Backbone Rock is famous for being the shortest tunnel in the world but there’s so much more if you’re willing to explore. We want to show you all the awesome things at Backbone Rock for a full and memorable day.
Backbone Rock is a huge rock formation in northern Johnson County, Tennessee just a stone’s throw from Damascus, Va and a mere half-hour from Abingdon, Va.
It’s most famously known for being the shortest tunnel in the world, only burrowing through 20 feet of rock.
But driving through the rough hewn rock is just the first thing to do at the beautiful recreation area.
History of Backbone Rock
In 1901 the needs of the timber industry drove the Empire Lumber and Mining Company to blast through the stone at Backbone Rock to extend existing rail lines. The new rail they laid connected the town of Shady Valley, Tennessee to Damascus, Virginia. The new section was only used for about 20 years before falling out of use.
In 1920 Cherokee National Forest was formed as an emphasis on conservation spread across the United States. The heavily forested area around Backbone Rock became one of the areas that was incorporated into the national forest project.
The rail line was removed in 1924 and vehicle traffic was allowed to pass through the tunnel. At that time the tunnel only allowed for single lane traffic.
In the 1930s many changes came to Backbone Rock. The tunnel was widened to allow two lane traffic to pass under Backbone Rock and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) built some of the surrounding trails now present and built basic amenities for day use at Backbone Rock.
The campground was added in the 1960s and was rejuvenated in the 1990s. Now, the recreation area is a popular destination for people living within a couple hours.
Hiking at Backbone Rock
There are two main hiking trails at Backbone Rock Recreational area.
The first trail guides you on a journey across the top of the beautiful tunnel. The second trail leads you to the secluded and picturesque Backbone Falls.
Backbone Rock Trail
The trail that leads to the top of Backbone Rock leaves from the large parking lot. You’ll begin by trekking up stone steps into dense forest.
As you reach the top of the steps the trail splits. If you go left you can follow Backbone Rock Trail for several miles to the Appalachian Trail. Going to the right takes you over the bridge and loops back to the parking lot.
The trail flattens out after the split and you’ll cross a wooden bridge. After that you reach the top of the rock tunnel. From the top you can see the road below and the surrounding forest. This isn’t traditionally beautiful, but it’s a lot of fun to be able to walk across the top of a tunnel!
The top of the rock is several feet wide and there are some spots where the ground is uneven. A handrail installed along the top is the only bit of safety equipment. If you’re kids are like ours, then you may have a mild heart attack as they look over the edge.
Once you cross over the tunnel, you’ll come to a narrow trail to the left. The narrow path slips down the steep terrain around the bridge along stone steps. When you reach the bottom you are greeted by a large picnic pavilion and a few picnic tables.
From here you can see the tunnel and its a quick walk back to the parking lot, but it’s worth exploring the picnic area before you do.
Backbone Rock Trail
Length: 0.5 miles Elevation Gain: 80 feet Difficulty: Easy
Great For: Families
How We Rate It: 3/5, This is a very easy and pleasant hike. There aren’t any amazing views but it’s still cool looking over the top of the tunnel and the picnic area is a nice place to spend some time.
Backbone Rock Picnic Area
The picnic area is along the banks of Beaverdam Creek. You can find a few picnic tables along with the pavilion and a wide shore along one edge of the creek.
This is a great place to spend some time relaxing. The creek bends around the forested picnic area and you can find large rocks to rest on while kids play and explore.
To access the trail to Backbone Falls you need to cross over Highway 133 from the parking area. Next, and this is important, walk away from the tunnel on the same side of the tunnel as the parking area.
After a moment you should see a gravel pull off and a fence lining the roadway.
There is a small sign marking the beginning of the trail to the waterfall near the fence. This is a short trail but there are still two options for hiking it. You can hike directly to the waterfall and back or take the slightly longer loop trail around the waterfall.
You can avoid most of the stairs by doing an out and back but you also miss a pleasant walk through the forest. If you don’t care for those then skip it.
