Elevation gain: 100 ft.
Most people who hike the John Muir Trail, the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area’s long-distance trail that honors the American explorer and conservation advocate, won’t tackle all of the trail at once. Rather, they’ll hike it in segments. And the first of several segments of this trail that will be featured as part of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge is perhaps the most-hiked segment — from Leatherwood Ford to the O&W Bridge.
The hike to the historic railroad bridge from Leatherwood Ford is not difficult. Instead, this trail garners its moderate rating from its length. At almost five miles, round-trip, it is the longest of the hikes that have been featured through the first nine weeks of the hiking challenge. But the trail itself is mostly level, with the exception of a short climb a little less than halfway between Leatherwood and O&W.
Perhaps the best thing about the John Muir Trail from Leatherwood to the O&W this time of year is the wildflowers. They are plentiful along the trail during the spring, as the path wanders in and out of old road beds along the Big South Fork River.
The trail begins with an easy stroll from the parking lot at Leatherwood Ford. The trail is flat, surfaced in gravel and even includes several small benches for resting. After crossing a wooden footbridge, a couple of camping sites along the river’s edge and a large boulder, the improved section of the trail ends and it takes on a look that is more typical of the hiking trails within the BSF.
One of the highlights of the hike to the O&W is the observation platform at Echo Rock, a streamside boulder just below the mouth of Bandy Creek that creates a unique echo as the water rushes over the rapids in front of it. Unfortunately, years of erosion recently led to the rock breaking and a portion of it falling onto the platform, resulting in its closure.
A short distance after the Leatherwood Loop Trail departs to the left, the JMT dips closer to the river’s edge and then goes through a series of switchbacks as it climbs 100 ft. and eventually rejoins the old roadbed higher above the river.
The roadbed descends until it reaches a bench that runs parallel to the river, then goes through a series of wet-weather streams. A little more than two miles into the hike, the O&W Bridge itself becomes visible through the trees.
Shortly before reaching the bridge, hikers who are fortunate enough to make the trip after sufficient rainfall will be treated to one of the more unique waterfalls of the BSF region. Water tumbles off a large boulder and empties into a pool below.
The O&W Bridge was recently restored by the Scott County Road Department, using grant funds obtained by the Scott County Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Development Board of Scott County. County workers replaced every piece of wood on the bridge, from the cross ties to the sub-flooring to the decking. New fencing has also been installed.
The O&W Bridge was put into place in 1915, as the Oneida & Western Railroad was constructed between Oneida and Jamestown. The bridge, a steel whipple truss style that was once popular in America, was originally constructed in the late 1800s, then moved to the Big South Fork to bridge the river. While the exact construction date of the O&W Bridge is not known, it is one of the last of its kind remaining in the U.S. today.
The old railroad, which was used from the 1910s to the 1950s before being abandoned, served as an important link between Oneida and the coal and timber reserves west of the Big South Fork River. The O&W Railroad is an indelible part of Scott County’s history. And once you’ve hiked from Leatherwood to the O&W, ponder this: the route along which you just hiked was once intended to be an extension — a side track, of sorts — of the O&W. A mining operator planned to build a rail from the O&W Bridge to the Anderson Branch Mine just below Leatherwood Ford. This never happened, and the plan was scrapped, but you can see signs where construction of the rail grade began before the idea was abandoned.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 from Oneida to the Big South Fork. Park at Leatherwood Ford, turning into the parking area just before crossing the BSF River. The trail begins on the south (left) side of the parking area, near the gazebo.
Be Careful For: There are some rock steps that can be slippery during wet weather, and also some stream crossings that can be tricky if the rocks are wet.
Look For: As you make the hike from Leatherwood to the O&W, keep an eye out through the trees on the right for the large valley. This is the mouth of North White Oak Creek, one of the Big South Fork’s largest tributaries — and a popular swimming area for local residents. Bandy Creek also empties into the river along this trail, just above Leatherwood Ford, but is not as visible.
Make It Better: Once you reach the O&W Bridge, find the stairs that lead down to the river and venture down to take some photos of kayakers and other whitewater paddlers that may be ending their trip at the bridge. The whitewater season has not yet ended, and hundreds of paddlers are making the trek to the Cumberlands to paddle the river. The O&W Bridge marks the end of the BSF’s “Canyon” and “Gorge” sections, which collectively represent the most popular stretch of whitewater on the river. Most paddlers begin their trip at the river confluence at the end of John Long Road behind Scott County Airport, or at Burnt Mill Bridge on Clear Fork near Robbins.
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 pack it in, pack it out!