A step-by-step guide to Hurricane Ridge hike

Needle's Eye, also known as Hole in the Ridge, is a large tunnel running the entire length of a ridge above North White Oak Creek in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. (Ben Garrett/IH)

The Hurricane Ridge hike is the destination of Week 14 of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge. At 5.6 miles, the hike is rated strenuous due to a step hill climb to start the hike and a technical downhill descent to end the hike. However, hike is not quite as difficult as the Honey Creek Loop hike three weeks ago, and no more difficult than the Angel Falls Overlook hike last week.

However, the trail requires special consideration because it follows a series of unofficial equestrian trails across Hurricane Ridge. The trails are not difficult to follow, but they are not signed, meaning it's easy to take the wrong turn at one of several trail intersections. This turn-by-turn guide is intended to help hikers make it to Needle's Eye (a.k.a. Hole in the Ridge) and back to the O&W Bridge without taking a wrong turn and winding up miles from their intended direction.

The Hurricane Ridge hike begins and ends at the O&W Bridge in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. To get there, take S.R. 297 (Coopertown Road) west from Oneida to Toomey Road. Take a left onto Toomey Road and continue 3.1 miles to Toomey Road's terminus at O&W Road. Turn right onto O&W Road and continue to the Big South Fork River. Park on the east side of the bridge (the Oneida side) and walk across the bridge to the west side. The trail starts on the left immediately after stepping off the bridge.

» View the above map on Google Maps to download a KML file for your phone's GPS app. (Although it isn't free, the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge recommends Gaia GPS.)

Mile 0.0: The John Muir Trail departs the O&W Road on the immediate west side of the O&W Bridge across the Big South Fork River. There is an almost immediate photo op as the trail drops beneath the bridge, providing a spectacular view of the bridge's steel structure with the O&W Wall (the sheer cliff line towering over the river) as a backdrop. After that, the trail turns uphill. Step for step, the next half-mile is as difficult as any half-mile of trail in the Big South Fork, as it covers 500 ft. of elevation changes to the top of the gorge. The good news? Once you have that half-mile climb out of the way, the rest of the hike is a relative cakewalk! (Please note that the mileage references from here on out may not be exact. They were taken using a GPS and account for things such as walking to the base of Jake's Falls and walking into Devils Den.)

Mile 0.36: Jake's Falls cascades over the bluff line near the top of the gorge. Just before you reach the falls, the trail turns around a house-sized boulder and climbs a set of steps. It just might be the toughest part of the half-mile climb. But then you'll hear the waterfall before it comes into sight — a welcomed sign that you're more than halfway up the hill! Take a moment to hike down to the base of the waterfall and enjoy the cooling effect of the falling water as you rest. Jake's Falls is little more than a trickle most of the time, but turns into a healthy waterfall after a period of heavy rain. Just past Jake's Falls, the trail turns up another set of rock steps, but it levels out quite a bit just past the steps.

Mile 0.56: Now you've arrived at Devils Den. The climb has already leveled out quite a bit, but the sight of Devils Den on the right is still a nice indicator that you're nearing the top of the hill.

Devils Den is located off to the right when the trail tops out on an exposed rock. A short spur trail leads to the rock house on the right. The main trail continues straight ahead through a small thicket.

Mile 0.70: If you want to take a side-trip to O&W Overlook — and, trust us, you do! — you'll want to look for a narrow footpath leading off to the right through the undergrowth. Just past Devils Den, the trail begins to climb a hill that is rutted in the middle from horse traffic in years past. About two-thirds of the way up the hill, watch for the narrow footpath on the right. It is unsigned and easy to miss.

Mile 0.73: The view from O&W Overlook is a spectacular one. You will see the O&W Bridge far below, and just to your left, and a spectacular view up the river gorge towards Pine Creek. Be very careful with pets and small children, as the overlook is not protected! There isn't much room to maneuver around at the edge of the cliff, so be careful to stay away from the edge. After you've rested, the foot path continues to your left. Although it seems to disappear into the undergrowth, it soon widens again, and leads back to the main trail.

Once you reach a picnic table in a small clearing at the top of the hill, you've reached the John Muir Trail again. A left would obviously take you back into the gorge. Take a right and continue along the JMT further up Hurricane Ridge.

Mile 1.15: You've reached the first of several trail intersections. This one shouldn't be too difficult to avoid a wrong turn, because our hike will continue on the John Muir Trail, which takes a sharp turn to the left. Straight ahead, though, is an unsigned and unofficial trail that wanders into the woods. Be sure to not take the right fork here! (Notice the small tree branches laying across the trail as if to block it.) Take a sharp left, and look for the JMT and Sheltowee Trace (turtle) trail signage to indicate you're still on the John Muir Trail.

