bandy Creek Road, just beyond the campground. As you’re exiting the campground, turn right onto Bandy Creek Road. You’ll find Lora Blevins’ farm directly on the road. Oscar Blevins’ farm is located just off the road via a side road on the left.
Remember to: Leave Only Footprints, Take Only Memories. If you pack it in, please pack it out!