When we think of slot canyons, places like the Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah, or the beautiful Antelope Canyon of Arizona, come to mind.
They are typically found in the American Southwest, so who would ever imagine a slot canyon on the East Coast? It wouldn’t make sense.
The fact is, however, there is one. And it is located in our region — of all places, high up on the Clinch Mountain ridgeline near the summit of Middle Knob. It is only about 15 miles from Abingdon, Virginia.
It is called The Great Channels, and it is a 20-acre labyrinth of four-hundred-million-year-old sandstone rock. Most geologists think this unique area was created during the last ice age when permafrost and the freezing caused fissures in the sandstone.
This allowed erosion to take over, leaving the canyon structures that we have today.
When you walk inside these amazing formations, it is like walking into nature’s cathedral. It a place that gives a feeling of astonishment that neither words nor photos can do justice. Gigantic rocks tower around you 50 feet high or more. Some create wide rooms, while others are barely wide enough to squeeze through. In other places, you will have to crawl, duck or climb to see its entirety. You can easily spend an hour or more exploring.
Sunlight is filtered out by the high rock walls, giving a cave-like feeling in many places. It is cool, even in the summer months. And there are many interesting geologic features such as swirls and colorful patterns on the boulders, which were created by wind and water erosion.
Hidden in our backyard
I grew up on a farm not far from this amazing place, near Lebanon, Virginia. The fire tower on Middle Knob, which is adjacent to the Channels, could be seen clearly from our front porch. My dad also grew up on that same farm, and like so many others in the area, most all his life he never knew this wonder sat up there on the mountain. It was private property and not completely open to the public until 2008.
After initially exploring it, I told him about its extreme beauty, and we both knew we had to get him up there to see it. We also knew the three-mile climb with 1,200 feet of elevation gain would be a challenge for him. But on Father’s Day of 2010 we set out, took our time, and we made it the Great Channels of Virginia. He was in awe as I expected, and I was so thrilled to accompany him there.
Dad has since passed, so memories of that day, along with the Channels’ proximity to our old home, makes this hike one that I cherish and enjoy returning to often. If you are a lover of the outdoors, you should definitely put this on your bucket list. It is one of the most beautiful places in our entire region.
The parking area and trailhead is at 4250 Hayters Gap Road, Saltville, VA, 24370, which is on the curvy but paved Route 80, at the Washington/Russell County line.
The trek to the Channels is 3.25 miles (6.5 miles round-trip) on the eastern side of the Brumley Mountain Trail. There is 1,200 feet of elevation gain so there is moderate to difficult climbing. Allow four to seven hours for this hike.
From the parking area, walk through the gate and up the gravel road. There will be trail markers directing the way.
At 0.7 mile, the road turns right. Bear left on the trail. At 1.4 miles you will come to a saddle in the ridge allowing good views in winter months. This is Shallow Gap. From here the trail gets a little steeper. At 2.9 miles you will bear left (following a sign) on the Channels Spur Trail.
At 3.0 miles you will come to the summit of Middle Knob and the fire tower. Climb on some rock outcroppings here for excellent views. Just past the fire tower is a trail leading downhill into the woods to the entrance to the Great Channels.
PLEASE NOTE: Beginning in June 2020, the parking area for the Channels has been limited to 10 vehicles. Supposedly cars will be towed or ticketed for not parking in designated spots, and parking along Route 80 is also not allowed. You will need to arrive very early to get a spot, especially on weekends, and I would recommend having a backup plan regardless. If you can’t get a parking spot, there are other wonderful locations in the vicinity to explore:
- Check out the swinging bridge and Big Cedar Falls at the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve just outside of Lebanon, Va.
- Three-mile hiking trail at Cleveland Barrens and Tank Hollow Falls in Cleveland, Va.
- Hike the other end of the Brumley Mountain Trail on Clinch Mountain (near Hidden Valley Lake) for sweeping vistas at Buzzard Rock.
Take a walk on the Creeper Trail in Abingdon, Va.