NOTE: This hike includes several unsigned turns. Please print our side-by-side illustrated guide by clicking here, and use it on your hike (or take page B4 from the June 1, 2017 edition of the Independent Herald).
Most trails that are part of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge feature a single destination as the culmination of the hike. This week’s Hurricane Ridge hike features three, making it an action-packed hike that ranks towards the top of the list of the 14 hikes that have been featured in the challenge to this point.
The ultimate destination of this week’s 5.6-mile hike from the O&W Bridge to the top of Hurricane Ridge and back is Hole in the Ridge, also known as Needle’s Eye. It’s one of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area’s most under-rated features because it’s off the beaten path. It doesn’t appear on any map, and it doesn’t show up on any tourism brochure.
As a result, most folks who didn’t grow up in the Honey Creek area, or who don’t ride horses, have never been to Needle’s Eye. That means most folks have never seen one of the most spectacular geological features in the national park. A large tunnel that runs the entire width of the ridge, Needle’s Eye ranks right up there with the Twin Arches and Devil’s Cave as the most impressive landforms in the BSF.
And as spectacular as this gigantic tunnel on the end of the ridge high above North White Oak Creek really is, getting there is two-thirds of the adventure. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a six-mile hike anywhere in the BSF — Honey Creek Loop on the opposite side of Hurricane Ridge not withstanding — that packs as much adventure as this one.
There’s nothing boring about the hike to Needle’s Eye, and that starts with the drive in, which is the scenic O&W route along Pine Creek into the Big South Fork River gorge. From the O&W railroad bridge that crosses the river, the hike begins on the John Muir Trail — the long-distance trail that travels the length of the Big South Fork from Pickett State Park to the Burnt Mill Loop Trail.
Unlike most hikes, the hardest part of the hike to Needle’s Eye is on the front end. In fact, almost all of the hike’s 570 ft. of elevation gain are contained in the first half-mile of the walk. After that, the going is much easier — almost entirely level for the remainder of the trip to Needle’s Eye and almost all downhill on the way back out. The hike gets a strenuous difficulty rating, but aside from that first half-mile, it’s mostly due to the rugged nature of the trail.
That first half-mile is certainly taxing, as the climb from the bottom of the gorge to the top of the plateau begins almost as soon as the trail departs the O&W Road. Step-for-step, the climb from O&W Bridge to the top of Hurricane Ridge is the toughest half-mile hike you’ll find anywhere in the BSF, with trails at Honey Creek, Rock Creek and Laurel Fork Creek perhaps being the only ones that even come close.
But don’t let that scare you away, because the view from the top of the gorge at the end of that half-mile climb is well worth the climb itself, and the view is just the start.
The first interesting site along the route actually comes amid the half-mile gorge climb. It’s Jake’s Falls, created by an unnamed stream flowing over a bluff line along a break in the cliff. The waterfall is little more than a trickle during the dry season, but takes on a completely different look after periods of rainfall. If it’s your first trip up the side of the gorge on the John Muir Trail, you’ll be breathing hard and looking with apprehension towards the set of natural stone steps just beyond the waterfall, even as you admire the stream’s beauty. But take heart in knowing that the worst of the climb is already behind you.
Just past the steps, the trail turns into a gap and hops a couple of streams, then continues to wind its way towards the top of the ridge. The steep ascent lessens dramatically, and the walk becomes much easier.
Next up is Devil’s Den, which was until only recently the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail. Not to be confused with Devil’s Cave near East Rim Overlook, Devil’s Den is a photogenic rock house carved into the side of the ridge that has long been a destination for locals who once drove their vehicles here from Hurricane Ridge by way of the Honey Creek community. Nowadays, Devil’s Den can only be accessed by foot; even horses are stopped nearly a mile further up the ridge.
Beyond Devil’s Den, the trail continues towards the top of the ridge. As it turns up a roadbed that has been rutted by past equestrian traffic, a narrow footpath departs the main trail to the right, leading to the edge of the cliff line and a spectacular view of the Big South Fork River. The side path is easy to miss, as it is not signed. But you’ll want to keep an eye out for it, as the view from O&W West Overlook is among the best in the BSF. Far below is the O&W Bridge, and the vantage point offers long-distance views of the river from where it turns sharply at the mouth of Pine Creek. (The overlook is unprotected and should be approached with caution.)
As you rest and admire the view, pat yourself on the back. You’ve completed almost all of the 570 ft. of elevation change, and the remainder of the hike is a relative cakewalk.
Back to the trail, continue on the narrow footpath as it winds away from the overlook, turning back towards the main trail. As you re-emerge onto the John Muir Trail, you’ll find a wooden picnic table, which is an inviting spot to stop for a quick lunch. You’re now at the top of Hurricane Ridge.
