Some trails are exceptional for a season. Others are excellent choices for hikes in any season, offering something different every time the calendar changes.
Burnt Mill Loop is one of the latter. This 4.2-mile loop trail on the southern end of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is truly a trail for all seasons, offering a peaceful stroll along one of the BSF River’s main tributaries.
Beginning and ending at Burnt Mill Bridge on Honey Creek Road west of Robbins, Burnt Mill Loop is one of the BSF’s underrated hikes. Just up the road is its sister trail, Honey Creek (in fact, there’s a connector trail, Beaver Falls, that links the two), and it hogs all the glory. That’s for good reason; there are few day hikes in the eastern United States that can surpass Honey Creek. But Burnt Mill is excellent in its own right — just for different reasons.
The Twenty Week Hiking Challenge saved this one for near the end because it’s one of the few trails that offers plenty of opportunity to get your feet wet, and when temperatures are at their hottest, it’s always nice to have an option to cool off. This one offers that, whether it’s a quick dip in a swimming hole, leisurely wading in ankle-deep water, or standing beneath a cold waterfall. Clear Fork is aptly named. Of the two primary streams that merge to form the BSF, Clear Fork is by far the clearer of the two. By contrast to New River, with its mud banks and dingy waters, Clear Fork is often clear unless there’s been excess rain, and the stream bed is solid rock in many places. Next to North White Oak Creek a few miles to the northwest, it is the most scenic large stream that is part of the BSF river system.
Burnt Mill is rated “moderate” by some in terms of difficulty. But, in reality, it isn’t very difficult. Although it is difficult to believe, since the BSF’s most rugged hiking trail — Honey Creek — is just a hop, skip and a jump away, the terrain surrounding the Burnt Mill Loop is much more gentle than that found in most of the BSF. Along the upper reaches of the BSF River system, the terrain is more forgiving, with an absence of the sheer clifflines that tower over the river further downstream.
With the exception of a climb from the river’s edge to the top of the plateau, Burnt Mill Loop is quite flat. And that climb isn’t nearly as rough as some of those that have been encountered to this point of the hiking challenge. It pales in comparison to the climb at Blue Heron, for example, and it’s certainly nowhere close to the climb to the top of the mountain above Bruce Creek.
From the bridge at Burnt Mill, the trail is best hiked in a clockwise direction. From the parking lot, cross Honey Creek Road and look for the footpath on the opposite side.
The trail follows the river for a ways. Hikers will notice several sets of rapids and no real opportunity to get into the river and cool off. This illustrates the quickly changing river. While there are certainly rapids upstream from Burnt Mill Bridge — some of them are Class III rapids, in fact, and whitewater paddlers often float from Brewster Ford near Rugby to Burnt Mill when the water is right — the river’s characteristics begin to change below the bridge. The confluence with New River is just a few miles ahead, and the river’s average drop is becoming more pronounced. For whitewater paddlers who don’t want to carry their boat at the confluence, Burnt Mill serves as the start of the BSF’s famed “Canyon” and “Gorge” runs.
After a ways, the trail turns away from the river, past some unique rock shelters, and begins following a small feeder stream. Just ahead is the climb from the gorge to the ridge top.
At the top of the ridge, the trail passes its intersection with Beaver Falls Trail, crosses Honey Creek Road, and continues along the ridgetop for another mile or so. One of the best things about Burnt Mill Loop is that it runs the gamut of the BSF’s terrain types, from the tabletop lands of the plateau to the streams that cut through the gorge.
Eventually, Burnt Mill Loop begins its descent back to the river’s edge. After passing a series of small rapids, hikers will notice a footpath leading to the left. This unsigned spur trail leads to Burnt Mill Shower, a wet-weather waterfall created by a small feeder stream plunging over a bluff. The cold waters are an excellent opportunity to cool off from the hike.
A short distance later, the trail passes a couple of campsites. At either of them, footpaths lead to the water’s edge, proving opportunities for hikers to take off their shoes and wade in the cooling waters of the river.
After passing the second of the two campsites, the river calms, and becomes a silent pool for most of the rest of the way back to the bridge. There are only two more sets of rapids the rest of the way: one at the mouth of Skull Creek, and one just above the bridge.
For those who enjoy company on their hikes, the Big South Fork NRRA will present a ranger-led hike on Saturday, July 13, at 10 a.m.
Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 south from Oneida to Old Hwy. 27 at New River. Turn right onto Old Hwy. 27, then follow the signs to Burnt Mill Bridge by way of Mountain View Road and Honey Creek Road.
Be Careful For: The only hazard is slippery rocks at the base of Burnt Mill Shower if you choose to venture off-trail to explore the wet-weather waterfall.
Make It Better: Pack a picnic and begin or end your hike with lunch at Burnt Mill Bridge. There are picnic facilities and a “comfort station” — the National Park Service’s fancy terminology for its no-running-water, no-electricity trailhead bathroom facilities. Or, add to your hike by following the Beaver Falls Trail to the waterfall for which it’s named. The waterfall is off-trail, located just downstream from the only creek that the trail crosses. Finally, make it better by accompanying a park ranger. A ranger-guided hike will depart the Burnt Mill Trailhead at 10 a.m. Saturday morning.
Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, 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!