What To See On Hike 12

Scott State Forest

After leaving the Bandy Creek Campground, hikers enter the 2,826-acre Scott State Forest. The largest portion of the forest was purchased by the state of Tennessee in 1938 after the property owner failed to pay his taxes. The Forest is located in northeastern Tennessee, in Scott and Fentress Counties, and is named in honor of General Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican War. The Scott State Forest is completely surrounded by the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

Shortly after leaving Bandy Creek Campground, hikers will enjoy the first of several vertical challenges as they pass through the Scott State Forest. Some will have ladders and others will be rock scrambles with an occasional rope.

The forest is used for research including tree improvement studies, where various strains of native species are grown and tested. The forest is comprised of large stands of hardwood trees, with many of the stands near “rotation age” or maturity for harvest. The Forest once had vast stands of eastern white pine but thousands of these trees have been lost to the invasive southern pine beetle since the outbreak in 2001. It is difficult to determine the number of trees killed by the 3-millimeter beetle but it is estimated that as many as 85,000 pine trees are killed each year in Tennessee. 

The Southern Pine Beetle has killed millions of trees since 2001. – Source

Falls Branch Falls

Just 1.7 miles south of Bandy Creek Campground on the Sheltowee Trace, Falls Branch Falls is a ten-foot, single-plunge waterfall located near the trail.  The Fall Branch Falls is one of the hundreds of waterfalls located in Scott County, Tennessee, as documented by the Tennessee Landforms website.

Archie Smith Grave

The Sheltowee Trace passes by a single grave on the long ridge before the Angel Falls Overlook. Little Archie Smith died in October 1932 and was buried near the family home. Today, his grave is visited by thousands each year who wonder who he was and what happened. Read the complete history of Little Archie here.

The grave of Archie Smith beside the Sheltowee Trace in the Big South Fork.

Angel Falls Overlook

Looking downstream along the Big South Fork from the Angel Fall Overlook.

Angel Falls Overlook is the name given to a large sandstone outcrop that towers over the Cumberland River near Angel Falls.  The sound of the water rushing through the Angel Fall Rapids below can be heard through the trees from this high vantage point.  The overlook is located .15 miles off the Sheltoweet Trace and is marked by Forest Service signs and well worth the short walk. 

A winter scene from the Angel Falls Overlook in January 2021.

Angel Falls

A view of the Angel Fall near Oneida, Tennessee. – Source

The Angel Falls is located nearly a quarter mile in the valley of the Big South Fork below the Overlook. The roar of Angel Falls can be heard from the overlook as the water poured over and through the large boulders, but it cannot be seen. Angel Falls was a 10-12 foot split current waterfall in the Big South Fork River. The exact date is not known but before 1954 when the park was established, dynamite was used to clear the large boulder that slip the course of the stream. Local legend has two stories for the blast including a fisherman who wanted to open the river and a story about jammed logs headed to market. The result is the same regardless of the reason.

The blast cleared one stone and created “a dangerous class III-IV rapid with a bad undercut” according to the National Park Service. The Service recommends that paddlers port around these technical rapids. The Falls are not located along the Sherlowee Trace but can be accessed from the parking lot at the Leatherwood Ford Trailhead. The Angel Fall Rapids Trail runs 2.0 miles and is considered an easy trail, according to the National Parks Service classifications. The Rapids trail passed evidence of numerous coal mines near the mouth of Anderson Branch, downstream from Leatherwood Ford.

After leaving the Angel Falls Overlook, Sheltowee Trace Challengers begin a long descent and trek to the Leatherwood Ford by passing through some interesting rock shelters and one “sketchy” cliff walk. Be sure to use the hand line that is attached to the cliff face.

Leatherwood Ford Bridge

A view of the Leatherwood Ford Bridge in 1979.

A slight bend of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River allowed rocks and debris to create a natural ford.  Early settlers utilized this shallow crossing and a bridge was later constructed on the site by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Through the years, floods and high water blocked the crossing. Scott County officials had to refloor the bridge following every major water event. Highway 297 also crossed here in later years. The remnants of the metal low-water bridge can be seen at the site of the original ford.  The Sheltowee Trace once crossed the river at Leatherwood Ford but was moved to the large, plate-girder highway bridge, which replaced the old crossing in 1983.  

A school bus crossing the Leatherwood Ford Bridge in 1980. – Source: Tennessee Historical Commission

Leatherwood Ford Trailhead

After crossing the new highway bridge over the Big South Fork at leatherwood Ford, hikers will find the Trailhead. The parking area includes access to the Angel Fall Trail, restroom facilities, and drinking water are available here for most of the year. In recent years, record-breaking floods have covered this area.  

The gazebo at the Leatherwood Ford Trailhead offers a great place to stop and rest for a moment before heading further south.

O & W Bridge

The Oneida & Western Railroad started construction in 1913 of a new line to harvest the virgin timber that lay along the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. By June 1915, the line had extended from Oneida, Tennessee to the river at this point. Construction started on a Whipple Truss bridge across the river. The structure, built by the Nashville Bridge Company, opened in 1915 and provided a crossing for the railroad’s extension to Jamestown.

The railroad prospered in the 1920s and added passenger service for the residents of Fentress and  Scott counties. Following the economic collapse of the economy in the 1930s and a reduced demand for coal following World War II, the railroad was scheduled to be closed. It was saved and purchased by the Jewell Ridge Coal Company in 1946. Jewell operated the rail line until 1953,, serving the communities of Jamestown, Pine Haven, Zenith, Speck, Toomy, Verdun, and Oneida. Jewell Ridge operated the railroad at a loss until the last train crossed the O&W Bridge on March 31, 1954. Since that time, vehicles, horses, and hikers cross the bridge regularly.

