Jake’s Hole is a hole of water — a swimming hole to some, a fishing hole to others, simply a wide spot in the river to still others — on the Big South Fork River just above the O&W Bridge west of Oneida. Jake’s Hole Overlook is an unmarked, unprotected overlook (in other words, just a clear spot on the gorge rim with a good view) at the top of the cliff lines that tower over the river. Getting there requires a hike straight up hill from the O&W Bridge. I prefer to add a little more adventure to the hike, though.
So, we’re starting at East Rim Trailhead. East Rim Road turns off S.R. 297 at the Big South Fork NRRA headquarters. The trailhead is located just a few hundred feet off S.R. 297. It serves as the trailhead for the Sunset Overlook Trail and the Leatherwood Loop Trail. The entire hike, from East Rim Trailhead to Jake’s Hole Overlook and back, is about 8.6 miles. Although it is a hike pieced together by myself and not something you would necessarily find on any Big South Fork day-planner, it is probably the most strenuous day hike the park has to offer.
From the trailhead, Leatherwood Loop Trail immediately leaves an old farm pasture and enters open hardwoods. The Leatherwood Loop Trail itself is a 2.8-mile loop that begins and ends at the trailhead. The trail’s beginning and end meet a short distance into the forest. A right-hand turn is the best way to circle the loop, in a counter-clockwise direction. After passing an old stock pond and following the pasture for a short distance, the trail merges onto what was once Old Leatherwood Road. In the early days of automobiles, and horses and buggies before them, this route was the main way to traverse the river gorge. S.R. 297 did not exist back then, obviously. This road was the primary way to travel between Possum Rock, Black Oak and communities east of the river, and White Pine and other communities west of the river.
The road travels the ridge until it peters out on exposed sandstone and drops over the rim. The trail itself then leaves the roadbed, though it still follows it at times, and winds back and forth through mountain laurel, hemlocks and the typical forest makeup just under the gorge rim that can be found up and down the river.
After descending to the bottom of the gorge, Leatherwood Loop Trail emerges onto S.R. 297 at Leatherwood Ford. Those who need to use the facilities will find them, along with assorted information about the national park (including a gauge that gives the current streamflow of the river). The first leg of the hike is complete. But don’t start feeling too froggy . . . it’s just one of many legs, and easily the easiest.
From the access area at Leatherwood, the loop trail merges with the John Muir Trail, which hikers will be on for the duration of the trip to Jake’s Hole Overlook. The trail starts out as a level trail surfaced with gravel chips. But the easy stroll along the river won’t last.
A couple of tenths of a mile from Leatherwood Ford is Echo Rock, a house-sized boulder along the river’s edge. There is a wooden observation deck at the base of the rock, where you can shout and learn how Echo Rock got its name, but it is blocked by the National Park Service. Echo Rock is cracking due to erosion and the area has been closed for “visitor safety.”
Beyond Echo Rock, the John Muir Trail turns to dirt and rock. It’s still mostly flat, though, occasionally dipping slightly to cross the small feeder streams that flow into the river during the wet seasons.
A half-mile from Leatherwood Ford, the loop trail departs the Muir trail and heads back up the side of the gorge. That will be the route back to the vehicle on the way out. For now, the hike continues along the Muir trail towards the O&W.
About one mile beyond Leatherwood Ford, the John Muir Trail, which is a riverside trail up to that point, begins to climb up the side of the hill away from the river. It also leaves the roadbed it has followed up until that point, following a couple of switchbacks as it climbs 125 ft. or so above the river. The climb isn’t too exerting, but it is enough to earn the John Muir Trail a moderate rating. Eventually, the trail levels out somewhat but continues to climb gently. At this point, it has become a narrow footpath dug into the side of the hill. The forest has changed from predominately hemlock and big-leaf magnolias with laurel and rhododendron crowding the understory to oaks, maple and beech.
The hike is unspectacular for a while. The river disappears in the foliage as the trail turns slightly away from the water. The old roadbed continues to run parallel to the trail, but is further up the hill, towards the bottom of the cliff line, and is out of sight.
Eventually, the trail and roadbed merge again, continuing south — upstream — along the river. The road will begin to slowly descend, but it’s a much more gentle grade than the climb up was earlier. That might not seem like much, but you can appreciate it on the way out.
While the river is still mostly out of sight through the foliage during the spring and summer months, hikers who keep an eye on the terrain to the right will see what appears to be a large valley on the far side of the river shortly after John Muir Trail reconnects with the old roadbed. That is the mouth of North White Oak Creek. Once New River and Clear Fork combine to form the Big South Fork, North White Oak is the river’s biggest tributary. It is also, along with similarly-named White Oak Creek near Rugby, the only tributary suitable for kayaking or canoeing during certain times of the year.
Eventually, hikers will notice that the character of the old roadbed has changed. It is wider, and it cuts through the slight terrain changes rather than over them. The road has actually merged with another roadbed, which a century ago was being graded with intentions of becoming a railroad spur from the Oneida & Western Railroad to Anderson Branch just downstream from Leatherwood Ford, to make it easier to mine the rich seams of coal found there. That never materialized, though, for various reasons.
