Looking north from atop the Channels.Photo/Johnny Molloy
Hidden over Southwest Virginia way, near the town of Meadowview on the crest of Clinch Mountain lies one of our area’s most unusual geological features — the Great Channels of Virginia. You can see these narrow, deep recesses, via a 6.2-mile there-and-back hike. The hike, including an hour to explore The Channels, takes about 4.5 hours. You will also experience some incredible mountain views and see an old fire tower and warden’s cabin, in addition to the unusual rock formations. You will start at 3,025 feet at Hayters Gap, climbing to 4,180 feet at the high point atop Clinch Mountain.
At Middle Knob, atop Clinch Mountain, you will first capture incredible mountain views from multiple rock outcrops in the shadow of a retired fire tower. Then enter The Channels, a maze of slender paths running between, around and under huge sandstone monoliths. This Virginia Natural Area Preserve deserves its protection, and is one of the most unusual rock formations in the Appalachians.
The hike to The Channels is rewarding in and of itself, but it is at the top of Clinch Mountain’s Middle Knob where the spectacular highlights start. Save this hike for a clear day, so you can revel in the distant views while also experiencing the wondrous geological maze that is The Channels. The Channels was formerly under private ownership, and not so easily visited. However, a man named Charles Kennedy fought to have this piece of the planet protected and opened to the public.
Initially, The Channels was purchased by The Nature Conservancy. They held it until the state of Virginia purchased the land in 2008. Now, The Channels is a state nature preserve contained within the nearly 5,000-acre Channels State Forest. The establishment of the Brumley Mountain Trail made foot access to The Channels a pleasant prospect. Thus, we now can hike to this most unusual attraction. Furthermore, the first mile of the Brumley Mountain Trail uses an easement granted by a private landowner, which opened access to The Channels from Hayters Gap. The Brumley Mountain Trail currently extends 14 miles from Hayters Gap and VA 80 west to Hidden Valley Lake, a state of Virginia Wildlife Management Area, which is open to fishing and hiking.
Start the hike by leaving Hayters Gap on a gravel road heading southwest. Soon come to a pole gate and sign indicating the Brumley Mountain Trail. For now, continue following the gravel road, the easement through which the trail passes. Begin a gradual ascent on the south slope of Clinch Mountain. Hickory, black gum, white pine, red maples and more add to the biodiversity.
At .3 mile, the trail briefly descends near a drainage. At .5 mile, the road passes under a powerline. At .7 mile, the private gravel road you have been following takes a hard right uphill. The Brumley Mountain Trail keeps straight on a much narrower more primitive doubletrack, traversing rock slabs. Turn into a thickly wooded drainage then pass a private cabin on your right at one mile. Continue tracing the road through a gap. Climb a bit then reach a gate and Channels State Forest at 1.1 miles.
Continue a general uptick among oaks, azaleas, sourwood, sassafras and other xeric species. At 1.5 miles, reach a gap in the crest of Clinch Mountain. The ridgeline is narrow here and you can look north into the Clinch River Valley and south into the North Fork Holston River Valley from this slender spot. This can be a very windswept gap during winter, when views are more open. Continue working uphill on the south side of Clinch Mountain. Make a hard switchback to the right at 1.7 miles. Ahead, the trail levels off before making a pair of abrupt switchbacks.
Traverse an open rock slab at 2.7 miles. You are back on the crest of Clinch Mountain. Begin curving around the northeast side of Middle Knob. Views open into the Clinch River Valley. Note the yellow birch trees on this cool north slope. The combination of being above 4,000 feet and being on the north slope creates favorable habitat for this hardwood more commonly found in New England. At three miles, join the hiker-only Channels Spur Trail. Stay left here and curve onto the peak of Middle Knob amid a sea of rhododendron.
Shortly emerge near the top of Middle Knob. Just before reaching the peak a spur trail leaves left to a boulder field with incredible southerly views back toward the Tri-Cities. We all live down there somewhere. Continue to the crest, reaching an open rock slab bordered with stunted woods. Here, the old Middle Knob Fire Tower rises above. In the near area, the crumbling remains of the fire tower warden cabin stand. What is left of the cabin may be removed at some point. A jutting rock outcrop near the cabin site opens views into the Clinch River Valley. The tower itself may be revamped to be an open lookout tower. For now, it is closed.
Walk toward the tower, meeting woods and a sign indicating The Channels entrance. Follow a path through dense laurel woods. Just before descending, walk left onto more sandstone outcrops with fine views of Clinch Mountain toward Hidden Valley Lake. It is between these outcrops where The Channels lie. Walk around, look into the crevices below. Next, descend into The Channels, a network of narrow passageways running among the aforementioned sandstone outcrops. Light penetrates these passageways, alternately known as “the wind tunnels” and “the crevices.”
To get around, follow the footbeds of the most well-trod channels. In some places, rockfall has created roofs over the Channels. Some passages dead-end. It is truly an a-maze-ing place. The crevice-sliced sandstone outcrop of The Channels covers an estimated 20 acres. In winter, the nearly sunless crevices of the Channels can retain snow well into spring. Allow yourself ample time to explore The Channels, as well as the sandstone outcrops above them.
For more information contact the Virginia Division of Forestry at 804-492-9213, or visit www.dof.virginia.gov. To get there from exit 24 on I-81 in Virginia, take VA 80 west for 13.2 miles to Hayters Gap, atop Clinch Mountain at the Washington-Russell county line. The trail and parking area are on the left- hand side of the gap.