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From Sunset Overlook, a panoramic view of the Big South Fork River Gorge, including the S.R. 297 bridge at Leatherwood Ford in the distance | Photo: Sarah Dunlap

Trail: Sunset Overlook
Trailhead: East Rim
Distance: 2.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 167 ft.
Difficulty: Easy

The Independent Herald’s Twenty Week Hiking Challenge begins this week with a trek to Sunset Overlook in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

As the Big South Fork’s edge-of-the-gorge rock outcroppings go, Sunset Overlook doesn’t provide the most spectacular view. In fact, there will be other overlooks as the hiking challenge progresses that will surpass Sunset. But the trail leading to the overlook is level and gentle, making it an ideal destination for beginners who have never left the asphalt for the forest to hike — or for seasoned veterans who are just looking for a relaxing stroll in the forest. That, and the fact that it’s only a 15-minute drive from the middle of Oneida, make it the perfect place to start the hiking challenge. (Those who have participated in the past will remember that the 2015 hiking challenge also started with a hike to Sunset Overlook. Most of the rest of the trails featured this year will not mirror those that were a part of the 2015 challenge.)

At 2.6 miles, out and back, and featuring only 150 ft. of elevation gain, the Sunset Overlook Trail isn’t the most level trail in the BSF, but it’s close to it. It’s also one of the easiest hikes in the park, perhaps second only to Bandy Creek Loop. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the hike is the mysterious Chi Rho symbol that is carved into the sandstone at the overlook that lends its name to the trail.

The hike to Sunset Overlook begins at the East Rim Trailhead, which is not to be confused with the parking lot for East Rim Overlook. That overlook and its parking lot are located at the end of the road. The trailhead is located just three-tenths of a mile from S.R. 297.

From the trailhead, the trail winds through the upland forest for a short distance, crosses a gravel road that leads to a National Park Service law enforcement shooting range, and then passes by an old farm pond. The passage of time has allowed the pond to fill with sediment until it’s little more than a mud hole now, but you’ll still hear plenty of spring peepers if you happen by at the right time of day, and if you’re lucky you might find woodland animals sneaking around the pond’s edge.

After hiking a short ways further through a drainage that’s filled with stately hemlocks, the trail crosses the earthen dam of another farm pond before beginning to wind its way along the side of a small incline. 

About halfway to the overlook, the trail joins an old road. This ridge top was heavily logged in the mid 20th century, and the scars of old roads left by timber-cutters criss-cross the ridge. 

Eventually, the ridge begins to narrow, with mountain laurel beginning to crowd in on the trail from either side — a sign that the river gorge is just ahead. The trail soon emerges along the rim of the gorge, a 300-ft. vertical drop from the river below.

The view from the overlook isn’t spectacular. But if you look closely, you’ll notice a few landmarks. The S.R. 297 bridge is visible downstream. Upstream, hikers will notice a large valley, which is the North White Oak Creek drainage near the O&W, though you cannot see the stream itself. To the right, visible this time of year when there’s no foliage to block the view, is the viewing platform at East Rim Overlook.

As for the Chi Rho symbol, it is visible on the exposed sandstone near the edge of the gorge. It is mysterious because no one seems to know exactly who carved it, or when. 

The Chi Rho is an early christogram that dates back to ancient Greek culture. It is made by superimposing the first two letters of the Greek alphabet — chi and rho, which look very much like the X and P in the English alphabet. Chi and rho are the first two letters for Christos — the Greek word for Christ.

While the Chi Rho has long been a symbol of Christianity, it actually predates Christ. In pre-Christian times, the Chi Rho symbol was used to denote passages of text in the margin of a page of manuscripts. Additionally, while the chi and rho are Greek letters, the Chi Rho symbol is most often associated with Latin, where it is used to signify Christ nouns.

The history of the Chi Rho is a fascinating one. According to the Latin historian Lactantius, who served as tutor to the son of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, Jesus was said to have appeared in a dream to Constantine, ordering him to put a “heavenly divine symbol” on the shields of his soldiers. That symbol was the Chi Rho. One day later, Constantine’s army won the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which began Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. One year later, he confirmed his Christian beliefs in the Edict of Milan, and later eased the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Eventually, the Chi Rho became part of the Roman Empire’s official insignia and the empire’s coins were emblazoned with the symbol.

Once you’ve admired the view and explored the Chi Rho, it’s time to head back. Because the trail to Sunset Overlook is an out-and-back trail rather than a loop trail, hikers return to their vehicles by simply retracing their steps.

Getting There: East Rim Trailhead is located on S.R. 297 near the BSF park headquarters. Take S.R. 297 east from Oneida, and East Rim Road is the first road on the left past the park headquarters. The trailhead parking area is located on the right about three-tenths of a mile from the main highway. Sunset Overlook Trail begins across the road from the parking area.

Make It Better: When you return to the trailhead from Sunset Overlook, take advantage of the fact that you’re already in the vicinity and visit another BSF overlook. East Rim Trailhead is also a starting point for the Leatherwood Loop Trail, which begins by following a travel walkway through the grasses by the parking area. About a half-mile along the Leatherwood Loop is Leatherwood Overlook, which is located about a tenth of a mile along a spur trail that exits the main trail. Take a left where the spur trail from the parking lot meets Leatherwood Loop, then take a right when the trail next forks to follow the spur trail to the overlook. The out-and-back adds about a mile to the hike.

Be Careful For: The unprotected rock outcropping at Sunset Overlook is the only hazard on this hike. Keep your children and pets close at hand and do not allow them to climb on the rocks near the edge; it’s a long way to the bottom. 

Look For: The Sunset Overlook Trail was once used as a nature trail. If you look closely, you might find a decaying interpretive sign post that was once used to identify a point of interest along the trail.

Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to newsroom@ihoneida.com, along with the names of all members of your hiking party, in order to log your miles.

Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you pack it in, please pack it out!

Go Big Points: While the Big South Fork NRRA’s Go Big 2019 Challenge is separate from the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge, you can earn points towards completing the Go Big Challenge while you participate in the hiking challenge. If you complete the Sunset Overlook hike, you will earn 3 points towards your Go Big Challenge. Also, keep a close eye out for the wildlife you encounter; if you see any of several birds, you can earn 3 points for each bird you see (blue heron, wild turkey, crow, pileated woodpecker, red-tailed hawk, indigo bunting). To log your Go Big points, download the challenge booklet at nps.gov/biso. Participants who log at least 100 points will earn a challenge patch. Or, you can earn a medallion with 200 points (silver) or 300 points (gold).