Honey Creek Falls is one of several waterfalls located along the Honey Creek Loop Trail in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area | Photo: Sarah Dunlap

Trail: John Muir Trail
Trailhead: Leatherwood
Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 830 ft.
Difficulty: Strenuous

When someone asks me which hiking trail I recommend in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, my answer is always the same: If you’re only going to do one, do Honey Creek.

In a lot of ways, Honey Creek should be the final hike of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge. It is, without a doubt, the best the Big South Fork has to offer, and it encompasses a little bit of everything the rest of the trails feature. It’s also the most difficult hiking trail in the Big South Fork, though the adventure that awaits is well worth the challenge. 

This isn’t the final hike of the challenge because of its difficulty. Honey Creek is a brutal hike in the middle of summer, in 90-degree temperatures with 95 percent humidity. So, instead, we’re placing it in the middle of the challenge, while the temperatures are still comfortable.

At 5.5 miles, Honey Creek isn’t the longest hike of the 20-week challenge; it isn’t even as long as last week’s hike. But it is the most difficult, and its 830 feet of elevation gain are the most of any single hike out of the 20. 

But hikers shouldn’t be scared away by the fact that this trail earns a rating of strenuous. It is a true adventure; when you’re in the Honey Creek gorge, you truly feel like you’re in a different world. If you take your time and don’t act as though you’re in a foot race to get back to the trailhead, you’ll make it just fine — and you’ll discover a lot of interesting things along the way.

For this hike, we recommend that you take a map or a GPS. (There are several free apps available for download on your phone, and you can load a map of the trail before you begin.) There are numerous side trails that lead away from the main trail and dead-end, making it easy to get turned around and lose your way. Some of those trails lead to awesome features, like hidden waterfalls and rock houses. Others simply lead nowhere. The main trail isn’t blazed very well, and at times requires walking through the creek. The National Park Service completes more trail rescues at Honey Creek than anywhere else in the park — usually because hikers have under-estimated the time it would take to complete the hike and have become trapped by darkness, or because they’ve gotten turned around and can’t find their way out.

Again, these words of caution shouldn’t deter you from attempting the hike. With a little planning and a few precautions, you’ll discover an adventure you won’t soon forget. It’s hard to argue that the Great Smoky Mountains don’t offer an overall hiking experience that tops the Big South Fork, but the Smokies do not have a trail that can top Honey Creek. In fact, USA Today recently ranked it as one of the Top 20 hiking trails in all of the U.S. A user on AllTrails.com, identifying herself as Sara Hodge, said this about Honey Creek: “I have hiked all over the world, and this is definitely in my Top 3 favorite hikes.” Another, identified as Hunter H, said: “When we got done I felt like I had been through an obstacle course that I should have paid someone for access to.”

From the trailhead, Honey Creek is best hiked in a counter-clockwise direction, by starting the hike on the opposite side of the road from where vehicles park. For a while, the trail meanders through upland hardwoods, then finally begins its descent into the Big South Fork gorge. 

Hikers will find Echo Rock along the first part of the route. From just the right spot, it seems as though you can actually hear the river flowing out of the rock. The boulder’s unique position on the side of the gorge causes a remarkable echo effect from the river tumbling over rapids far below.

A short distance beyond Echo Rock, the trail splits. A left takes you up a steep ladder to the top of the plateau and to Honey Creek Overlook, which offers spectacular views of the BSF’s most famed whitewater section. A separate ladder leads back to the main trail, but hikers who are weary about the difficulty of the trail that remains ahead may choose to skip this smaller inner loop that leads to the overlook.

The trail dips close to the river at one point before turning into the Honey Creek gorge. It follows the creek most of the rest of the way, offering hikers a true adventure that will require them to scramble over, through and underneath rock jumbles. The trail leads past huge rock houses, like Indian Rock House, Boulder House Falls, a unique waterfall which literally tumbles through a house of boulders, and a number of other features before finally reaching the top of the plateau and returning to the parking lot through upland forest.

Like all trails in the Big South Fork, Honey Creek is better in some seasons than in others. It’s at its best in the fall, when the foliage is at its peak, and in the spring, when the waterfalls are flowing good. In the late spring and summer, the waterfalls become little more than trickles. But, no matter the season, Honey Creek is a truly spectacular hike. 

Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 south from Oneida to the New River community. Turn right onto Old Hwy. 27 and follow the signs to Burnt Mill Bridge. Once at Burnt Mill Bridge, continue on Honey Creek Road to the first gravel road that turns right. The trailhead is located just off the main road. The trail begins on the opposite side of the road from the parking area. 

Be Careful For: There are a number of hazards along Honey Creek Loop, including steep ladders and steps, slippery rocks, stream crossings and areas that require short drops over boulders. Small children and dogs are not recommended for this hike, though school-age children can usually manage okay. 

Make It Better: Hike Honey Creek with a ranger. A ranger-led hike will depart the trailhead at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11. The ranger will be able to answer questions and offer unique insight about the trail — and you’ll be guaranteed to not get lost!

Look For: Along the hike, look for the fluorescent orange arrows that are painted onto rocks as a way to blaze the trail, rather than the BSF’s traditional “arrowhead” signs that are nailed to trees. These paintings harken back to the 1970s, when this was a Pocket Wilderness hike.

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, please pack it out!

Go Big Points: While the Big South Fork NRRA’s Go Big 2019 Challenge is separate from the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge, you can earn points towards completing the Go Big Challenge while you participate in the hiking challenge. If you complete the Honey Creek hike, you will earn 6 points towards your Go Big Challenge. Also, keep a close eye out for the wildlife you encounter; if you see any of several birds, you can earn 3 points for each bird you see (blue heron, wild turkey, crow, pileated woodpecker, red-tailed hawk, indigo bunting). To log your Go Big points, download the challenge booklet at nps.gov/biso. Participants who log at least 100 points will earn a challenge patch. Or, you can earn a medallion with 200 points (silver) or 300 points (gold).

— Ben Garrett