Near Dungannon, Virginia — an easy drive from Johnson City — is the Little Stony Creek Valley. The Little Stony Creek National Recreation Trail leads 2.5 miles up this gorgeous vale with waterslides, cascades, and pools in a deep gorge with stone bluffs, rock overhangs and boulder fields. Wooden footbridges keep your feet dry en route to two significant waterfalls, Middle Stony Falls and Upper Stony Falls. Each cataract crashes over impressive stone precipices. The total elevation climb is only 650 feet, not bad for a trip to two waterfalls. Your return trip will yield more everywhere-you-look creekside finery.
This path deserves its national scenic trail status. Little Stony Creek valley contains a cornucopia of loveliness. And it is not long before you enjoy some of it. Leave the parking area in deep woods. Little Stony Creek is flowing unseen to your left. Note the preserved hemlocks at the trail’s beginning. The blazed path enters a boulder garden. An elevated rockhouse stands above the gargantuan boulders, haphazardly strewn about as if they were a child’s toy blocks. Also, look for a barred cave if you explore this area.
Beyond the boulder garden come alongside Little Stony Creek as it tumbles, slides, gurgles and shoots its way toward the Clinch River. Overhead sycamore, birch, Fraser magnolia and maple canopy the trail. Wildflowers from dwarf-crested iris to trillium thrive in this moist vale. Rocks extend into the woods beyond the stream. Most are cloaked in a mantle of moss. The stream gorge rises into the distance.
The well-graded, blazed path works farther into the chasm, reaching a wooden bridge crossing Little Stony Creek. Interestingly, the bridges you cross on this hike were brought in by helicopter. These spans allow you to make the entire hike dry shod. Continue up the left bank. Gain watery looks from streamside boulders. Ahead, Little Stony Creek makes an extended flow over pure bedrock.
At 1.2 miles, pass a rockhouse on your left. Bridge over to the right bank. As you stand on this bridge, look downstream and peer left for a huge overhanging rockhouse over which flows a dripping cascade. The trail curves westerly, reaching a tributary, Star Branch. As you negotiate the slick rock slab at Star Branch, look upstream at a delicate veil pourover spilling down that stream.
The Little Stony Creek Trail then leaves right from the logging railroad grade it has been following. The railroad grade enters a washed out, wet area encumbered by rhododendron, whereas the path climbs onto a rocky slope. Pick your way through rocks and boulders and rejoin the railroad grade. Saddle back alongside Little Stony Creek, passing a deep hole with swimming potential. The uptick remains modest and you open onto a streamside bedrock slab with a 10-foot cascade stairs stepping over rock layers just above it. This is Lower Falls. The railroad grade has been washed out here. A few steps past the cascade leads back to the grade.
Ahead, the trail bridges Corder Branch. Note the preponderance of flat bedrock where Corder Branch meets Little Stony Creek. Soak in this confluence from the stream bridge. The path steepens a bit ahead. Watch for a sheer bluff on the far side of Little Stony Creek. At 2.4 miles, come to Middle Stony Falls. A viewing platform allows for a straight on look at the curtain-type fall. It spills about 20 feet in an even line over a vertical rock face. Mist drifts over a dark pool. A spur path leads to the fall’s base. Other waterfall vantages can be gained by exploring.
Continuing beyond Middle Stony Falls, the path turns fully south, briefly climbing. It isn’t long before reaching Upper Stony Falls. You will see it on the left just before reaching a footbridge over Little Stony Creek. A spur trail leads to the base of the pourover. Here, the watercourse splits as it drops, with most of the fall fanning out to your right about 15 feet, with the left side of the fall more of a narrow white drop. Both channels fill a plunge pool, which briefly slows before racing downstream to Middle Falls. Many visitors will have come the shorter way, upstream, from Forest Road 701.
This hike begins at Hanging Rock Recreation Area, which offers alluring picnic sites and a covered shelter, as well as restrooms. Additionally, Bark Camp Recreation Area is located on the far end of this trail. The Jefferson National Forest recreation site features a campground, 45-acre lake, fishing, swimming and more trails. It is open from mid-May through mid-September. For more information, contact the Jefferson National Forest, Clinch Ranger District, 9416 Coeburn Mountain Road, Wise, VA 24293, 276-328-2931, www.fs.usda.gov/gwj.
Driving directions: From the northern terminus of I-26 in Kingsport, stay with US 23 north into Virginia. From Virginia-Tennessee state line, stay with US 23 for 3.6 miles to US 23/US 58/US 421 Business, at a traffic light in Gate City. Turn right at this traffic light and go .1 mile to Jones Street. Turn right on Jones Street, travel .1 mile, then turn right on East Jackson/VA 71 north. Follow VA 71 east for 1.0 miles to turn left on VA 72 north, toward Fort Blackmore. Follow VA 72 north 19 miles to Dungannon. Once in Dungannon, stay with VA 72 north for 1.6 more miles then turn left into Hanging Rock Recreation Area just as VA 72 makes a sharp right turn. Follow the road to dead end at the trailhead after .3 mile. The recreation area is gated from December through March partway in, so add an extra quarter-mile to your hike during this time.