Backbone Rock

An insider's guide to Backbone Rock Recreation Area, and the "World's Shortest Highway Tunnel"

Imagine an ancient, 100-foot-tall rock spur that seems like it just shot out of the ground. Right through middle, Highway 133 passes through a manmade former railroad tunnel that's just a few feet deep. And from the top, sweeping, panoramic views of Cherokee National Forest. 

This is Backbone Rock and it’s one of the most accessible and unique adventure points in Southwest Virginia. It’s also one of the most customizable adventures offered, because of the variety of amenities this park offers. 

Located near The Virginia Creeper Trail and the Appalachian Trail, and just 15 minutes from downtown Abingdon, it's the perfect destination for a picnic, a day trip, or an overnight. 

Backbone-rock-stairs-in-fall-credit-Chad-Mc Glamery

Scaling Backbone Rock

To access the top of Backbone Rock, you'll climb a staircase, hewn in to the rock, that winds its way up to the top. Stones, laid carefully and securely by hand nearly 100 years ago make their way, up, up, up to the very top.

There are handrails and wooden bridges to help you traverse the complete length of the rock, but make no mistake, there are sheer drop offs and uneven footing. There’s another hand-crafted staircase that leads you back down on the other side.

You can spend as little or as much time exploring as you like, and access is a breeze. There is parking right beside it. And, there are rustic restrooms.

Backbone Rock is also popular with climbers, and it's not uncommon to see groups practicing their rappelling skills down the sheer cliff-like sides of the formation. 

Sun shining through Backbone Rock credit Chad McGlamery

Other adventures at Backbone Rock

If heights aren't your thing, there is plenty more to do that keeps you closer to the ground. Beaverdam Creek makes a horseshoe bend around Backbone Rock and is a great place to kick off your shoes and wade in the cool mountain water. Fishing is also permitted with a Virginia license, and the creek is stocked with trout.

Not into fishing, go creeking! What was more fun as a kid than catching minnows, tadpoles and crawdads in the creek? Bring some water shoes and a net for some good, old fashioned fun.

Or, lace up your hiking boots and enjoy the trails throughout the park. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is accessed via the parking lot and it’s clearly marked.

A family favorite is an easy hike to a small waterfall. The entrance is just above the parking lot a bit. It’s a nice hike into a little gorge that leads to a neat 45ft waterfall. Rocks can be slippery and a bit uneven, but overall, it’s fairly easy to get to.

An unexpected treat along this trail is a clearing that is surrounded by a rock wall, made just like the steps through the park. It’s the perfect spot to stop and have a picnic. Imaginative boys and girls may pretend it’s a pirate ship or an amphitheatre. The possibilities are endless.

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The History of Backbone Rock

In 1901 a tunnel was blasted through the rock to make way for a train. The tunnel allowed railroad access between Shady Valley, Tennessee and Damascus, Virginia. Interestingly enough, when the tunnel was blasted, the engineers did not account for the engine’s smoke stack, so the very top had to be hand-chiseled to make room for passage. For around 30 years a train brought the lumber from Shady Valley to the Sutherland Community. It didn’t take long to exhaust the area from its natural resources, though, and the train stopped running. When the tracks were taken up, there was perfect access by road and motorists could now zoom under “the shortest tunnel in the world.”

In the 1930s, after the Depression, the US government began the Civilian Conservation Corp and they developed this spot for recreational use. All the steps, bridges and rails were installed and the area became a day use park, complete with two picnic shelters and hiking trails that incorporated native stonework. A campground was added in the 1960s and in 1990 it was revitalized.

Abingdon is Your Basecamp for Outdoor Adventure

Abingdon is a centerpiece among so many mini-adventures like Backbone Rock. That’s why Abingdon is the perfect basecamp. Keep your creature comforts all while creating the outdoor adventure memories you and your family will cherish. Remember to leave only footprints and take only pictures while exploring!

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