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Saturday, December 4, 2021
Outdoors Hike of the Week: Needle's Eye (Hole in the Ridge)

Hike of the Week: Needle’s Eye (Hole in the Ridge)

Distance: Varies Elevation Gain: Varies Difficulty: Varies Trailhead: O&W or Hurricane Ridge Features: Geology, overlook, waterfall If you were asked to pick the most spectacular geological feature in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, which would it be?  There are many to choose from within the Big South Fork’s 125,000 acres. But, […]

Needle’s Eye — also known as Hole in the Ridge — is a cave running the width of a ridge above North White Oak Creek that is among the most spectacular geological features in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area } Ben Garrett/IH

Distance: Varies

Elevation Gain: Varies

Difficulty: Varies

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Trailhead: O&W or Hurricane Ridge

Features: Geology, overlook, waterfall

If you were asked to pick the most spectacular geological feature in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, which would it be? 

There are many to choose from within the Big South Fork’s 125,000 acres. But, chances are, you’d choose Twin Arches. 

To be sure, the Twin Arches — which combine to form one of the largest natural land bridges in all the world — are spectacular. But there’s another amazing feature in the Big South Fork that isn’t nearly as well-known as the famed arches, even though it’s nearly as breath-taking: Needle’s Eye.

You might still hear it called “Hole in the Ridge” by some locals. That’s what it was known as for decades, when folks in the Honey Creek and Mt. Helen communities would load up the family on Sunday afternoons and bounce along 4×4 roads to visit places like Hole in the Ridge and Potter’s Cave and other unique places in what would eventually become the Big South Fork NRRA.

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Needle’s Eye, which it was later named by horseback riders, is just what the old-timers called it: a hole in the ridge; a unique cave that spans the width of the ridge, with openings on either side.

As caves go, it’s the second-largest in the Big South Fork, only trailing Devils Cave near East Rim Overlook. But Needle’s Eye is much more user-friendly, with its smooth, sandy floor and well-lit entrances. 

Needle’s Eye is situated on the end of a ridge that overlooks North White Oak Creek, just a couple of miles west of the O&W Bridge. You can’t see the creek from the cave, but you can hear it. 

The expansive, table-top landscape surrounding Needle’s Eye is Hurricane Ridge, known to the locals as the “Big Woods.” This ridge was the site of extensive logging operations and some oil-drilling operations in the mid 20th century. Today, though, it’s a quiet and peaceful respite. Not too many years ago, the Big Woods were home to numerous wild boar and wild turkeys. There aren’t many turkeys on Hurricane Ridge these days, and even fewer wild boar. But one thing there are plenty of is songbirds. An early-morning stroll through the open forests of the Big Woods with the songs of the birds echoing through the forest canopy, you’ll feel as if you’re just about as far from civilization as you can get in the Big South Fork. And, in some ways, you are.

For years, Hurricane Ridge was undeveloped. Through a partnership with the National Park Service, horseback riders have in more recent years developed a fairly extensive equestrian trail system that zig-zags the ridge. And the John Muir Trail traverses the ridge top as it connects Honey Creek Loop on one side to the O&W on the other. But, all in all, you won’t find many people wandering Hurricane Ridge. It’s a relatively untamed part of the national park, which makes it an even better place to take a hike.

Needle’s Eye is one of only two hikes of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge that primarily follows equestrian trails. During periods of wet weather, this hike isn’t necessarily much fun; the trail tends to be muddy and more difficult to walk. But during dry periods, such as the one we’re currently experiencing, the trail is simply sandy and dry, and it’s a relatively easy hike.

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There are two ways to get to Needle’s Eye, and this week’s challenge gives hikers the opportunity to choose which one they want to take: the somewhat longer and more difficult, but also significantly more scenic option from the O&W Bridge, or the somewhat shorter and much easier, but also less scenic option from the top of Hurricane Ridge.

Either way, we recommend that you download a reliable GPS app on your phone for this trip — preferably one that allows you to preload satellite imagery and topographical maps. It’s easier to get turned around on this hike than on many that have been featured on the hiking challenge, simply because there are multiple trails and they aren’t well signed.

The O&W Route: Beginning from the O&W Bridge at the Big South Fork River, this trail earns a “strenuous” rating, but much of that rating is due to the quick climb straight out of the gate. 

From the bridge, the John Muir Trail climbs 500 vertical feet over the course of half a mile, which gets the heart pumping and the sweat flowing. But there are rewards for making the climb: You get to see Jake’s Falls, although it’s little more than a trickle right now. You also get to see Devils Den, one of the better-known rock shelters of the Big South Fork region. And, perhaps best of all, you get to see the absolutely stunning views from the overlook at the top of the gorge. And once you get to the overlook, the hard part of the hike is over. The rest is mostly level ground … or downhill.