The trail begins here either way, following along the fence.
Backbone Falls Out and Back
Follow the narrow path along the fence until it veers into the woods. You will hear the rushing waters as you head away from the road. It only takes a moment or two for the waterfall to come into view in the thick summer forest and probably sooner in winter.
You can decide how far up the stair lined trail to go once you see the waterfall, but you won’t be able to get close to the pooling water at it’s base. And that’s really it. If you don’t want to do the loop, turn around and head back. It’s quick and easy and pretty.
Backbone Falls Loop
From the trail near the bottom of the waterfall you will climb the stairs up and then the trail continues over the falls. Even though the trail crosses over the top of the waterfall there isn’t a good view of the water from above.
Following the trail, you will come to a split. Stay to the left. You will quickly reach an old stone platform overlooking the hardwood forest. It isn’t clear what you would have seen from this spot in the past before the forest reclaimed the area, but there isn’t much of a view now.
From the stone platform, it only takes a moment to reach the small pull off area near the beginning of the trail. There is a stone bench and a set of stone steps at the end of the trail.
You can hike this loop in either direction. We actually started at the stairs above and did the hike in the reverse order. Looking back, I think the way we suggest here, starting from the fence lined section, is a more pleasant experience.
Length: 0.5 miles Elevation Gain: 150 feet Difficulty: Easy
Great For: Families, Photography
How We Rate It: 3/5, this is also a very easy hike. Even though the waterfall is only 45 feet, it’s still very beautiful.
Climbing and Rappelling
Directly across Highway 133 from the parking area you can find the region’s most popular climbing destination. Climbers can look forward to a 75 foot climb and multiple routes along the jagged stone. If you are planning to climb Backbone Rock, safety equipment is necessary.
You will need to follow the trail to the top of Backbone Rock and inspect where you are going to set your anchor point.
Rappelling is another popular activity at the recreation area. It’s not necessary to register before climbing or rappelling. One safety consideration to keep in mind while you climb is that there is no cell phone signal in this area.
Many years ago when I was in high school, I took a school trip to Backbone Rock to climb and rappel (I still don’t know how this trip got authorized). I remember looking forward to showing off in front of all the pretty girls on the trip.
Once we got to Backbone Rock my overwhelming fear of heights crushed my plans and I watched horrified as everyone but me climbed the rock and rappelled down.
So yeah, I’m not the best source for how much fun climbing and rappelling at Backbone Rock is, but here’s a short video of people having a good time not being scared of heights.
Fishing at Backbone Rock
Fishermen visiting can look forward to catching rainbow and brown trout along the shores of the Beaverdam Creek. You will need a fishing license and they can be purchased online from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Make sure you purchase the license that allows for trout as not all of them do.
There are good areas to fish along the shore of the creek near the picnic pavilion. You can also find a narrow trail that follows the Beaverdam Creek along the road heading away from Backbone Rock.
Camping at Backbone Rock Campground
There are 10 sites at the Backbone Rock camping area. The prices range from $10 to $20 dollars and all sites are nonelectric but they do accommodate both tents and RVs. You can book sites through recreation.gov.
Other Things in The Area
While Backbone Rock is an awesome place to visit, it isn’t the only thing to do in the area. Nearby towns include Damascus and Abingdon, Virginia. Both are great outdoor towns and along the Virginia Creeper Trail.
One of the best ways to spend an afternoon is renting a bicycle at one of the many bike shops in Damascus and pedaling to Abingdon along the Creeper trail and finding a great little spot to grab lunch before biking back.
If hiking is more what you are looking for, Backbone Rock is only about 45 minutes from Grayson Highland State Park. You can find miles and miles of hiking there along with some really awesome ponies roaming wild.
There’s more than just a tunnel at Backbone Rock Recreation Area. If you find yourself on Highway 133 near Damascus, don’t just take a drive through the tunnel. Get out and spend some time walking the trails or relaxing near the creek.