This local adventure combines history and natural beauty in the rugged mountains of Southwest Virginia near Coeburn, within easy driving distance of the Tri-Cities. Here in the Jefferson National Forest, you can bike or hike a railroad grade-turned-trail. The Guest River Gorge Trail is great for winter — relatively low elevation and no stream crossings, ideal for bicycles or foot power.
First pass through the Swede Tunnel, then cross the Guest River — a Virginia State Scenic River — on a high bridge. Continue down the cliff and bluff rimmed canyon, viewing giant streamside boulders. Pass your first waterfall, then come to a stair-step cascade, set in a rock-rimmed glen. More waterfalls, rapids and rock formations can be found down the trail.
The Guest River Gorge Trail, like many rail trails, took a while coming into being. Fortunately, the Jefferson National Forest saw an opportunity when this leg of the Interstate Line was abandoned. After hiking this rail turned trail, you will see why the term “gorge’ is used when describing the valley of the Guest River.
This waterway crashes toward its mother stream — the Clinch River — cutting a deep swath through Stone Mountain. Sheer cliffs rise. Big boulders are scattered throughout the gorge and in the Guest River. The historic element of this bike/hike traces back a century, when a railroad line was forced through this rugged valley. The line was put through to transport coal and timber from the Coeburn area down to an already existing rail line running down the Clinch River Valley.
The Guest River is born high in the western part of Wise County, Virginia, springing forth below Fox Gap near the Kentucky state line. It cuts south through Dixiana and Lipps (great Appalachian names) before nearing Norton. Then the Guest River digs a mean valley eastward but does not reach its prime until turning south, below Coeburn, where it slices betwixt 400-foot high sandstone cliffs, creating the gorge where the trail travels. Finally, the Guest River delivers its highland tonic to meld with the waters of the Clinch River.
Intrepid kayakers ply the Class IV-V rapids of the Guest River Gorge in spring, adding a thrill for hikers traveling the gorge during that time. Anglers cast lines for trout and smallmouth bass, using the trail for fishing access.
It isn’t long before your trail adventure reveals the engineering marvels of this railroad line. The Guest River leg was once part of a greater rail network, much of what still exists. In 1988, Norfolk Southern Railroad abandoned the Interstate Railroad through the gorge, then ceded the right-of-way in 1994, when the Guest River Gorge Trail was opened. Today, the Interstate Railroad Line passes through the Clinch and Powell River watersheds, hauling coal from these hills to plants lighting cities of the Southeast such as Charlotte, North Carolina.
You first pass through the Swede Tunnel, a dark and cool experience that shortcuts a sharp bend in the Guest River. Next, the Guest River Gorge Trail heads over a high span bridging its namesake stream. This trestle allows excellent views of the Guest River. Heading downstream, the trail is bordered with beauty, whether it is a rock-choked rapid, bronzed cliffs (especially visible in winter) or cascades flowing from the surrounding hillsides into the Guest River.
Alluring forest grows wherever rock and trail aren’t. Huge boulders, fallen from the surrounding cliffs, stand firm in the waterway. Moreover, where the gorge walls were a little too close, the railroad makers blasted it back, creating a passage for the trains, and now for you on the Guest River Trail.
Contemplation benches have been placed at the most scenic locales and are cues for stopping. Old railroad line mile markers keep you apprised of your whereabouts on the path. Hikers and bikers can travel 5.8 miles one way to the trail’s end near its confluence with the Clinch River, though most hikers are found on the first half of the trail.
The path is very popular with bicyclists who regularly pedal to its endpoint and back. Although the trail ends at an active railroad line, a spur hiking path — the Heart of Appalachia Trail — connects to the town of St. Paul.
Don’t miss Crab Orchard Cascade, flowing about 12 feet over a bluff on an unnamed tributary. It can be found 1.5 miles from the trailhead. There is no direct path to the falls, but the cascade is easily visible from the trail when the leaves are off the trees. It is worth a short scramble through the woods to view this pourover.
At 2.8 miles, you will come to a stream entering from the left. Here, an unnamed creek has broken through the cliffline and created a multi-tiered cascade. As you face the cascade, there is also a small rockhouse to the left of the trail.
For the best winter adventure, come after a big rain, when the streams are full and a cold front follows, creating icicles dripping off the walls of the Guest River Gorge.
Finding the Guest River Trail: From the junction of US 58 Alternate and VA. 72, just south of downtown Coeburn, VA., take VA. 72 south for 2.3 miles to the signed left turn for the Guest River Gorge Trail. Turn left and follow the road 1.3 miles to dead end at the trailhead.
For more information: Jefferson National Forest, 9416 Coeburn Mountain Road, Wise, VA. 24293, 276-328-2931, www.fs.fed.us/