By Jill Penley
Motorists traveling through the Cherokee National Forest in northern Johnson County may find themselves passing through an enormous rock rising some 100 feet above the ground and dating back to 1901. Backbone Rock often dubbed the “Shortest Tunnel in the World,” was created when workers with the Beaver Dam Railroad blasted a giant hole to allow railroad access between Shady
Valley and Damascus, Virginia.
According to the late Tom Gentry, county historian, even after the blasting, the top of the tunnel had to be hand chiseled as planners had forgotten to leave room for the train’s smokestack. There remains evidence of the chiseling as an arch in the fin around ten yards thick is still clearly visible today. When the train route became obsolete, and the 20-foot tunnel became part of Highway 133. Gentry also enjoyed sharing the origin of the name “Backbone” explaining it resembles a spine.
While Backbone Rock, known as the pillar, forming a solid fin of stone on a ridge of Holston Mountain, is the draw for many; the surrounding area is now part of the Cherokee National Forest. In addition to the tunnel, In the 1930s The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) further developed the recreation area for day use, constructing two picnic shelters and hiking trails that incorporated native stonework.
The natural hiking trails, including one that leads to Backbone Rock Falls, a 40-foot waterfall featuring a long, gentle cascade down a well-worn slab of granite, are relatively easy hikes. The falls trail makes a loop of sorts with hikers trekking up a series of natural “stairs,” which allows access to the top of the falls before winding back down more stairs back to the road. Another trail begins next to the parking area on the Shady Valley side of the tunnel. The Backbone Rock Trail is a unique climb to the top of the tunnel offering alternate views of the surrounding area.
In addition to the tunnel and the trails, a campground was added in the 1960s and rehabilitated in the mid-1990s. The small campground, which is equipped with ten campsites, including eight singles and two doubles, sits alongside the beautiful Beaverdam Creek at an elevation of 2,100 feet. For family reunions, weddings and other types of group gatherings, a large pavilion is also available to reserve.
The campground reopens for the season April 30th.