Distance: 4.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 410 ft.
Trailhead: Burnt Mill
Features: Waterfall, River
There just isn’t a bad time to hike the Burnt Mill Loop Trail. The summer is a great time because of the abundance of swimming holes along the route. But the spring might be an even better time because of all the wildflowers that can be found in the fertile soils along the Clear Fork River. And this week’s hike just happens to coincide with the peak of the spring wildflower season.
Located on the southern end of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, Burnt Mill Loop is a 4.2-mile loop trail that is often over-shadowed by the nearby Honey Creek Loop Trail. The rough and rugged, otherworldly terrain of the Honey Creek trail makes it the most popular hike within the Big South Fork NRRA — indeed, it is one of the most popular day hikes in the entire Southeastern U.S.
But the Burnt Mill Loop deserves its own place and recognition. A much gentler hike considering its close proximity to Honey Creek, Burnt Mill Loop is a relatively leisurely stroll along the Clear Fork River, featuring hardwood forests, interesting rock formations, a waterfall, plenty of scenic river views, and lots of wildflowers.
Burnt Mill Loop earns a moderate difficulty rating, but that’s mostly for a single hill climb that hikers encounter early into their trek. After that, the hike gets much easier, and it requires only a couple of hours to complete, though most hikers will want to reserve extra time to explore the sights along the way.
The Big South Fork terrain is so varied that it’s hard to compare hikes. An argument could be made that each of the first five hikes of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge was the most picturesque of the challenge for different reasons. It’s hard to compare the hike to Split Bow Arch on the Kentucky side of the Big South Fork to the hike at Burnt Mill, because they’re different hikes with different features. But there are certainly those who would argue that Burnt Mill is the most picturesque of the bunch — and their pictures will justify that argument.
From the parking lot at Burnt Mill Bridge, the trail is best hiked in a counter-clockwise direction. Doing so will allow hikers to get the most difficult part of the hike out of the way early, then enjoy a leisurely stroll along the river back to the trailhead.
Hikers will find the start of the trail on the opposite side of Honey Creek Road, on the downstream side of the bridge. For the first mile, the trail scrambles around boulders as it follows the river downstream. Then, the elevation gain begins as the trail leaves the river and ascends to the top of the plateau.
At 1.1 miles from the parking lot, the trail forks. The right fork is a connector trail with Honey creek, called the Beaver Falls Trail. The left fork is a continuation of the Burnt Mill Loop, and almost immediately crosses Honey Creek Road before re-entering the forest.
For the next mile, the trail travels along an open ridgetop before descending back to the river’s edge.
The final 2.1 miles of the trip are along the river, and this is perhaps where the trail is at its best. There are several vantage points that make excellent photo opportunities from boulders along the river’s edge. There is the Burnt Mill Shower, a 26-ft. waterfall located just off-trail. And there are several picnic spots along the way, too.
Clear Fork more closely resembles the Big South Fork River that it helps form than does its counterpart, New River, due to the rugged nature of the gorge that encases the stream and the large boulders that can often be found in the middle of the river. But, this far up, Clear Fork is still a gentle stream in its own right, and a gentle one to boot.
Getting There: From Oneida, take U.S. Hwy. 27 to the New River community and follow the signs to Burnt Mill Bridge. Turn right onto Old Hwy. 27, then right again onto Mountain View Road. Take another right onto Honey Creek Road at the Black Creek-Crossroads Baptist Church (not to be confused with Black Creek Baptist Church a short distance away), then veer left at Honey Creek Road’s intersection with Al Martin Road The Burnt Mill Trailhead is located on the far side of the bridge.
Fun Fact: The Beaver Falls Trail that Burnt Mill Loop intersects is actually a part of the John Muir Trail, the long-distance trail that travels all the way through the Big South Fork to Pickett State Park. Eventually, the John Muir Trail will continue south along Clear Fork River from Burnt Mill Loop to Brewster Ford near Rugby. The trail’s south terminus will become Rugby, utilizing the old Hwy. 52 roadbed to climb out of the gorge.
Make It Better: Add a hike to Beaver Falls to your trip. The Beaver Falls Trail itself is a 5-mile hike from Burnt Mill to Honey Creek, but hikers can do an out-and-back to Beaver Falls as an add-on to Burnt Mill Loop. Beaver Falls is an off-trail waterfall that can be viewed from above, or — with a little effort — from below. The trail leading to it is a narrow footpath along the side of a ridge high above the Clear Fork River. It’s a beautiful hike during the spring, when dogwoods and redbuds are in bloom. When the trail descends to a stream crossing, Beaver Falls is located a short distance away from the trail. If you cross the stream, you’ll be leaving Beaver Falls behind and continuing on towards Honey Creek. The out-and-back adds approximately 3.9 miles to the Burnt Mill Loop, for a total distance of approximately 8.1 miles.
Look For: Wildflowers! Lots of wildflowers. According to Howard Duncan, Brenda Deaver and Jo Anna Smith in their book, “Hiking the Big South Fork,” 50 species of wildflowers have been identified along the Burnt Mill Loop. Several are currently in bloom. How many can you name?
Be Careful For: There are rock steps along the trail that can be slippery when wet. If you venture into the river, be careful for slippery and uneven rocks.
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.”