Hike of the Week: Honey Creek Loop

Hike of the Week: Honey Creek Loop

Hike of the Week: Honey Creek Loop


A hiker pauses to take a photo at the majestic Boulder House Falls, where a waterfall flows through a jumble of giant boulders. (Independent Herald photo/Ben Garrett)

Distance:5.5 Mile Loop

Elevation Change:450 ft.


Start At:Honey Creek Trailhead

The final hike of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge is also the toughest. At 5.5 miles, Honey Creek Loop isn’t the longest of the 20 trails; not even close, in fact. That came last week, with the 8-mile Rock Creek Loop. But what it lacks in distance, Honey Creek makes up for in difficulty. It is the only trail of the challenge to be rated as “strenuous” on the difficulty scale.

But don’t let that scare you away from Honey Creek Loop. Its difficulty isn’t the only reason this trail is last on the list. It’s last because, well, we saved the best for last.

For hikers, Honey Creek Loop is the crown jewel of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Formerly known as Pocket Wilderness when it was constructed by Hiwassee, the paper company that once owned the area where the trailhead is located, Honey Creek was recently named by USA Today as one of the Top 25 hiking trails in the entire United States — a high honor for this relatively unknown national park tucked quietly away in the Cumberlands.

Honey Creek Loop begins and ends with an easy stroll through mixed oak-pine forest atop the plateau. But it’s in between where things get truly interesting. The gorge encasing Honey Creek — the stream for which this trail gets its name — represents some of the most rugged terrain in the entire 125,000 acres of the BSF. While most trails in the park can be hiked at a pace of about 30 to 40 minutes per mile, the National Park Service suggests a minimum of an hour per mile for Honey Creek Loop.

Many hikers won’t require that long to complete the walk, but you might find yourself progressing a little slow because you’re stopping to take pictures and marvel at the geology along the trail. The hike encompasses impressive water falls (although most of them are little more than a trickle during dry weather), boulder fields, rock houses and overlooks. The trail will require hikers to cross the stream several times, and at one point even walk in the stream for a short distance. A couple of boulder fields require hikers to almost get on their hands and knees to crawl through. And, at one point, hikers need to use a piece of rope to maintain their balance over a ledge.

But, with all that said, it isn’t as bad as it sounds. Honey Creek is a difficult hike, but a fun one. Once you’ve emerged yourself into the hike, and you find yourself in the bottom of the gorge along Honey Creek, you can’t help but gaze about and realize just how this area got its former name. It truly is a “pocket of wilderness.”

From the parking lot at the trailhead, look for a set of steps on the opposite side of the road. This is the start of the loop. It’s also part of the John Muir Trail, which ends at the intersection with Burnt Mill Trail five miles south.

But the Honey Creek Loop doesn’t follow the JMT for long. After a tenth of a mile, the trails go their separate ways. The Honey Creek Loop soon begins a descent into a creek bottom.

The first of several waterfalls is about a mile into the hike — Moonshine Falls. You can guess how it got its name. A couple of stream crossings later, you’ll come to a large rock wall — and that’s something you’ll see a lot of over the next five miles . . . rock. This particular one is called Echo Rock, because it reflects the sound of the Big South Fork River a half-mile away. Stand in just the right place and the sound of rushing whitewater will seem as though it’s coming straight out of the rock.

Just beyond Echo Rock is a trail junction. Going left will lead up a ladder to Honey Creek Overlook. If you’re a first-timer to Honey Creek, you’ll want to see the overlook; it offers a view of a part of the BSF River that most folks never see — the part of the river that makes it popular among whitewater paddlers. But Honey Creek Road leads all the way to the overlook, so if you want to save some energy, you can stay on the lower trail and leave the overlook for later, when you’ve arrived back at the trailhead.

A short distance beyond the trail junction, a series of switchbacks lead the trail to within 300 ft. of the river. A brief walk later, the trail turns into the Honey Creek gorge. And if you think you’ve seen beauty so far — you haven’t seen anything yet.

Over the next two miles, you’ll wind your way up Honey Creek, at times walking in the creek itself. The trail can be difficult to follow; there are several false side trails that lead off the main trail. The National Park Service says it performs more rescues on Honey Creek Loop than anywhere else in the park — mostly because hikers start the walk too late and become trapped by darkness, or because they wander off the main trail and become lost. If you find yourself on a trail that peters out, the best option is to retrace your steps and relocate the main trail.

There are several rock shelters along Honey Creek. The most impressive is Indian Rock House, a deep, cave-like structure with an old ladder leading into it. A short distance before the rock house, you’ll notice a side trail leading left. This trail, located 2.3 miles into the hike, is a shortcut. But unless the creek is flowing high, don’t take the shortcut. You will miss some of the most incredible scenery of the hike, including Indian Rockhouse.

Beyond the rock house, you’ll come to the intersection with the John Muir Trail. This is the BSF’s newest trail; it’s a connector that crosses Hurricane Ridge to connect the lower JMT (Beaver Falls) with the upper JMT at O&W Bridge. If you were to hang a right at the junction and take the connector trail towards Oneida, you would reach Devil’s Den above the historic railroad bridge in just a couple of miles.

Hanging a left instead, the Honey Creek Loop continues back towards the trailhead. If you’re tired, take heart; the most strenuous part of the hike is behind you. And there’s still plenty to see.

A short distance beyond the trail junction is the most impressive collection of cairns in the entire BSF. Over the years, hikers have assembled literally hundreds of these small piles of rocks — which were historically used by Native Americans and other early Americans as trail markers — beneath a large rock shelter.

A ways beyond that — some 3.5 miles into the hike — is Boulder House Falls. It is arguably the most impressive feature along the route. Many years ago, huge boulders broke free and tumbled into the stream bed, forcing Honey Creek to flow through them. The result is the waterfall, which drops through the “boulder house.” The streambed itself is solid rock. So while it’s a little slippery, you can quite easily walk into the boulder house to cool off and enjoy this unique waterfall.

Beyond Boulder House Falls, hikers have to scramble through the same jumble of boulders, then begin a short climb.

A little more than a half-mile — and yet another couple of stream crossings — later, there’s a side trail that leads to Honey Creek Falls. It’s only a short stroll to the base of the waterfall; you might as well take it.

Once you’ve left Honey Creek Falls, the trail is a mostly uneventful walk back to the trailhead.

Getting There:Take U.S. Hwy. 27 to New River, then follow the signs to Burnt Mill Bridge (Old Hwy. 27 to Mt. View Road, Mt. View Road to Black Creek Crossroads, and then a right onto Honey Creek Road). From Burnt Mill Bridge, continue on Honey Creek Road for three more miles. The trailhead is located on the right, just off the main road. If you come to houses, you’ve driven too far.

Look For:Fluorescent orange arrows painted onto the rock to mark the trail in dark areas — beneath rock houses and in the Honey Creek gorge. These, like the wooden ladder at Indian Rockhouse, date back to the days when Bowater constructed the trail.

Be Careful For:Steep ascents (including ladders if you choose to take the side trail leading to the overlook), stream crossings, slippery rocks, poorly marked sections of trail. Use caution with pets and small children.

Make It Better:Take your shoes off and wade in the stream. You’ll follow Honey Creek and the North Fork of Honey Creek for most of the hike. Boulder House Falls is an excellent place to cool off by getting your feet wet.

Taken from the Independent Herald, Oneida, TN.