A view of the Big South Fork looking south from the O&W Bridge.

The Climb

It’s never the distance that gets you- it’s the elevation. The O&W climb will get you. The steepest section of the trail can be found at the end of the O&W Bridge. Over the next .92 miles, the trail will gain 600 feet in elevation. This section of the trail is often muddy and slick. The good news is that after you drop over into the Devil’s Den, camp is waiting at the picnic table at the top of the hill.

A video of the flattest part of “The Climb” as you complete the steepest portion of the trail.

Jake’s Falls

Near the top of the long climb up the hill from the O&W Bridge, a large but seasonal waterfall can be found on the right side of the trail. This plunge waterfall is known as Jake’s Falls. Its proximity to Jake’s Hole, a large and deep pool in the Cumberland River, helped provide this natural wonder with its name. The waterfall can be heard long before the weary traveler comes face-to-face with its beautiful spot and it is one of the last places to get water before reaching Saturday’s night camp.

The Devil’s Den

After climbing away from the Cumberland River, the Sheltowee passes Jake’s Falls and then crosses into a small valley. While climbing the shared-use trail on the other side, a large sandstone rock shelter can be seen on the right side of the trail and about 50 yards away. This yellow and orange sandstone opening is known as the Devil’s Den.

A view from inside the Devil’s Den in a snowy January of 2021.

This natural feature has been used by Native Americans, early hunters, and hikers to shelter from the rain. The evidence of campfires can often be seen in the open but is highly discouraged and is illegal. Stop by the Devil’s Den for a rest and a few pictures because the camp is just ahead at the top of the climb.

O&W Overlook Picnic Table

At the top of this climb is a single picnic table sitting on the edge of the trail. The picnic table was placed by some of the many horseback riders who frequent the trails that occasionally cross and is often shared with the Sheltowee. The camp for 2022 will be in the wooded area near the picnic table. A very nice overlook is located just a few hundred yards away. The O&W Overlook provides a view downriver to the O&W Bridge and an upstream view of the Clear Fork River. There are plenty of places to hang a hammock and place a tent in this area.

Honey Creek

Named for the abundance of natural honey found in hollow trees along the bank of the creek by early settlers provided this creeks name. The honey bees can still be found in the area drawn primarily by the abundance of wildflowers, tulip poplars, and other flowering trees. Honey Creek is described as the “most challenging hike” in the Big South Fork Park. The trip through Honey Creek includes “steep narrow trail sections, numerous creek crossings, slick boulders, and confusing trail junctions” according to BSF literature.

Hikers will enjoy the scrambles over and through several rock formations along this hike.

Ice Castle Falls

Ice Castle Falls is the largest of the four waterfalls that hikers will pass in a short .3-mile section of the Sheltowee Trace along Honey Creek and its tributaries. Boulder House Falls, Secluded Falls, and Honey Creek Falls round out the four falls that are found in this beautiful sandstone gorge.

A snowy view of the sandstone gorge near Ice Castle Falls.

New Trail

After crossing Honey Creek Loop Road, the Sheltowee Trace makes its way down the hill toward the Clerk Fork River and turns toward Burnt Mill Bridge. For many years, the Sheltowee Trace stopped at the Trailhead at Burnt Mill Bridge, but soon that will change. The new trail will spur off the current Sheltowee Trace and head south toward the Gentlemen’s Swiming Hole. The Sheltowee Trace Association has worked with the National Parks Service and the leadership team at the Big South Fork to extend the trail another 11 miles to the south. The new southern terminus will be at the R. M. Brooks Store near Rugby, Tennessee.

A view of R. M. Brooks Store Near Rugby, Tennessee.

Several miles of the new trail were completed in 2021, but heavy rains and flooding negated that work. Crews have been working to complete the new section, but sadly for the 2022 Challenge, it will not be finished in time for us this year. Plans are also in the works to extend the Sheltowee Trace to Wartburg where the Sheltowee will eventually connect to the Great Eastern Trail/Cumberland Trail.

Burnt Mill Bridge

The Burnt Mill Bridge spanned the Clear Fork River for more than 110 years. On the night of March 28, 2021, the eastern section of the bridge was washed off its pillar and collapsed into the river during record-high flooding. The river crested at 20.61 and was the second highest level on record after numerous rounds of heavy rain dropped more than 8 inches of rain on the area. At its peak, more than 36,000 cubic feet of water flowed under and over the bridge before it fell. The smaller western section of the bridge survived the flooding.

A photo of the Burnt Mill Bridge shortly after the collapse was discovered on March 28, 2021.

Built in 1911, the bridge carried vehicular traffic across the river until 2003. The span was built with a Pratt Through-Truss section on the east side of the river and a smaller Half-Hip Pratt Truss section on the west. The wooden planked bridge was inspected by the Tennessee Department of Transportation inspected in 2003 and the TDOT condemned the crossing. The state constructed a new concrete bridge to handle the traffic in the area. The new crossing opened in 2006.

New wooden decking was installed on the bridge in 2019.

The Burnt Mill Trailhead is the official end of the 2022 Sheeltowee Trace Challenge, but many make their way to the remnants of the bridge as the symbolic end of the trail. Take the time to celebrate your journey and enjoy your success. Be proud of what you have accomplished!

The Sheltowee Trace officially ends (for now) at the edge of the trailhead parking lot, but the unofficial end is a photo on what is left of the bridge.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Big South Fork, Hiker Challenge, Hiking, Sheltowee National Recreation Trail and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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