Distance: 4.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 100 ft.
Features: Waterfall, River, History
There’s never really a bad time to hike from Leatherwood Ford to O&W Bridge. It’s one of the most popular hikes within the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area for a reason: easy access and beautiful scenery. But one of the best times to hike is during the spring wildflower season, which is just beginning.
To be fair, the wildflowers along the Big South Fork River aren’t really blooming yet. But the trilliums that grow so brilliantly in the sandy soil near the river are getting close. Step for step, there may be more trilliums along the hike from Leatherwood to O&W than any other place in the national park.
The hike from Leatherwood to O&W earns a “moderate” difficulty rating. But, truthfully, that rating is mostly due to the length of the hike. At almost five miles, round-trip, it rivals the hike to the JD Burke Cabin as the longest hike of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge thus far. The trail itself, though, is pretty easy. There’s one short climb a little less than halfway between Leatherwood and O&W, where the trail climbs away from the river, but the rest of the trail is mostly level.
This hike is part of the John Muir Trail, a long-distance trail extending from Pickett State Park to Honey Creek. From Leatherwood Ford, the trail begins with an easy stroll along the river. The trail is flat, surfaced in gravel and even includes several small benches for resting. After crossing a wooden footbridge, a couple of camping sites along the river’s edge and a huge boulder, the improved section of the trail ends and it takes on a look more typical of hiking trails within the BSF.
A short distance after the Leatherwood Loop Trail departs to the left, the JMT dips closer to the river’s edge and then goes through a series of switchbacks as it climbs 100 ft. and rejoins an old roadbed higher above the river.
The roadbed descends until it reaches a bench that runs parallel to the river, then goes through a series of wet-weather streams. A little more than two miles to the hike, the O&W Bridge itself becomes visible through the trees. Before you get to that point, though, you can keep tabs on your progress by watching the river for the mouth of White Oak Creek. You’ll know you’re close when you see the terrain break into a valley extending away from the river.
There are a couple of bonuses along this hike. One is, of course, the historic O&W Bridge itself. Originally built in the late 1800s, the bridge was disassembled and moved to the Big South Fork in 1915, when the O&W Railroad was being built. It is one of the last remaining steel whipple truss style bridges in use in the United States today.
Exploring around the bridge is one of the fun parts of this hike. Be sure to walk out onto the bridge and then turn and look back towards Oneida for the so-called O&W Wall, the huge cliff that towers over the bridge. This is the most popular spot in the Big South Fork for rock climbers, and if you get lucky, you’ll see a few climbers clinging to the rock wall several hundred feet above the river as the ascend the cliff line. Below the bridge, you’ll likely see some whitewater paddlers tackling the O&W Rapid if you hang out long enough. We’re in the midst of the whitewater season on the Big South Fork, and paddlers come from miles around to tackle the stretch of rough water that ends at the O&W.
The second bonus of the hike is the waterfall that is located just downstream from the bridge. It terms of volume and height, it isn’t all that impressive. But the way it tumbles off a large boulder and empties into a pool below makes it one of the more unique waterfalls in the BSF region — particularly just after a moderate or heavy rainfall.
Getting There: From Oneida, take S.R. 297 west through Coopertown to Leatherwood Ford in the Big South Fork. Once the highway descends to the river through a series of switchbacks, the parking lot is on the right. The trail departs from the north end of the parking lot, near the gazebo.
Fun Fact: When the O&W Railroad was being constructed in the 1910s, a rail spur was planned as an extension from O&W Bridge to the Anderson Branch Mine just below Leatherwood Ford. This never happened, and the plan was scrapped after a huge boulder tumbled onto a portion of the rail grade that had already been completed. But as you near the O&W Bridge, you can see signs where construction of the rail grade began before the idea was abandoned.
Make It Better: Rather than starting at Leatherwood Ford, begin the hike at the East Rim Trailhead and incorporate the Leatherwood Loop Trail into the hike. From the trailhead along East Rim Overlook Road, follow the short spur trail to the start of the loop, then turn right and hike along the edge of the old field towards Leatherwood Ford. At S.R. 297, begin the hike towards O&W. On the way back to Leatherwood from the bridge, the Leatherwood Loop Trail exits to the right about half a mile above Leatherwood Ford. The trail climbs back to the top of the plateau through a series of switchbacks. There’s a nice overlook at the top. The total distance of this hike would be 6.6 miles, with 965 ft. of elevation gain.
Look For: A short distance upstream from Leatherwood Ford, along the hike to the O&W, is Echo Rock, a huge boulder along the river that reflects the sound of the river crashing over rapids near the mouth of Bandy Creek. Along the river at this point is a huge cobble bar that is one of the best examples of these unique ecosystems found within the Big South Fork. Cobble bars are regions along the river that are frequently scoured by floods, preventing forestation. Plants and animal life can be found on cobble bars that don’t exist anywhere else along the Big South Fork River.
Be Careful For: There are some rock steps that can be slippery during wet weather, and also some stream crossings that can be tricky if the rocks are wet. There is a slide area that has taken out a small portion of the trail, requiring hikers to clamber around it. And the recent flood deposited lots of sand along the trail.
Share the Adventure: Tag your photos on Facebook and Instagram, #20WeekHikingChallenge, for an opportunity to win prizes (please be sure your post privacy is set to public in order to be eligible for a drawing; otherwise, we may not be able to see the pictures).
Remember To: Please remember to take your trash with you when you leave the trail, and consider packing out anyone else’s trash you might come across. Remember the adventurer’s creed: “Leave only footprints; take only memories.”