Distance: 3.48 miles (in-and-out)
Elevation gain: 72 ft.
Trailhead: Leatherwood Ford
It is the most popular hiking trail in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.
In fact, Angel Falls is so popular that many of those who live in the BSF region take it for granted. But the trail’s popularity doesn’t lie simply with the fact that it is easy, or that it is easily accessed. Walking amongst the jumble of boulders that litter the stream bed at Angel Falls marks the perfect culmination for the 3.48-mile hike, and the entire trail is photogenic with its wooden footbridges, wet-weather cascades and traces of past coal mining activity.
The Angel Falls Trail is one of the BSF’s best-maintained hiking trails. It is wide, flat and partially graveled, free of crowding vegetation and deadfalls.
The trail itself is 1.74 miles from the end of the day-use area at Leatherwood Ford to the Angel Falls rapid. The “hardest” part of the hike, if you want to call it that, is scrambling down to the river for a close-up view of the rapid — although that isn’t necessarily a chore, either, thanks to a well-worn footpath that is used by kayakers as they portage the rapid.
For those who don’t wish to venture down to the river, there is a wooden observation deck and interpretive signage along the trail, where you can stand and listen to the roar of the rushing whitewater and see it slapping the boulders in its paths.
Angel Falls, obviously, isn’t a waterfall — which is sometimes to the consternation of first-time visitors who are expecting to find a real waterfall at the end of the hike. In truth, it never was much of a waterfall, although there was a 6-ft. drop. And when the river was dynamited to make way for a canoe race in the middle of the 20th century, what was left was a narrowing of the water flow between the huge boulders, which creates a dangerous Class IV whitewater rapid.
The walk to Angel Falls parallels the Big South Fork River for the entirety of the trip. On a couple of occasions, there are photogenic cascading waterfalls to the right of the trail, although they will only be flowing after appreciable rainfall. There are two wooden footbridges, the first of which crosses an unnamed feeder stream and the second of which crosses Anderson Branch.
As you cross Anderson Branch, glancing up the hill on the south side of the stream will reveal slight signs of an impression in the terrain. This is manmade, the result of coal mining at the Anderson Branch Mine (see related story, page B8). You can see signs of coal along the sandy soil of the hiking trail, which is darkened by the slag .
Anderson Branch was once considered a dead stream after all aquatic life was killed by mining activities. However, it has since recovered. The Anderson Branch Mine was intended to be a destination of a rail spur from the O&W Railroad some four miles upstream. However, the spur was never completed.
Further along the trail, near the Angel Falls Rapid, there is additional evidence of the coal reserves that remain in this territory.
As you near Angel Falls, openings in the forest canopy along the river provide excellent views of Angel Falls Overlook, a large rock outcropping that will be the destination of another hike later in the challenge. The sheer cliff lines indicate that Angel Falls is just ahead.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 (West 3rd Avenue, then Coopertown Road, then Leatherwood Road) to the Leatherwood Ford river access point. After turning right into the day use area, take an immediate right to the picnic area that is on the north side of the day use area. Park at the far end of the picnic area. Or, you can park near the gazebo on the south side of the day use area and enjoy a stroll along the river boardwalk to the trail.
Be Careful For: The opportunity to scramble over the stream-side boulders for a closer look at Angel Falls is always enticing, but be careful! These rocks are extremely slippery when wet, and “rock hopping” at Angel Falls has proven fatal for more than one person in the past. Use extreme caution around the river’s edge with pets and children.
Look For: Just before you reach the Angel Falls viewing platform, exposed rock seams on the right side of the trail provide an excellent example of the different “seams” of rock found in the ground of the Big South Fork area. You can differentiate between the rock seams by their color. There is sandstone, then shale, then coal, then more shale. It was the narrow seam of black coal that was valued by the industries who operated within the BSF region. Howard Duncan, a former interpretive ranger for the BSF, has written that many of the BSF’s coal reserves were discovered because of exposed seams like this one. In some instances, families would mine coal themselves by digging it by hand from the exposed seams and either using it for their own fires or selling it.
Make It Better: If you’re a repeat visitor to Angel Falls, or you just want to avoid repeat scenery, you might consider ending your hike at the John “Hawk” Smith place. Beyond Angel Falls, the trail continues for another 1.4 miles to Smith’s homesite and family cemetery along the river. The closest vehicle access point is another half-mile up John Smith Road to a small parking area. Leaving a vehicle at the end of John Smith Road or arranging transportation would make for a total hike of just 3.64 miles but would add about 450 ft. of elevation gain for the hike out of the river gorge. Alternatively, hikers can hike to the Smith place and return to Angel Falls the same way, which would make for a total in-and-out hike of 6.28 miles.
Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with the names of all members of your hiking party, in order to log your miles.
Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you packed it in, please pack it out!