Distance: 5.5 miles

Elevation gain: 900 ft.

Difficulty: Difficult

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Trailhead: Honey Creek

If visitors are going to drive to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area to hike just one trail, that trail will generally be the Honey Creek Loop Trail.

Originally called the Pocket Wilderness, this 5.5-mile loop trail on the southern end of the BSF is easily the national park’s most popular hike. It’s also its most strenuous hike, and the first trail of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge to be rated “difficult.”

But don’t let that fool you. Just about anyone can hike Honey Creek. Allow some extra time and hike the 5.5 miles of the Honey Creek Loop Trail as your experience and fitness levels dictate. Because this is the one hiking trip in the Big South Fork that will not allow pictures to do it justice.

There’s a reason visitors to the region love Honey Creek. And there’s a reason ActiveTimes.com has named it one of the Top 30 hiking trails in all of the United States. From scenic overlooks to spectacular rock houses to waterfalls to the white water of the Big South Fork River, Honey Creek sums up everything that the northern Cumberland Plateau and the BSF have to offer.

While the Honey Creek trail is the longest hike of the 20-week challenge to this point, it won’t be the longest by the time the challenge is complete. Not even close, in fact. At 5.5 miles, Honey Creek is a relatively short hike, as the typical hike goes. But experts recommend allowing an hour for each mile of the trail, which is mostly due to the difficulty of the terrain but could also be chalked up to hikers tending to take more time to enjoy the scenic beauty of the trail.

Honey Creek is one of the few trails in the Big South Fork that predate the national park. It dates back to the 1960s, when Bowater Inc. owned the land surrounding Honey Creek. However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers improved the trail in the 1980s before management of the Big South Fork was turned over to the National Park Service. Couple the trail’s longevity with the natural beauty it offers, and it’s amazing that many Scott Countians have not taken advantage of this spectacular hiking trail.

While the trail’s difficulty should not discourage most folks from hiking it, there’s no sugar-coating its challenges. The trail is not clearly marked in many places, making it perhaps the most difficult trail to follow in the entire 125,000 acres of the BSF. The trail is marked with dark green blazes where the light is good — and with orange Day-Glo arrows where the light isn’t good, such as beneath rock shelters — but there are a number of false trails that lead away from the main trail, most of them going only a short distance before petering out. Much of the reason the trail is rated “difficult” isn’t because of the elevation change, although there is quite a bit of it, but because the trail is sometimes more like an obstacle course than a hiking trail. At one point, the trail actually goes through Honey Creek. At other times, hikers are required to climb through, over and underneath boulders that lie in the trail’s path. The trail is not suitable for the smallest of children, and small dogs will also have difficulty completing the hike. Older children and larger dogs can complete the hike without too much of a problem.

From the trailhead just off Honey Creek Road, the trail is best hiked in a counter-clockwise direction. That means crossing the gravel road behind you once you’ve parked and climbing a small set of steps to get started. For the first half-mile or so, the trail offers a mostly uneventful hike as it meanders through the hardwood forest that typifies the tabletop plateau lands within the Big South Fork NRRA.

Eventually, though, the trail begins its first descent, following the beginnings of a stream that will eventually empty into the Big South Fork River. The mixed oak hardwood forest becomes a forest of hemlocks, white pines and rhododendron.

About a mile and a half into the hike, the first awe-inspiring feature of the many that will be experienced by hikers will await. It’s Echo Rock, a large cliff face that — true to its name — echoes the sound of the Big South Fork River far below. There is a place along the rock where the rushing white water of the river seems to flow straight from the rock itself, as the sound is reflected off the cliff. The rapids that lend the sounds of crashing water to Echo Rock are the same rapids that make this particular stretch of the Big South Fork River popular among paddlers.

Just past Echo Rock is an opportunity to make the hike better, or make it easier. A short spur trail leaves the main trail on the left and ascends the bluffs to Honey Creek Overlook, which offers panoramic views of the river. The spur trail is short, just a couple of tenths of a mile, but the climb is a serious one, using a pair of ladders to scale the bluff line, then another ladder to descend back to the main trail.

The main trail continues its descent, getting within just a few hundred feet of the Big South Fork River before it turns up Honey Creek. And that’s where the fascinating part of the hike really begins.

It is sometimes said that the Big South Fork area is like Utah — with trees — and nowhere is that as obvious as in the gorge that encases Honey Creek. It’s like a slot canyon from the West misplaced in the southeastern U.S.

Over the next several miles, the trail follows Honey Creek upstream, at times passing through boulders that choke the stream bed and at times passing by spectacular rock houses — such as Indian Rockhouse, where there is still one of the original ladder cages from the Pocket Wilderness days.

There are also several waterfalls ahead, the most magnificent of which is Boulder House Falls. Located about 3.5 miles into the hike, the waterfall is just as its name sounds, created when Honey Creek tumbles into a “house” made entirely of boulders. A short distance ahead is Ice Castle Falls, a wet-weather waterfall created by a side stream that plunges over a bluff and into Honey Creek.

The final waterfall is Honey Creek Falls, which is located on an unmarked side trail about four miles into the hike. You’ll know you’re getting close when the hiking trail makes use of a rope to ascend over a rock ledge and crosses a wooden footbridge.

After the spur trail to Honey Creek Falls, the trail quickly leaves the gorge and climbs back to the top of the plateau. The final 1.5 miles of the hike are decidedly less interesting than the several miles just completed. The trail ends by re-emerging into a hardwood forest and slowly climbing back to the parking area at the trailhead.

Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 south to Old Hwy. 27 in the New River community. From there, follow the signs to Burnt Mill Bridge by traveling through Mountain View to Black Creek Crossroads. Continue on Honey Creek Road for several miles beyond Burnt Mill Bridge. The trailhead is located on the next gravel road to the right on the west side of the bridge, and is signed.

Be Careful For: Steep ladders, slippery rock climbs, stream crossings that can be difficult after periods of heavy rain, and deceitful side trails that are unmarked and lead to nowhere.

Look For: There are several reminders of the days when Honey Creek Loop was the Pocket Wilderness. One of them is a ladder cage that can be found at Indian Rockhouse, the huge rock shelter located in the side of the gorge wall along Honey Creek. Others include the orange Day-Glo arrows used to mark the trail inside the Honey Creek Gorge and beneath some rock shelters These were all part of the original trail in the 1960s.

Make It Better: About three miles into the hike, the John Muir Trail departs to the right. The trail crosses Hurricane Ridge — known to locals as the Big Woods — before descending to the Big South Fork River at the O&W Bridge. The trail is easy, leading through beautiful open hardwoods. While it’s a largely uneventful hike, it’s worth the trip to experience the Jake’s Hole Overlook, an unmarked and unprotected overlook that offers spectacular views of the river along the old O&W rail bed towards Pine Creek and Oneida.

Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to newsroom@ihoneida.com, 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!

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Contact the Independent Herald at newsroom@ihoneida.com. Follow us on Twitter, @indherald.