By car, the drive from the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area’s headquarters at Leatherwood to the Bandy Creek Campground on the opposite side of the gorge is a short, 10-minute drive.
By foot, it’s a winding, most-of-the-day trip through scenic backcountry that includes scenic gorges, awe-inspiring overlook views, waterfalls, mountain streams, rock houses and more.
The 11-mile trek from Leatherwood to Bandy Creek can be completed using a patchwork of hiking trails maintained by the National Park Service. Much of the route is now part of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, a hiking trail that extends from Leatherwood Ford to Rowan County, Ky., through 315 miles of undeveloped territory.
While the hike from the Leatherwood side of the gorge to the Bandy Creek side of the gorge offers a taste of just about everything the Big South Fork has to offer, from a perspective of scenery and terrain, there is also plenty of history along the way.
From the East Rim Trailhead a stone’s throw from the BSF’s headquarters building, it doesn’t take long to find the history. The first leg of the hike involves the Leatherwood Loop Trail. By taking the right fork when the trail forks a short distance from the trailhead, hikers soon emerge on the portion of the trail that follows Old Leatherwood Road.
As the Leatherwood Loop Trail meanders back and forth down the side of the gorge — by waterfalls and beneath bluff lines, through thick stands of hemlock and rhododendron — it occasionally crosses and sometimes follows the Old Leatherwood Road, which was once the primary method of travel into and out of the gorge, long before the modern-day highway was constructed.
After a mile or so, the Leatherwood trail emerges at Leatherwood Ford. A short hike across the Leatherwood Bridge takes hikers to the John Muir Trail on the opposite side of the river.
The JMT extends from Burnt Mill Bridge near Robbins to Pickett State Park on the northwest corner of the BSF. Parts of it falls along trails of other names, while other parts of it — such as the segment from the O&W Bridge nearly three miles upstream to the Grand Gap Loop trail more than two miles downstream — is simply known as the John Muir Trail.
After nearly two miles along the Big South Fork River, the JMT crosses scenic Fall Branch. Draining most of the territory on the east side of Bandy Creek, Fall Branch is the largest BSF tributary between North White Oak Creek and Station Camp Creek, and it’s one of the prettiest mountain streams in the entire 125,000-acre park.
After crossing Fall Branch, the JMT begins its ascent to the top of the gorge. Over the better part of a mile, the JMT will climb 500 ft. from the river to the Grand Gap Trail high above, switching back several times and including a climb through a gap in the cliff line.
One of the crown jewels of the entire BSF is Angel Falls Overlook along the Grand Gap Trail. The hike to Bandy Creek requires a left turn when the JMT meets up with Grand Gap at the top of the gorge, but the overlook is only a short distance to the right and is well worth the short detour for first-timers.
Back on the Grand Gap Loop Trail, the hike involves a short stroll through open hardwoods along ridgetops as the roaring river and the scenic gorge that encases it are left behind. One of the cultural points of interest along the way is the “baby grave,” the burial place of Archie Smith. Archie was the son of Alford and Elva Smith. He was five days short of five months old when he died and was buried along what is now the Grand Gap trail in October 1932.
At the start of the Grand Gap Trail, Fall Branch Trail cuts left. Hikers are a little more than halfway along their route; it’s still a little more than five miles to Bandy Creek Campground. Fall Branch Trail is a two-mile journey that connects Grand Gap to the John Litton Farm Loop Trail. The trail leads hikers back into the rhododendron- and hemlock-filled creek bottom and along Fall Branch, the same stream that the JMT crossed some 500 ft. below.
Once hikers reach the Litton Farm Loop, they have two options. The shortest, a left turn, takes them to Bandy Creek Campground a little quicker. The longer option involves hiking another mile up the valley to the Litton/Slaven Farm, built by John Litton and later occupied by General Slaven before the federal government acquired the land.
Hikers who have not visited the Litton Farm will find the extra mileage worth the effort. John Litton’s farm is one of only two remotely-located homesteads in the Big South Fork that have been preserved. The other is the Jonathan Blevins Farm which is today operated as Charit Creek Hostel. The Lora Blevins homeplace and the Oscar Blevins Farm are also preserved, but are accessible by vehicle.
Once hikers reach the Litton Farm, Bandy Creek Campground is only two miles away.
The 11-mile hike is far from the longest in the park, and far from the most strenuous. But the elevation changes make it strenuous enough, and the moderate difficulty combined with its length make it a hike that requires the better part of a day. But the scenery and history experienced along the route make it well worth the effort to cover the distance between Leatherwood and Bandy Creek the way our great-grandfathers would have done it.