Backbone Rock is a pillar, forming a solid fin of stone on a ridge of Holston Mountain. Its flanks offer excellent rock climbing and rapelling opportunities, as well as simple hiking. The ridge is surrounded by a bend in Beaverdam Creek, a fine mountain stream directly below the wall of Backbone Rock that affords excellent fishing and swimming. The rock is also home to what is called "the shortest tunnel in the world". In 1901 a rail line was placed here and the engineers simply blasted a hole through the fin of rock, creating an arch about ten yards thick. The highest climbing walls seem to be about 100 feet.
Located in the Watauga District of Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest, this area has ample outdoor recreation for hikers, fishermen, hunters, rock climbers, campers, bikers, and kayakers, birdwatchers, and others. Relatively isolated, it's an often overlooked part of the Southern Appalachians, but near enough to the outdoor center of Damascus that it's easy to hit if you're in the area to hike the Appalachian Trail, climb Mount Rogers, or bike the Virginia Creeper.
From I-81 take 58 south to Damascus (about 15 miles). In downtown Damascus (known as the "friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail", take a right on VA 716 and drive for five miles to the Backbone Rock Recreation Area. (Be aware that VA716 becomes TN133 at the state line.)
The trail to the summit begins in the parking lot directly below Backbone Rock at Beaverdam Creek. Round trip atop the fin of rock is about 1/2 mile. No technical climbing on the trail, but be aware of the cliff edges.
There are no permits required to hike or climb. However, there is a $2 fee required to park at any of the parking areas or picnic grounds near Backbone Rock. Climbing is allowed at any point on any wall on the Rock, save for any route that would put you directly above the road. In a nutshell, don't rock climb or rappel above the tunnel.
When To Climb
Backbone Rock Falls.
There is a campground about 1/2 mile north of Backbone Rock itself. It's a self-pay National Forest campground (although a campground host is generally on-site from April through October). Rates are $16 per night.
Check the weather for Damascus, VA. The wather there should be identical for Backbone Rock.
Adjacent to the main body of Backbone Rock is a small, narrow pocket canyon. If you make the hike into this canyon (very short--about .2 mile), you will come upon one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have seen. It's not a terribly large waterfall, but is situated wonderfully in this steep-walled gorge that is filled with rhododendron, hemlocks, and tulip poplars. Some of the poplars have reached extreme heights (well over 100 feet) to find sunlight beyond the lip of the gorge. So one has the experience of looking upon enormously tall poplar trees that are of average girth.
If visiting Backbone Rock, make sure to hike the short distance into the little gorge and to the falls.