by: Judy S. Blackstock

Just two and a half hours north of Knoxville lies the shortest tunnel in the world. Backbone Rock tunnel, located five miles outside of Damascus, Virginia, measures only twenty feet wide. This unusual sedimentary rock formation, a ridge of the Holston Mountain in the Cherokee National Forest, stands seventy-five foot high.


In 1901, with logging at its peak in the region, Backbone Rock stood in the way of a train route designed to connect Damascus and Shady Valley,Tennessee.  The cheapest solution was to blast a hole in the rock.  A small hitch occurred after the completion of the tunnel because the engineers of the project forgot to include space for the train’s smokestack to clear the overhead rock. They hand chiseled a rough gap in the stone, and the Beaver Dam Railroad started hauling as much as 100,000 sawed boards daily for The Tennessee Lumber and Manufacturing Company.

Photo courtesy of Gibson Parks Vance, Jr.

Photo courtesy of Gibson Parks Vance, Jr.

By 1913 logging had played out, and operations shut down for both the lumber mill and the secondary industry of mining manganese ore. Afterwards the United States Forest Service used the railway line as a truck trail, and it eventually became state route 133, running the eleven miles from Shady Valley to the Virginia border.  During the 1930s this beautiful spot benefited from the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) who came in and built trails beside Backbone Rock, complete with steps and handrails.


 I have lived in this area most of my life, but just found this premier spot which makes a easy day trip available, or if you enjoy camping, and have the time, a longer adventure. A friend became a volunteer camp host for the National Forest Service this summer, and Backbone Rock Campground was her assignment. She invited several friends to visit, and explore this new find. After camping two nights, we wished we were staying longer.

Judy tunnel

 Every attraction or activity here–tunnel, falls, picnic tables, hiking trails–are convenient to parking areas, close to the road.  After checking out the tunnel, you are right next to the trail that leads up to the top of the rock.  The trail is steep, but not long, only about a half a mile, well worth any effort. You can walk across the top of the rock, enjoying a vista of trees and the road below. Rappelling is allowed as well as rock climbing. With the Appalachian Trail close by, hikers from the AT often use the path, and get off here to freshen up in Damascus.  We met a hiker who chose to stay in the campground. It is easy to tell when a hiker has just left the AT; he is ready to talk!

Judy hiking

The CCC also constructed the one mile loop for hiking to the Backbone Rock Falls. The scenery, trees and wildflowers made the effort worthwhile. We were there in July and enjoyed the rhododendron in bloom. This area is rich in natural resources, and in a small pool near the falls,  the rusty coloration of iron ore is visible.

Judy falls

An added bonus to this section of the Cherokee Forest is Beaverdam Creek that runs around Backbone Rock and alongside the road, offering good fly fishing, and a swimming hole right next to the trail. There are plenty of stretches shallow enough to get your feet wet in the cold, cold water.

swimming hole

A small campground of eleven spaces accommodates both tent and trailers for dry camping. Fire rings, picnic table, and good lantern poles are available at each location. The sites are rented out on a first come, first served basis, so get there by early afternoon if you plan to camp. We really enjoyed the spaciousness of our site plus being close to the creek. Listening to the water made for good sleeping each night.  The only downside is highway 133 being close by, but that is a minor annoyance.

Judy camping

 The picnic shelters are impressive open log structures with huge stone fireplaces. The forest service allows visitors to reserve them for family outings or a wedding.  To the side of the pavilion next to the campground is the creek, and if you look just off the trail, the stone kiln used to bake bricks by the CCC can be found.

pavilion (1)

 Judy kiln

At this time no running water is available in Backbone Rock territory, but port-a-johns are conveniently located.

 If you are looking for a simple way to enjoy nature, close to home  before summer ends, I highly recommend this little known gem of outdoor fun. For those who don’t camp, nearby Damascus has many lovely bed and breakfast homes plus unique restaurants and antique shops.  The town also offers a fun adventure in being a gateway to The Virginia Creeper Trail which follows one of the old railroad tracks down the mountain.

Judy flower

 Beautiful year round, fall is especially nice at Backbone Rock Recreation Area with the brilliant colors of the hardwood trees. I saw the first bit of sumac starting to turn red two weeks ago!

© Judy S. Blackstock, 2013.

Photography by Judy S. Blackstock, except where noted.

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