When large boulders begin to creep up along the trail, the O&W Bridge is almost in sight. The aging bridge is still open for vehicular use, though the road isn’t suitable for anything but 4×4 use beyond the bridge and ends a couple of miles beyond it.
Walk out onto the bridge and then, if it’s your first trip, turn around and look at the majestic cliff wall towering behind you. The rock wall is becoming increasingly popular among rock climbers, who call it “O&W Wall.” Atop the rock wall (you can’t get there from here, obviously) is an unmarked overlook that is one of the most spectacular in the entire Big South Fork NRRA.
Just beyond the bridge, the John Muir Trail continues south, parallel to the river. This is the trail to Devil’s Den. It is only a half-mile hike, but it is a strenuous half mile. The trek from the river to the top of the gorge is ahead. And with just a half-mile to cover it, the average grade is 19 percent, making it one of the steepest gorge climbs in the park.
While the trail to Devil’s Den is part of the John Muir Trail, it isn’t advertised as such because it dead-ends at the top of the gorge. Eventually, the Muir trail will be extended to Burnt Mill Bridge near Honey Creek, and then on to Peter’s Ford in the Armathawaite community of Fentress County.
The climb to Devil’s Den begins along an old road, but the trail soon leaves the roadbed and the true climb begins, switching back through boulders and a dense hardwood forest. What it lacks in length it makes up for in natural beauty; it is one of the most scenic trails in the entire national park.
It’s also one of the hardest climbs. Inexperienced hikers will soon find their lungs screaming for mercy, their heart pounding against their chest wall as if it is searching for a way out, and their calf muscles about to turn to mush, especially on the hot and humid days of summer. But for those who do not have a heart or lung condition, my personal belief is that it is best to hit these short gorge climbs with vigor, not stopping until reaching the top. I am a long, long ways from being in excellent physical shape, but I have used that approach to substantially increase my lung capacity and stamina. I dare say that it is as good a workout as a trip to the gym.
Just when you think your legs can’t take anymore, you realize that the trail has turned up a stream. You’ve arrived at the top of the gorge . . . more or less. It is still a short distance to Devil’s Den, but the climb becomes much gentler.
Of the hundreds of rock houses throughout the BSF, Devil’s Den may be the closest to perfect. Its entrance is almost perfectly symmetrical. It was once used by Native Americans for shelter, then later used by long hunters for the same purpose. Still later, timber cutters working in the log woods used it for shelter. Pictures cannot do it justice.
Devil’s Den shouldn’t be confused with Devil’s Cave, a similarly named (but off trail) rock fissure back downstream (the John Muir Trail actually trekked below it at one point) that is in many ways even more spectacular than Devil’s Den.
Officially, the John Muir Trail ends at Devil’s Den. The park service does not maintain the trail any further. But the footpath is not hard to follow through the undergrowth. Another tenth of a mile or so is all that is required to reach Jake’s Hole Overlook.
The large hole of water visible from the overlook is Jake’s Hole. But the view of the river stretches far upstream of Jake’s Hole, encompassing the entire “Canyon” section of the Big South Fork between the mouth of Pine Creek and the O&W Bridge. When it comes to spectacular views, it’s hard to displace Angel Falls Overlook as the most scenic view in the entire Big South Fork NRRA. But Jake’s Hole Overlook is a pretty darned close second. It has become one of my favorite places to hike to and simply sit for a while, now that Angel Falls Overlook is so crowded that it’s hard to find peace and solitude on most days.
After taking a while to soak in the tranquility of the view — that’s the O&W Wall directly in front of the overlook, by the way — it’s time to prepare for the trek back down to the bottom of the gorge. Before leaving, be sure to take a closer look at the bridge below. If your legs are still hurting, that view will spell out why. Yes, the trail really did climb that far in that short a distance.
It goes without saying that the hike back to the bridge is easier than the hike up. From there, it’s back along the John Muir Trail towards Leatherwood Ford. It’s a 2.3-mile hike from the bridge to where the Leatherwood Loop Trail turns right and begins its ascent to the top of the gorge. The second gorge climb of the day after such a long hike is probably few people’s idea of fun, but there will once again be a view from the top that makes the hike worth it.
The southern side of the Leatherwood Loop Trail is not nearly as scenic as the north side, simply switching back several times along the side of the gorge before finally entering a hemlock and rhododendron forest and following a stream through a gap in the cliff line. After hiking around several huge boulders and small bluffs, hikers reach the top of the gorge to find a short, 0.1-mile, spur to the Leatherwood Overlook.
From the overlook, it’s a short stroll through gently-rolling hardwood forest back to the East Rim Trailhead. And if you have energy left, there’s always a 1.5-mile hike (one way) to Sunset Overlook, which provides yet another bird’s-eye view of the Big South Fork gorge.