For the next half-mile, you will travel up a ridge top. Notice how the forest types have changed. On the climb up from the O&W to Devils Den, the forest was made up primarily of hemlock, beech, magnolia and rhododendron. At Devils Den to the O&W Overlook, the forest type became more dominated by mountain laurel and white pine. Now the forest is open hardwood, and is made up of maple, oak, hickory, poplar and similar trees.

Mile 1.74: This is the second intersection, and where we'll be leaving the John Muir Trail. This intersection is denoted by a barrier designed to keep horses off the trail (though the hiking trail was simply built around the barrier). As the signage will indicate, the John Muir Trail turns left. Taking a left would lead you to Honey Creek Loop Trail and, eventually the Honey Creek Trailhead. Instead, we are going to turn right.

As you turn right, you'll notice there are actually two trails. Both lead the same way. The upper trail leads straight into a large mud puddle, however. You'll want to take the lower trail.

For the remainder of the trip to Needle's Eye, the trail is filled with mud pits and mud holes, like this one. These are horse trails, and they're often muddy this time of year. They're especially muddy at this point because it has been a very wet late spring period, and there was a lot of traffic on the trails over the Memorial Day weekend. There is no way to avoid getting your feet muddy, but you can hang to the edges of the trail to skirt the worst of the muddy places.

Mile 2.11: After dropping down a hill, crossing a low, swampy area, then climbing another hill, the horse trail reaches a large dirt area, and another trail intersection. This is the third intersection. There are no signs to indicate which direction you want to go. We want to go right. (Going left would take you in the direction of Honey Creek Horse Camp.)

This is a panoramic view of the third intersection. We want to go right. Do not go left (which appears to be straight ahead).

Mile 2.43: The fourth intersection occurs when a trail intersects the horse trail from the left. As has been the case with the last two intersections, we want to take a right. This time, there's actually a sign that says "Needle's Eye." So if you've made it this far, it's almost impossible to head in the wrong direction. Going left would take you in the direction of Honey Creek Horse Camp, eventually intersecting with the left-hand trail from the last intersection. Take a right, and follow the sign towards Needle's Eye.

Mile 2.61: The fifth intersection occurs where a horse trail cuts off to the right. A sign indicates that it has been creatively named the "Oh Poop" trail. You can use your imagination. We will not be taking this trail, but keep it in mind, as it is our way off the ridge. Instead, take the trail on the left (or straight ahead), which continues towards Needle's Eye.

Mile 3.01: A large camping spot and wooden picnic table indicate that you've reached the end of the horse trail. A short footpath from the far side of the camping spot will lead you on to Needle's Eye. The footpath forks, and either fork will take you to the opening of the tunnel. You'll probably want to take the left option, though, as it is a bit less technical to navigate.

Mile 3.16: You've reached Needle's Eye. This is the largest rock tunnel in the Big South Fork NRRA, and ranks up there with Twin Arches and Devils Cave as the most impressive geological landforms in the national park. When you first see it, it appears to be little more than a hole opening into the side of the ridge. However, once you've stepped into that opening and passed beneath an arch, the tunnel opens up dramatically. On breezy days, a cool wind passes through the tunnel, creating an air-conditioning effect. There's a wooden ladder (it's safe, but use caution) that leads further down and into the main part of the tunnel, which passes all the way through the ridge.

Once you've explored Needle's Eye, it's time to head back. Retrace your steps along the footpath to the camping spot, then continue on the horse trail that led you in.

Mile 3.76: You've arrived back at the trail intersection where Oh Poop Trail departs the Needle's Eye Trail. The Oh Poop sign isn't visible until you've nearly passed the trail intersection and turned around to look at it, but this is the first trail intersection on your way back out. Turn left to take the Oh Poop Trail.

A short distance along the Oh Poop Trail, there's a wooden barricade and another sign indicating the trail's name. Just beyond that, the characteristics of the trail change dramatically, and it's immediately clear how it got its name. The trail starts down hill on an exposed rock face that is slippery when wet. Use caution as you continue downhill.

Mile 4.32: Just after passing a small stream and continuing along the trail through a deeply eroded section, another trail intersection looms. If you were to continue straight, or right, you would have to go around a wooden barricade. This would lead you back to the John Muir Trail, which is not where we want to go. Instead, take the left-hand fork in the trail, which turns left and appears to be little more than a narrow footpath into the undergrowth.

The trail will eventually open up and begin its descent into the gorge, and it becomes even more obvious how this trail got its name. People on horseback have been seriously injured, and horses have even become lost after losing their riders and later died, on this trail. It isn't too difficult for hikers, but it is very rocky and steep in spots, so use caution to avoid slipping or tripping.

Mile 4.83: After what seems like forever, the trail finally reaches the bottom of the hill and emerges along the O&W Road, near where North White Oak Creek empties into the Big South Fork River. Turn right onto O&W Road and hike the road back to the bridge and your waiting vehicle.

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