Elevation Gain: 322 ft.
Trailhead: Grand Gap
Angel Falls Overlook is arguably the most-photographed location in the entirety of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Photos from this spectacular vantage point downstream from Leatherwood Ford have graced magazine covers and have appeared in publications throughout the United States.
This rock outcropping high above Angel Falls Rapid may or may not be the best overlook in the Big South Fork NRRA. That’s a matter of personal preference, and there are several great ones to choose from. But it certainly ranks up there, and it is a common destination for photographers who are looking to capture all of the splendor that the Big South Fork is known for.
Angel Falls Overlook is the destination for Week 9 of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge. As we begin the third month of the challenge, this week’s hike offers a reprieve from the more difficult hikes that have been featured as of late. After back-to-back hikes at Honey Creek and Twin Arches, most hikers are ready to relax a little bit, and the hike to Angel Falls Overlook offers an opportunity to do just that.
The Angel Falls Overlook is located on the 6.8-mile Grand Gap Loop Trail, which is one of the longer loop trails in the Big South Fork. But for the purpose of this hike, we’re going to do an out-and-back from the trailhead to the overlook. It’s an easy, mostly level stroll that actually features two overlooks. The Fall Branch Overlook is located just around the bend from Angel Falls Overlook. It’s a fairly impressive overlook in its own right, but hikers who reach this first rock outcropping shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking they’ve reached the destination. The views from Fall Branch Overlook are nothing like the views that await at Angel Falls Overlook.
Angel Falls Overlook is actually a free-standing rock butte, nearly 500 ft. above the Big South Fork River. That sounds a little more ominous than it really is. While stepping out onto the overlook requires stepping over a crack in the rock that’s large enough to lose a cell phone or even a small dog into, there’s no real danger in stepping from the solid ground on the rim of the gorge out onto the rock. And the views that await are simply breathtaking.
The rock outcropping at Angel Falls Overlook is perfectly positioned above where Fall Branch empties into the Big South Fork River. The overlook offers views of greater than 180 degrees both up and down the BSF River as well as up Fall Branch, which heads up near Bandy Creek Campground.
Angel Falls itself isn’t visible from the overlook, especially once the trees have leafed out in the spring. During the winter months, hikers can be seen on the Angel Falls Rapids Trail far below, but the foliage hides that trail, as well. However, you can certainly hear the Class IV whitewater rapid surging below you, and if you’re lucky you might see kayakers paddling the river.
The hike to the overlook is mostly uneventful. From the trailhead at the end of Alfred Smith Road, head south (if you’re facing towards Bandy Creek after parking your vehicle, take a left from the road) on the trail. The trail parallels the old road bed for a short distance before turning down a ridge where Smith’s son, Archie, is buried. The trail follows a slight descent along a hardwood ridge and passes a couple of backcountry campsites before emerging along the rim of the gorge encasing Fall Branch, which is where the first overlook is located. The main overlook is just past the trail’s intersection with the John Muir Trail segment that leads back to Leatherwood Ford.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 from Oneida to Bandy Creek Road on the west side of the BSF gorge. Turn right onto Bandy Creek Road. Then turn right again into the Bandy Creek Campground. Just past the ranger kiosk, turn left towards the Bandy Creek Swimming Pool. At the pool, the pavement ends and the road turns to gravel. Continue on the gravel road, which is Duncan Hollow Road. Alfred Smith Road will be the second right, and is located approximately two miles from the campground. (When the road forks under the TVA power lines, take the left fork to continue on Duncan Hollow Road, and Alfred Smith Road will be the next right.) Once you turn right onto Alfred Smith Road, continue another two miles to the trailhead at the end of the road. Note: There is very limited parking at the trail head. For easier parking, consider an alternative hike outlined under the “Make It Better” heading below.
Fun Fact: Grand Gap Loop is one of several hiking trails in the Big South Fork NRRA that is designated as a shared-use trail for both hiking and mountain biking. Grand Gap was the first hiking trail that was opened to mountain bikers, and was first open for cycling only on weekdays. It was later opened for cycling any day of the week, and is one of the five trails that make up the BSF’s “epic” designation from the International Mountain Biking Association. Trail etiquette urges bikers to yield to hikers.
Look For: On the top of the ridge, before the Grand Gap Loop Trail reaches the Fall Branch gorge, is the grave of Archie Smith. Archie was one of eight children born to Alfred (Alford) and Elva Choate Smith. He was a grandson of John “Hawk” Smith, one of the Big South Fork region’s most colorful and best-known homesteaders. Archie was born prematurely on May 27, 1932 and was not expected to live initially. But he survived, until he fell ill with fever and then died on Oct. 22, 1932. He was buried near the Smiths’ Fall Branch home. The Smith family eventually left Big South Fork after Alford accepted a job at Oak Ridge. Alford Smith died in 1970. Elva Smith died in 1996.
Be Careful For: The overlooks at Fall Branch and Angel Falls are not protected. Use caution with pets and small children.
Make It Better: There are several options to “make it better,” and hikers might consider one of these options to avoid potential problems with limited parking at the Grand Gap trailhead.
The first is to hike in from Leatherwood Ford, via the John Muir Trail. This is actually the most common route to Angel Falls Overlook. The 5.6-mile out-and-back trail is easy for most of its route, as it follows the BSF River. But once it reaches Fall Branch, the trail becomes decidedly more difficult, climbing some 500 ft. over the course of about half a mile. The effort is worth it, though, as the trail passes beneath the overlook and then climbs through a gap in the cliff line before emerging at Grand Gap Loop. Hikers who choose this option should note that the bridge is out over Fall Branch, requiring hikers to ford the creek.
The second option is to hike in from Bandy Creek, via the Litton Farm Loop and Fall Branch trails. About 2.6 miles from the campground, Litton Farm Loop is intersected by the Fall Branch Trail. About another 2.5 miles of hiking leads to the Grand Gap Loop Trailhead. This is a fun, adventurous hike, but novice hikers should note that the total length of this out-and-back hike would be 12.1 miles, and features nearly 1,300 ft. of elevation gain.
Yet another option to “make it better” is to park at the trailhead at the end of Alfred Smith Road, but hike the entire Grand Gap Loop Trail. From the Angel Falls Overlook, continue along the Grand Gap Loop as it winds around the edge of the ridgetop. The total hike is 5.8 miles, but it’s a mostly level and relatively easy hike.
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.”