There are numerous backcountry hiking trails connecting special places across the United States. The Sheltowee Trace runs 319 miles in Kentucky and Tennessee. Developed in the 1970s, the trail honors Kentucky settler and long hunter Daniel Boone who was captured by the Shawnee Indians but later adopted and named Sheltowee, which means “Big Turtle.”  

John Muir, famed naturalist known as the “Father of the National Parks,” also once passed through the rugged Cumberland Plateau, and the Big South Fork John Muir Trail offers 54.9 miles of backcountry hiking in the Big South Fork.

These long-distance trails may seem intimidating to the weekend hiker or novice backpacker. But the Big South Fork trail system offers segments that allow visitors to soak up the beauty of the region with a little less foot leather. 

One such trail, the O&W Bridge trail from Leatherwood Ford, offers 2.3 miles along a stretch where the two trails collide. You also enjoy views of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, unique rock formations, wet weather creeks and a historic bridge still in operation. The out-and-back trail adds 4.5 miles to your hiking total.

Along the path, you can enjoy the old growth forest, wildflowers and mushrooms, and interesting sandstone rock formations. 

At the trail, you reach the historic O&W Bridge.

Long before this area was preserved as a national river and recreation area, the Oneida and Western Railroad operated through the rugged region, carrying goods from the outside world to the isolated settlements deep within the mountains and taking away raw resources like timber and coal. 

The bridge features a whipple through truss design popular from about 1847 to 1900. It had been in place elsewhere when it was taken apart and moved to its current location in 1917. 

It’s the only remaining whipple through truss bridge still in use in Tennessee. 

You can drive to the bridge — and over it. Across the river are popular fishing and swimming areas along North White Oak Creek. The bridge also serves as a takeout or put-in for paddlers on the river. 

The bridge was renovated in 2017, thanks to a grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, a donation of labor by the Scott County Road Department and the generosity of an anonymous donor. 

Pedestrians, bikers and horseback riders can also use the bridge. It offers views of the high gorge walls and the rushing rapids far below. 

Once you’ve soaked up the scenery, you can head back to Leatherwood Ford. The historic low-water bridge has been closed to visitors after heavy rains repeatedly washed out part of the walkway. But trails on the other side of the river are still accessible. 

Leatherwood Ford Trails

•Angel Falls Rapid Trail

2 miles one way, easy

Catch a view of this class III-IV rapid. Because the rapid includes undercut rocks, paddlers are encouraged to portage. Hikers should also use caution around the water

•Angel Falls Overlook

2.8 miles one way, moderate/difficult

•Grand Gap Loop Trail

7 miles, moderate

Follow Angel Falls Overlook to the Grand Gap Loop

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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