Over the next half-mile or so, you’ll work your way along the BSF’s newest hiking trail — the John Muir Trail’s Hurricane Ridge connector. This new trail connects the O&W with Honey Creek Loop, and bridges what were once two separate sections of the JMT. The hike becomes mostly level, and it is easy to see why locals have long referred to Hurricane Ridge as “The Big Woods.” The forest is deep and expansive, covering thousands of acres of ridge top.
A short distance beyond the picnic table at the top of the hill, the trail will fork. Take a left to remain on the John Muir Trail, which will once again begin a slight ascent. The next fork in the trail will be marked by a barricade that was erected by National Park Service trail crews to keep horses off the hiking trail. You have now reached a portion of the hike that will follow unofficial horse trails. While a left-hand turn from the barricade would allow you to continue on the John Muir Trail, which shares the horse trail as it continues towards Honey Creek, our hike requires a right-hand turn along the horse trail.
The rest of the hike to Needle’s Eye is a muddy one. Equestrian traffic keeps the ground well churned up, and there are a number of large puddles from the days when vehicles used these old roadbeds to access oil wells and stands of timber along Hurricane Ridge.
After a rutted downhill section of trail and a short uphill climb, there’s another fork in the trail. While there are no signs to indicate which direction you’re headed, turn right to continue towards Needle’s Eye. Continuing straight, along the left-hand fork in the trail, would take you towards civilization in the Honey Creek community, several miles away.
After the right-hand turn, the trail continues along the ridge top, eventually coming to another fork. Again, you’ll want to stick with the right fork to continue towards Needle’s Eye. If you’re keeping track, that’s three forks in the trail and three right-hand turns since you reached the horse barricade and departed the John Muir Trail.
As the hike continues along the ridge, you’ll notice a trail departing to the right. The sign reads “Oh Poop.” Take note; that interestingly-named trail will be the way out.
A short distance beyond that side trail, you’ll notice another wooden picnic table similar to the one you passed when you first topped Hurricane Ridge. You have arrived at the end of the horse trail, and Needle’s Eye is just ahead. A footpath leads from the campsite at the picnic table to the entrance to the tunnel.
As you step down the side of the ridge to the mouth of Needle’s Eye, it’ll look like little more than an interesting hole that drops into the ridge. But after you duck beneath an arch at the opening, the tunnel opens up into one of the largest rock caverns in the Big South Fork. A wooden ladder leads into the main part of the tunnel, which travels through the ridge and emerges on the opposite side.
There is no trail on the far end of the tunnel. Instead, you’ll climb back up the ladder and return to the horse trail along the same footpath you walked in on.
As the return trip on the horse trail begins, take a left onto the “Oh Poop” trail that you passed on the way in. This trail will quickly begin to descend from the top of the ridge and will eventually lead you to O&W Road. Shortly past a wooden barricade, it becomes apparent how the trail got its name. As it continues its descent, it requires walking on exposed rocks that are slippery when wet. After crossing a small stream, the trail reaches another barricade. While the main trail appears to continue straight ahead, you’ll want to turn left, along what appears to be little more than a narrow footpath. Continuing straight would lead you back to the John Muir Trail.
After you turn left, it becomes even more apparent why horseback riders gave this trail its name. The going is steep and rocky, often narrow, and sometimes dropping over rock ledges. It’s no big deal for hikers who are on their own two feet, but you can imagine what a nerve-wracking ordeal it might be for horseback riders. In fact, a rider was seriously injured on this unofficial trail two years ago, leading some to speculate that the National Park Service might close it once and for all. But that hasn’t happened, which allows us to hike it.
As the trail continues dropping into the gorge, it becomes what is arguably the most scenic part of the hike. Towering hemlocks shade the forest floor, which is thickly covered with ferns, mountain laurel, big-leaf magnolias and other species that prefer the shaded and damp soils of the BSF region.
Eventually, the trail reaches the O&W Road near where North White Oak Creek empties into the BSF River. Take a right-hand turn and hike the road back to the O&W Bridge.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 west from Oneida to Toomey Road. Turn left onto Toomey Road and continue until it ends at O&W Road. Turn right onto O&W Road and continue to the O&W Bridge, parking on either side of the bridge. The trail departs the roadway on the immediate far side of the bridge.
Be Careful For: There are a number of cautions along the hike, including an unprotected overlook, a steep ladder inside Needle’s Eye, and a downhill walk on the way out that can be very slippery, especially when wet. Use extreme caution, especially with children.
Look For: Along the trail that leads from Hurricane Ridge to O&W Road on the way out, the big-leaf magnolia grows in abundance. This understory tree is the largest-leafed tree in all of North America.
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!