Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Backbone Rock is a local source of natural and manmade wonders

One of my fondest memories from when I was a child growing up in Johnson County is when my father, mother, brother and I traveled to Backbone Rock Recreational Area for a picnic. As I remember, after we ate hamburgers, hotdogs, and potato chips and drank plenty of Pepsi or Royal Crown (RC) Cola, I would head out to do a little exploring. Beaverdam Creek runs through the area and it was quite an attraction for youngsters as they would wade in the creek or do some trout fishing. It wouldn’t be long before some of my cousins who had come to the cookout and I would venture atop the rock and wind up walking across its top that as I remember was narrow in at least one place. The rock and adjacent creek affords picnicking, fishing, hiking, rock climbing or if so desired just taking it easy. Rustic shelters are available.
Backbone Rock gets its name from a spur ridge on Holston Mountain that ends in a bend of Beaverdam Creek. In 1901 a tunnel was blasted through the Rock and railroad tracks laid through it to connect Shady Valley with Bristol Virginia. The railroad was used to haul lumber and ore from Shady Valley. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) did a great deal of work on the site in the 1930s. The CCC built two picnic shelters and hiking trails that incorporated native stonework. The campground was added in the 1960s and improved in the mid 1990s.
The Backbone Rock Recreational Area lies wholly within Johnson County but the closest town is Damascus, Virginia. Route 133, a two-lane highway, was routed through the tunnel. Backbone Rock is often billed as the shortest highway tunnel in the world. Trails lead from both sides of the Rock. There are two hiking trails. One leads up and across the rock and connects with the Appalachian Trail while the other one goes from the other side of the rock to Backbone Rock Falls, a small but beautiful falls at the trails end. The area is part of the Cherokee National Forest and is maintained by the USFS through the Watauga Ranger District.

The hole blasted through railroad tunnel was 20 feet in length. It is interesting to note that after the hole was blasted out the train engine’s smoke stack couldn’t pass through. The tunnel’s top had to be hand-chiseled to solve the problem.
If you haven’t been to the Backbone Rock Recreational Area for a while or never, it’s worth the drive. From Mountain City, take Hwy. 91 to Hwy. 58 to Damascus, Virginia. In Damascus, turn left on Hwy. 133 to Backbone Rock. Another option route from Mountain City is to drive to Shady Valley on Hwy. 421, turn right on Route 133 until you come to Backbone Rock.
It has been awhile since I visited Backbone Rock although I’ve driven through it a few times. I think it’s time for my wife and I to head out to the Rock for a picnic. Maybe I’ll see one of the readers of my column there.