by Claude Gable
Hikers, bikers, and hunters of southwestern Virginia will be pleased to learn of the establishment of a new trail on Clinch Mountain tracing the border of Washington and Russell counties. The trail, open to foot traffic only, will be built in two stages.
Phase one will begin at the Low Gap parking lot of the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area which lies off of Route 19 in Washington County between Abingdon and Lebanon. This trail will follow the ridge top of Clinch Mountain eastward for approximately nine and a half miles and end at State Route 80 at Hayter’s Gap. The gap can be reached by following Route 80 thirteen miles north from Exit 24 off of Interstate 81 in Meadowview, Virginia, or along Route 80 south at its intersection with Route 19 just north of Lebanon at the Elk Garden community.
If phase two of the trail becomes a reality, it will continue from Hayter’s Gap for another eleven miles to Laurel Bed Lake, completing a lake to lake trail that will make a challenging but rewarding two-day overnight trip.
Toward its eastern extreme, phase one of the trail from Hidden Valley will provide access to the Channels, which showcases thirty-foot-tall crevices with room to explore a unique geological wonder. For a shorter walk of about three miles one way, the Channels will be accessible from Hayter’s Gap as soon as the trail is officially opened.
Near the Channels, hikers will find an abandoned fire lookout tower which is not accessible for safety reasons, but the surrounding rock outcropping is wide open to surrounding vistas. The view here, at about 4200 feet, will be well worth the effort with five states visible from the peak.
The main body of the trail, in fact, will average around 3800 feet in elevation, affording lofty vistas north into Russell County at various points. Along the way, hikers will observe examples of Southern Appalachian northern hardwood forest, high elevation cove forest, and calcareous cliff plant communities growing out of slightly alkaline, rocky soils.
Hikers should remain alert for deer and bear and their sign; this wilderness area is well known for harboring healthy populations of each. And while at the top of the steep drive to the trail’s western terminus at Low Gap, follow the dirt road and indulge in a visit to the sixty-acre Hidden Valley Lake. During deer season, always wear blaze orange so hunters can be alerted to your presence.
Four different landowning parties have cooperated to piece together phase one of the trail. The Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area, which encircles Hidden Valley Lake, is maintained by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Officers of the VDGIF provided tactical support and guidance in the field for the project. Contiguous to the eastern border of Hidden Valley lies the Brumley Cove Baptist Camp. This group signed an easement allowing trail builders to navigate the route through the thick laurel and rhododendron stands that lie at the high altitudes of their lands. A spur trail will also be constructed off the main trail downhill into Brumley Cove to allow access by users of the camp and to allow trout fee fishing. Contact Junior and Diane Frye at 276-944-4673 for current information about the Brumley Cove Baptist Camp campground.
The main ridgetop trail will then cross onto the land of the Channels State Forest, a parcel of wilderness jointly managed by the Virginia Department of Forestry and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage. This segment of the trail will follow an antiquated forest road that leads steeply uphill to the area of the fire lookout tower and the not-to-be-missed 400 million year old stone oddity of the Channels. From there to Route 80, another easement was granted by Alona Kennedy, a private landowner, to allow use of the remainder of the fire tower road as it descends from the tower to Hayter’s Gap.
Much thanks is also due to those responsible for the funding of the new trail. Mountain Heritage, Inc., a small group headed by local conservationists, initiated the planning and fund raising for the project as the latest of a number of similar undertakings in the region. Their past efforts led to the creation of the Clinch River and Sugar Hill trails near St. Paul, Virginia; the publishing of two educational books on area watersheds, with another in the making; the cleanup of polluted sites along Lick Creek, a tributary of the Clinch River; and the creation of the “Assign-A-Highway” litter cleanup program that requires probationers to keep specific road segments clean year-round.
Local Virginia lawmakers collaborated with Mountain Heritage on the Clinch Mountain trail project. Terry Kilgore, a senior member of the House of Delegates, and veteran state Senator William Wampler were the key proponents in raising $3.4 million that the Virginia Department of Forestry needed for purchase of the 4,836 acre tract, one of Virginia’s largest single land purchases in modern times. The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation contributed money for that purpose as well, and State Senator Phillip Puckett and Delegate Joe Johnson also provided bi-partisan support for the project.
Phase one of the trail was marked in the fall of 2009 and now has state clearance to begin. Planning for stage two will begin after completion of the first stage. Labor for trail building will be on a volunteer basis, and Mountain Heritage encourages anyone who would like to help out to contact Claude Gable at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 828-768-0794. Trail blazing will involve using hand tools and chain saws to cut the two foot wide swath along the ridge top. Some hand-grading into steep banks and moving of boulders will be required. Volunteers will do lots of hiking while carrying heavy tools, so be ready for some exercise. As anyone who has done trail work will tell you, though, being part of a work crew is lots of fun. Working at high altitudes on Clinch Mountain will also give workers a first-hand experience of a beautiful wild mountain habitat. So please join us.