Elevation Gain: 830 ft.
Trailhead: Honey Creek
Features: Geology, waterfalls
There aren’t a lot of repeat hikes on the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge (although the last two, Twin Arches and Burnt Mill Loop, have been). But one trail that will always be a part of the hiking challenge is Honey Creek Loop.
In a lot of ways, Honey Creek should be the final hike of the hiking challenge. It is, without a doubt, the best the Big South Fork has to offer, and it encompasses a little bit of everything the rest of the trails feature. If you drive five hours from Big South Fork in any direction and ask a random group of people about hiking here, chances are there will be someone in the group who is familiar with Honey Creek.
The reason this isn’t the final hike of the challenge is because of its difficulty. We learned our lesson in 2015, the year of the inaugural hiking challenge. In the middle of summer, in 90-degree temperatures with 95% humidity, Honey Creek is a brutal hike. So, instead, we’re placing it in the middle of the challenge, while the temperatures are still comfortable.
At 5.5 miles, Honey Creek isn’t the longest hike of the 20-week challenge. But it is the most difficult, and its 830 feet of elevation gain are the most of any hike that is a part of this challenge, except for the last one.
But hikers shouldn’t be scared away by the fact that this trail earns a rating of strenuous. It is a true adventure; when you’re in the Honey Creek gorge, you truly feel like you’re in a different world. If you take your time and don’t act as though you’re in a foot race to get back to the trailhead, you’ll make it just fine — and you’ll discover a ton of interesting things along the way.
It is for these reasons that USA Today recently named Honey Creek as one of America’s Top 20 day hikes.
For this hike, we recommend that you take a GPS or a map. (There are several free apps available for download on your phone, and you can load a map of the trail before you begin.) There are numerous side trails that lead away from the main trail and dead-end, making it easy to get turned around and lose your way. Some of those trails lead to awesome features, like hidden waterfalls and rock houses. Others lead simply nowhere. The main trail isn’t blazed partiuclarly well in some places, and at times requires walking through the creek. The National Park Service completes more trail rescues at Honey Creek than anywhere else in the Big South Fork — usually because hikers have under-estimated the time it would take to complete the hike and have become completely trapped by darkness, or because they’ve gotten turned around and can’t find their way out.
Again, these words of caution shouldn’t deter you if you’re attempting the hike. With a little planning and a few precautions, you’ll discover an adventure you won’t soon forget. It’s hard to argue that the Great Smoky Mountains don’t offer an overall hiking experience that tops the Big South Fork, but the Smokies do not have a trail that can top Honey Creek. Sarah Hodge, an AllTrails user, said this about Honey Creek: “I have hiked all over the world, and this is definitely in my Top 3 favorite hikes.” Another user, identified as Hunter H., said: “When we got done I felt like I had been through an obstacle course that I should have paid someone for access to.”
As for how much time should be allocated for hiking Honey Creek, the National Park Service recommends an hour per mile (easy trails can usually be hiked in less than half that time). But the Independent Herald guided a group of non-hikers on Honey Creek Loop last fall, with the age of the oldest of the group ranging into the 70s, and the entire hike was completed in less than three hours.
From the trailhead, Honey Creek is best hiked in a counter-clockwise direction, by starting the hike on the opposite side of the road from where vehicles park. For a while, the trail meanders through upland hardwoods, then finally begins its descent into the Big South Fork gorge.
Hikers will find Echo Rock relatively early in the loop. From just the right spot, it seems as though you can actually hear the river flowing out of the rock. The boulder’s unique position on the side of the gorge causes a remarkable echo effect from the river tumbling over the rapids far below.
A short distance beyond Echo Rock, the trail splits. A left takes you up a steep ladder to the top of the plateau and to Honey Creek Overlook, which offers spectacular views of the BSF’s most famed whitewater section. A separate ladder leads back to the main trail, but hikers who are weary about the difficulty of the trail that remains ahead may choose to skip this smaller inner loop to the overlook.
The trail dips close to the river at one point before turning into the Honey Creek gorge. It follows the creek most of the rest of the way, offering hikers a true adventure that will require them to scramble over, through and underneath rock jumbles. The trail leads past huge rock houses, like Indian Rock House, past waterfalls like Boulder House Falls, a unique waterfall which literally tumbles through a house of boulders, and a number of other features before finally reaching the top of the plateau and returning to the parking lot through upland forest.
Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 south from Oneida to the New River community. Turn right onto Old Hwy. 27 and follow the signs to Burnt Mill Bridge. Once at Burnt Mill Bridge, continue on Honey Creek Road to the first gravel road that turns right. The trailhead is located just off the main road. The trail begins on the opposite side of the road from the parking area.
Fun Fact: Before the Big South Fork NRRA was established, Honey Creek was a Bowater Pocket Wilderness Area. Today, Honey Creek is a 109-acre state natural area within the BSF. While the BSF is managed by the National Park Service, there are two state natural areas (the other being Twin Arches) within the national park, along with the Scott State Forest near Bandy Creek.
Look For: Within the Honey Creek Gorge section of the trail are arrows painted onto the rocks in reflective paint rather than traditional signs. These are among the trail blazes left over from when Honey Creek was a Bowater Pocket Wilderness in the 1960s and 1970s.
Be Careful For: There are a number of hazards along Honey Creek Loop, including steep ladders and steps, slippery rocks, stream crossings and areas that require short drops over boulders. Small children and dogs are not recommended for this hike, though school-age children can usually manage okay.
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.”