When you reach a picnic table at the top of the gorge, look for a small footpath leading to the right. This footpath is the short spur trail leading to the unprotected overlook, which offers scenic views of the craggiest section of the Big South Fork Gorge between O&W Bridge and Pine Creek.

From the overlook, continue southwest along the John Muir Trail for another four-tenths of a mile, before the trail takes a sharp left turn and continues up the ridge. In another half-mile or so — about 1.5 miles into the hike after leaving the O&W Bridge — the hiking trail intersects with the equestrian trail at a wooden barrier. The JMT continues southeast (left). Instead of following it, turn west (right) on the horse trail and continue for about four-tenths of a mile. The trail will go downhill, through a somewhat marshy area that will require you to dodge several mudholes, and then start to climb. As it does, you’ll reach a trail intersection. Take the right fork in the trail to head northwest. From there, follow the signs to Needle’s Eye. When you reach a tie-off area at the end of the equestrian trail, a footpath leads the rest of the way to the cave.

After you’ve explored the cave, simply retrace your steps back to the O&W Bridge. If you want to make a loop out of it, about four-tenths of a mile back out the ridge from the end of the equestrian trail, a trail turns left. This is called the Oh Poop trail by riders. Follow it back to O&W Road, then follow the O&W Road along Pine Creek back to the bridge.

The total length of the hike is 5.5 miles with 847 ft. of elevation gain as an out-and-back, or 4.6 miles with 758 ft. of elevation gain as a loop.

The Hurricane Ridge Route: A word of caution before getting into the meat of this hike — you will likely want an SUV or a pickup truck to make the drive to Hurricane Ridge. The road isn’t terrible; it’s a gravel road that won’t require you to engage four-wheel-drive. But you might want a little more ground clearance than the family sedan offerss, due to potholes and occasional wash-outs from heavy rain. 

Hurricane Ridge Road is located off Honey Creek Road about 4.5 miles beyond Burnt Mill Bridge, or about 1.5 miles beyond Honey Creek Overlook Road. Once Honey Creek Road changes from a gravel surface to a paved surface, Hurricane Ridge Road is the first gravel road on the right. It is also the first right beyond the entrance to Cowboy Country Club Campground. However, it isn’t signed and will look more like a private driveway than a public road (though it is, in fact, a public road). If you come to the entrance to Double Arch Retreat, you’ve driven too far.

After turning onto Hurricane Ridge Road, continue through a mix of pine forests and clear cuts for about 1.4 miles until a gravel road turns right. Continue straight, but just beyond the turnoff is an oil well. This is a good spot to park because this marks the end of the maintained portion of the road. The rest of the way to the BSF park boundary is an unmaintained dirt road. 

After parking, hike the remaining quarter of a mile through the clear cut until you reach the Big South Fork boundary and hardwood forest. At that point, the trail forks. Both forks lead to Needle’s Eye. But for the purpose of this hike, we’re going to take the shortest (and easiest) option, which means continuing straight (north) instead of turning left.

The equestrian trail will go down a decline, through a marshy area, and then climb a slight hill on the opposite side, until you reach a trail intersection in about eight-tenths of a mile. Take the left-hand fork west to Needle’s Eye, following the signs. 

After you’ve explored Needle’s Eye, simply retrace your steps to your vehicle. Or, if you want to make a loop of it, there’s a right-hand fork in the trail about six-tenths of a mile back out the ridge from Needle’s Eye. This trail is called the Panther Branch Trail. Take it back to the vehicle, though be warned that it is somewhat more difficult to hike due to significant erosion from horses.

The total distance of this hike is 3.9 miles with 299 ft. of elevation gain as an out-and-back, or 4.2 miles with 417 ft. of elevation gain as a loop.

Getting There: For the O&W option, take O&W Road west from Oneida to the O&W Bridge. Park on either side of the bridge. The John Muir Trail departs the roadway on the west side of the bridge. For the Hurricane Ridge  option, take U.S. Hwy. 27 south from Oneida to Mountain View Road, then follow the signs to Burnt Mill Bridge. Beyond Burnt Mill Bridge, it’s 4.5 miles to Hurricane Ridge Road, the first right after passing the entrance to Cowboy Country Club Campground (if you pass the Double Arch Retreat entrance, you’ve gone too far). Continue to the end of the maintained section of the road, then park at an oil well and begin your hike on a dirt road leading through the clear cut and into the national park. (Driving directions from Oneida to O&W Bridge. Driving directions from Oneida to Hurricane Ridge Road.)

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.”

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Independent Herald
Contact the Independent Herald at newsroom@ihoneida.com. Follow us on Twitter, @indherald.
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