3 Things to Do When You Visit The World’s Shortest Tunnel

Follow along with outdoorsman and writer
 Johnny Molloy as he treks through the mountains of Northeast Tennessee.

Near the mountain wetlands town of Shady Valley, you’ll find a landmark that is known around the world for its length, or perhaps lack thereof. Located in the most northeastern corner of Tennessee, the rising ridges, scenic beauty, and mountain streams conspire to create quite the hidden gem of an outdoor getaway.

The World’s Shortest Tunnel, Backbone Rock, is both narrow and tall at 80 feet in height and only 20 feet long.  Surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest, Beaverdam Creek carves its way through the mountains alongside the tunnel. 

Back in the logging days, rail builders blasted through Backbone Rock, creating the tunnel for easy passage. After being acquired by the Cherokee National Forest, Backbone Rock was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The recreation area includes picnic tables, a campground, dancing trout stream, and fun trails to hike, all with a historic theme. A short but interesting loop hike is recommended for all ages and levels. 

Here are the top three things to do when you visit Backbone Rock.

1. Backbone Falls Trail

The .03 mile hike starts with a trip over hand-laid stone steps to Backbone Falls. You can then return to the trailhead, and climb the actual Backbone Rock. The spine of Backbone Rock dips into Beaverdam Creek, a classic mountain stream, where you’ll find active beavers.  To hike to Backbone Falls from the day use parking area, cross to the east side of Tennessee Highway 133. Look for stone steps rising into the woods, and a stone bench nestled in the portico. Follow the maintained trail towards the right, lined with preserved hemlocks, and ascending steps laid into a bluff. Rise to the top of a cliffline, reaching a stone-bordered flat, and you’ll be overlooking the valley. Continue uptrail alongside Beaverdam Creek, and you’ll find abundant forest moss and thriving rhododendrons, leading to the top of Backbone Falls. For a better view, follow the trail a few more steps as it curves to a more leveled out point.

2. Backbone Rock Trail

At the trailhead, you can also take Backbone Rock Trail for a .4 mile hike. Pick up at the stone steps near the parking area on the west side of TN Highway 133. The steps, constructed during the Great Depression, lead atop Backbone Rock. The main Trail keeps straight, to meet the Appalachian Trail after 2 miles, but you’ll want to turn sharply right over the flat spine of Backbone Rock. Views open to the north with Holston Mountain and Iron Mountain to the east. The nearby stream is the perfect place for a swim on a hot summer day, as trout anglers will find it alluring any time of year. 

3. Camping at Backbone Rock

While you are it, consider adding an overnight or weekend camping trip to your hike. Fall camping is a real treat in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee, with warm days and cool nights. Backbone Rock Campground is situated just north of the day use parking area, and offers a dozen campsites along Beaverdam Creek in the Cherokee National Forest. The campground makes for a good base to not only explore the features of Backbone Rock, but also the hiking and biking trails of Damascus, Va., are a mere two miles away. Additionally, anglers can vie for feisty trout on Beaverdam Creek along Tennessee Highway 133 between Shady Valley and Damascus.

How to Get There

To reach Backbone Rock from Bristol, take US 421 east 21 miles to Shady Valley. Turn left at the intersection of US 421 and TN 133, toward Damascus, Va. Follow TN 133 for 9.7 miles to Backbone Rock day use area on your left, just before the tunnel through Backbone Rock. 

GPS trailhead coordinates: 36.593387, -81.815748

For more information, consult my hiking guide Five Star Trails: Tri Cities Tennessee & Virginia, or contact the Cherokee National Forest.

Leave No Trace
Remember to leave our trails with no trace, so adventures can last a lifetime.

About Johnny Molloy:
Johnny Molloy is an outdoor writer. The self-employed capitalist has written over 70 books on hiking, camping, paddling and true outdoor adventures. If you are an outdoor enthusiast, Johnny probably has written a book for you. “The wilderness is my office.” – Johnny Molloy

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