Elevation gain: 550 ft.
Trailhead: East Rim
At 3.6 miles in length, Leatherwood Loop is far from the longest hiking trail that is included in the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge. In fact, only three of the trails that have been featured in the first 12 weeks have been shorter. And, with a difficulty rating of moderate, Leatherwood Loop isn’t the most difficult hike of the challenge. It pales in comparison to last week’s trek along the Honey Creek Loop, which was 5.5 miles and rated strenuous.
Still, Leatherwood Loop presents an excellent opportunity for hikers to get a good workout in, while enjoying plenty of good scenery in the process. The trail offers 550 feet in elevation change, almost all of it while climbing from the bottom of the Big South Fork River gorge to the top during the latter stages of the hike.
Experienced hikers can complete the Leatherwood trail in just over an hour. And it’s only a 10-minute drive from Oneida. So, in many ways, this trail — which completes the third of five months of the hiking challenge — is a bit of a step back; an opportunity to relax a bit before the challenge ramps up again next week.
Leatherwood Loop can be accessed from two starting points — East Rim Trailhead on East Rim Overlook Road near park headquarters, or the Leatherwood Ford day use area along the BSF River. One starting point begins on the plateau, the other in the gorge. The only real difference is whether you want to get your elevation gain over early in the hike or late in the hike.
For the purposes of the hiking challenge, we recommend starting at the top — parking and departing from the trailhead on East Rim Overlook Road. A short spur trail leads to the start of the loop, traveling through a mixed hardwood forest along the ridge top. After two-tenths of a mile, the loop offers hikers the opportunity to go left or right. The best approach is to take a left, hiking the loop in a clockwise direction.
For the next four-tenths of a mile, the trail continues along the top of the plateau. As it nears the rim of the gorge, the forest begins to change, and mountain laurel grows in abundance. The laurel encroaches upon the trail from either side, creating a spectacular scene during the May blooming season. Unfortunately, that blooming period is nearing its end, but if we’re lucky, the blooms will hang on a few more days and still be visible this weekend.
A little more than a half-mile into the hike, the trail turns over a rock ledge and a spur trail leads to the Leatherwood Overlook. The protected overlook is just a tenth of a mile from the main trail and offers a panoramic view of the Leatherwood Ford area. From the overlook, you can watch vehicles cross the river bridge, and also see the mouth of Bandy Creek and other points of interest up and down the gorge.
Back on the main trail, the descent into the gorge is well underway. For the next mile, the trail works through a series of switchbacks, first following a stream through a hemlock forest, then re-emerging into a mixed hardwood forest as it makes its way to the river’s edge.
At the river, the Leatherwood Loop Trail joins the John Muir Trail. Turning left would lead hikers to the O&W Bridge upstream, but the Leatherwood trail requires a right turn, following the trail downstream towards Leatherwood Ford.
While the spring wildflower season is past, this section of the trail along the river offers a wide variety of flowers, making the trail even better when they’re in bloom. A short distance along the trail, hikers will pass Echo Rock, a vantage point along the river’s edge where the sound of the water crashing over the rapids can be heard echoing from the rock. There’s a viewing platform around the rock, but it is closed due to recent damage that was caused when a piece of the rock broke away and crashed onto the platform.
The John Muir Trail becomes a gravel trail as it nears Leatherwood Ford, with benches for resting and several camping spots along the river.
About two miles into the hike, the trail reaches the bridge at Leatherwood. Instead of crossing under the bridge to enter the parking lot, hikers should turn right, following either a foot path or a set of rock steps that leads up to the highway. Either way, the trail will emerge along the pavement, following the highway for a few hundred feet before re-entering the forest on the right side of the road.
So far, the trail has been almost all level or downhill. But over the next mile, the trail will work its way back to the top of the plateau. The climb is made easier by the fact that the trail passes by several interesting scenic views.
As hikers work their way through a few switchbacks, they’ll occasionally see an old road bed to their right, and will cross it once. That roadbed is the original road into Leatherwood Ford, dating back to the horse-and-wagon days, well before S.R. 297 was constructed.
Just after crossing the road bed, the trail will begin to follow a small stream as it continues uphill. The stream cascades over rock ledges and boulders as it makes its way to the river, creating a couple of waterfalls that are little more than a drip during dry weather, but they’re quite photogenic after periods of moderate or heavy rainfall.
After passing through the hemlock and rhododendron forest that guards the stream, the trail will begin another series of switchbacks, climbing to the bluff line that caps the gorge. Near the top of the gorge, the trail enters another abundant stand of mountain laurel, then joins the old Leatherwood Ford Road bed as it works it tops the ridge.
After following the road along the ridge top for a short distance, the trail turns right from the road bed near an old farmstead, and works its way along the edge of an old field before crossing by an old farm pond and returning hikers to the start of the spur trail that leads back to the parking area.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 west from Oneida to the entrance of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Once inside the park, turn left just past park headquarters onto East Rim Overlook Road. Look for the trailhead on the right by an old field a short distance along the roadway.
Be Careful For: The descent into the gorge on the south side of the loop includes sections where the trail is narrow and the hillside is steep. At the river, the trail travels along the highway for a few hundred feet. Use caution with small children.
Look For: As the trail ascends the side of the gorge on its north side, look for rustic-colored metal plates in the ground. They’re designed to blend with their surroundings, but they can still be spotted. These plates are access points for the water line that provides water for the restroom facilities at Leatherwood Ford. The water line follows the old wagon road bed into the gorge.
Make It Better: Once back at your vehicle, make the short trip to Sunset Overlook. The trail shares the trailhead with Leatherwood Loop, departing from the opposite side of the highway. The trail adds nearly four miles of hiking, but it’s flat and easy. (Sunset Overlook is an unprotected rock outcropping; use caution with children.)
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!