Elevation gain: 600 ft.
When it comes to spectacular vantage points, there are several along the rim of the gorge encasing the Big South Fork River and its major tributaries, from Honey Creek Overlook on the south end of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area to Catawba Overlook on the north end.
But there are arguably none better than Angel Falls Overlook, just downstream from Leatherwood Ford. In fact, Angel Falls Overlook may very well be the single most photographed location within the 125,000 acres of the Big South Fork. Images taken from this rock outcropping have shown up in magazines, books and websites across America.
The hike to Angel Falls Overlook from Leatherwood Ford utilizes the John Muir Trail, a long-distance trail that traverses much of the national park’s length from Pickett State Park to Burnt Mill Loop near Robbins. The hike from Leatherwood to the overlook is just 2.9 miles each direction, however, for a total hike of 5.8 miles. And while it’s the second trail of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge that is rated strenuous in difficulty, it isn’t nearly as difficult to hike as Honey Creek Loop. In fact, hikers who successfully completed Leatherwood Loop Trail last week will find the hike to Angel Falls Overlook to be a bit easier — and much more scenic.
For much of its length, the John Muir Trail between Leatherwood Ford and its connection with Grand Gap Loop is a gentle walk along the Big South Fork River. The walk is peaceful and soothing, and not at all difficult. Almost all of the 600 ft. of elevation gain is contained within a half-mile of the hike, as the JMT climbs the gorge from Fall Branch to Grand Gap Loop atop the plateau.
Unfortunately, the hike is not without a couple of minor challenges, thanks to a couple of bridge failures along the route. The first has been an obstacle for several years. The “low-water bridge” at Leatherwood Ford is closed, but the way across the river is still easy enough. Hikers utilize the S.R. 297 bridge across the river to reach a set of concrete steps that lead to the river’s edge on the far side.
The second challenge is a bit trickier, though still easy enough. The scenic wooden footbridge across Fall Branch collapsed over the winter, and funds have not yet been allocated for the bridge’s repair. That requires hikers to use a temporary reroute across Fall Branch. With hot weather upon us, the incredibly scenic Fall Branch is an inviting place to stop and dip your feet in the water anyway, so think of it as an opportunity to take off your boots and socks and cool off in the stream. Big South Fork NRRA trail crews have used flagging ribbon to mark a temporary reroute across a shallow spot in the stream. The most unfortunate aspect of this obstacle is the removal of the Fall Branch Bridge from the hike. The footbridge is one of the most picturesque spots in the BSF.
Hikers who are trekking along the John Muir Trail will eventually notice the sheer cliff wall ahead after they’ve hiked a couple of miles downstream from Leatherwood Ford. That’s an indication that the level part of the trail is about to end and the climb is about to begin. Once the trail turns away from the river at Fall Branch and crosses the stream, it will quickly begin its ascent to the top of the gorge, using a series of switchbacks to cover much of the elevation change.
As you near the base of the cliff line, the large rock outcropping that juts into view directly overhead is the destination — Angel Falls Overlook. It may seem like there’s still a ways to go, but in reality, the hardest part of the climb is behind you.
After traveling beneath a rock shelter and along the edge of the cliff for a short distance, the trail turns to the right, climbing to a narrow rock ledge before turning up a smaller “canyon” that provides a passageway through the bluffs to the top of the gorge. There is a hand cable affixed to the rock wall that eases the walk along the rock ledge.
A short distance later, the JMT tops out at Grand Gap Loop. A right-hand turn leads along level ground to the overlook, which is just out of sight of the trail junction.
After taking a while to enjoy the view from the overlook, which provides scenic views up and down the BSF River, as well as Fall Branch, it’s time to make the hike back to Leatherwood. The good news? It’s almost all downhill or level on the way out — a breeze compared to the hike in!
With foliage on the trees, you won’t actually be able to see Angel Falls from the overlook, despite what the name implies. However, you can hear the roar of the white water crashing through the Class IV rapid far below. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot kayakers making their way down the river, and can catch a glimpse of hikers along the Angel Falls Trail on the east side of the river. If you want a better view of Angel Falls, continue around the Grand Gap Loop for a few hundred feet past the overlook.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 west from Oneida Leatherwood Ford. Park near the gazebo and walk across the highway bridge to the far side of the river.
Be Careful For: Use extreme caution with children and pets while walking along the highway, along the rock ledge near the top of the gorge, on a small ladder just beyond the rock ledge, and especially along the unprotected overlook.
Look For: About 1.5 miles into the hike, there are remnants of a stone fireplace on the left. This was a 19th century cabin site, although all signs of human life here have faded into the landscape. From Angel Falls Overlook, the large valley to the right is Fall Branch, which drains much of the territory around Bandy Creek Campground and Visitor Center. In the early 20th century, this was the site of multiple logging operations. There were several sawmills and a stave mill along Fall Branch, and just below where it empties into the Big South Fork River was a location where timber-cutters would raft their logs and float them down the river during the winter season’s higher water levels.
Make It Better: The hike to the top of the gorge in the late May heat will probably be enough to satiate your hiking desires for one week, but if it isn’t, continue on from the overlook and complete the Grand Gap Loop. It will add almost seven miles to your hike, for a total of almost 13 miles, but it’s mostly flat and easy. As an alternative, go back to where the JMT heads left towards the river and continue west on the Grand Gap Loop to the “baby grave” on top of the ridge. This is the grave of Archie Smith, the infant son of Alfred and Elva Smith, who raised nine children at their home near the grave site. Archie died of pneumonia in 1932. Alfred was a logger, and the family left the Big South Fork when the logging operations ceased in the 1940s. He went to work for the federal government in Oak Ridge.
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!