Ask most seasoned hikers of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area to name their top five trails in the 125,000-acre national park, and most won’t include Burnt Mill Loop.
But the 4.3-mile loop trail, beginning and ending at Burnt Mill Bridge on Honey Creek Road, just a hop, skip and a jump from Robbins, is one of the BSF’s more scenic trails.
The trail meanders along the Clear Fork River for much of its 4+ miles, climbing out of the river gorge for a short trek along the top of the Cumberland Plateau midway along the route.
The Burnt Mill Loop is at its best during the summer months. Because the terrain is relatively easy to conquer, heat isn’t as much of an issue as it is along some of the other, more strenuous trails in the park. And the summer months maximize the simple pleasures that the Clear Fork is best known for: swimming and fishing.
Smallmouth bass bite well this time of year, and anglers who know where to place a top-water jerk bait are likely to be treated to the satisfying sights and sounds of a bucketmouth surfacing to “hit” their bait, particularly before the sun has climbed high enough in the sky to peep over the top of the gorge and into the river-bottom below.
In addition to their fishing pole, hikers may also want to take along their swimming gear. Clear Fork is true to its name — it is the clear fork of the Big South Fork River. The waters are clear and often shallow and gentle — though that can change quickly in the aftermath of a summer thunderstorm. The river bottom is flat rock in many places, making the river suitable to wade in or swim in. And swimmers who take their snorkeling gear can be treated to the sight of freshwater mussels and colorful sunfish.
Beginning in a clockwise direction from the parking lot at Burnt Mill Bridge, the loop trail follows the river for the first couple of miles. The trail is flat, at times following long-abandoned roadbeds and at times making its own way through the river bottom. There are a few rock formations along the route, though the encasing terrain on either side of the river is much more tame along Clear Fork than it is further downstream along the Big South Fork.
Large stands of hemlock, rhododendron, laurel and white pines crowd the river bottom, along with box huckleberry, holly and other species of plants.
About two miles into the hike, the largest waterfall along the trail is audible — and scantly visible — to the right. This is “The Burnt Mill Shower,” a wet-weather waterfall that, as its name suggests, resembles a shower cascading over the sandstone rock ledge some 25 ft. above.
A short distance later, the trail turns away from the river and begins its ascent to the top of the gorge. There is a few hundred feet of elevation change, but switchbacks make the climb relatively easy, and hikers soon find themselves making an uneventful walk across the ridge-top, which is marked by open hardwoods. A short distance after crossing Honey Creek Road — the one-lane gravel road that connects the tiny Fentress County communities of Honey Creek and Mount Helen to the Scott County communities of Robbins and Black Creek-Crossroads — the loop trail begins its descent back towards the river bottom.
For a while, the trail follows a small stream towards the river, rejoining the river about 2.5 miles or so above its confluence with New River, then treks along some rock formations back towards the parking lot at Burnt Mill Bridge.
The Burnt Mill Loop requires less than a half-day to complete. Hikers wanting to extend the hike will find Beaver Falls Trail just past where Burnt Mill Loop crosses Honey Creek Road. The 5-mile Beaver Falls footpath is part of the John Muir Trail, and connects Burnt Mill Loop with Honey Creek Loop. Together, a complete hike of the Burnt Mill Loop and Honey Creek Loop with the connecting Beaver Falls Trail would represent about a 19.5-mile journey best completed as a backpacking trip spanning a couple of days.
This story is part of a series, "Our Back Yard," presented in the first edition of each month by First National Bank of Oneida.