Tucked away in the verdant depths of the 4,836-acre Channels State Forest is one of Virginia’s best kept secrets and most singular natural wonders. Located in the heart of the vast state forest, in the designated 721-acre Channels Natural Area Preserve, the Great Channels are a 20-acre labyrinth of sandstone formed during the last ice age, stashed away along the 4,208-foot crest of Middle Knob, the high point of Clinch Mountain.
Formed 400 million years ago during the last ice age, the geological formations are likely due to permafrost and ice wedging, which split large seams in the soft sandstone. The Great Channels are an otherworldly experience, like no other place else in the state and reminiscent of the slot canyons and gorges of the American Southwest.
The trek to the Great Channels is also one of the newer hikes in the state. In 2004, the Nature Conservancy purchased the nearly 5,000-parcel of land housing the Great Channels from a private owner, and just four years later, through a collaboration with the state, the Channels State Forest was created. Adventure-seeking members of the public have only been able to hike the area for a little over a decadeâ€”and until just a few years ago, there was only one route into the hidden sandstone labyrinth.
Once off-limits for even the hardiest of hikers, today the Great Channels are accessible courtesy of two different approach routes through the Channels State Forest. Both options end at the top of Middle Knob and offer sweeping 360-degree vistas of the surrounding ridge and valley defined landscape. From there, both descend along the same path into the elaborate network of sandstone formations.
The Channels Trail is the older of the two routes into the Great Channels, and it features an 11-mile, out-and-back trip with about 2,600-feet of elevation gain beginning from the trailhead on Route 689 (just across from Fletcher’s Chapel). Along the 5.5-mile trip to the Great Channels, hikers are treated to a lengthy haul through a leafy swath of the Channels State Forest, a wilderness roamed by black bears and white-tailed deer.
The newer (and significantly shorter) route into the Great Channels is along the 14.6-mile Brumley Mountain Trail. Orchestrated largely by the local non-profit group Mountain Heritage, the four-year-old trail traces a course along the spine of Clinch Mountain, running from Hayters Gap on Route 80 to Hidden Valley Lake, moseying through the Channels Natural Area Preserve, the Channels State Forest, the Brumley Cove Baptist Camp, and the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area.
Tackling the Great Channels on the Brumley Mountain Trail, beginning at the parking area on Route 80, requires hikers to traverse the easternmost 3-miles of the regional trail. From Route 80, trekkers have a 6.6-mile out-and-back trip featuring about 1,219-feet of elevation gain. Hikers are delivered to the portal into the Great Channels after about 3 miles of walking.
At the crown of Middle Knob, the Channels Trail and the Brumley Mountain Trail meld in the shadow of a lofty lookout tower and merge into a single route into the Great Channels. If the weather cooperates, views atop Middle Knob can stretch into the high country of North Carolina, as well as showcasing closer summits, like the string of pinnacles along the Clinch Mountain, including 4,689-foot Beartown Mountain.
Secrets of the Park
The soaring Hayters Knob Fire Tower, perched atop Middle Knob, may be out of commission for now, but the looming structure has a rich history. The lookout was built by Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939, one of many fire towers constructed throughout the country in that decade at the behest of the Division of Forestry, the forerunner of the Forest Service. The fire tower was operational for just over three decades, finally retired in 1970.
The Channels State Forest and Channels Natural Area Preserve are just two patches on a vast quilt of contiguous wilderness, which includes the adjacent 6,400-acre Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area and the 25,477-acre Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The vast expanse of wilderness surrounding the Great Channels offers endless opportunities build an even bigger outdoor adventure out of the trip, including options like fishing the trout-stocked waters of Big Tumbling Creek or paddling Hidden Valley Lake.
Quick Tips: Getting the Most of Your Trip
Whether hiking to the Great Channels along the Channels Trail or the Brumley Mountain Trail, plan to make a day of the out excursionâ€”and don’t rush. Allow for the added travel time required to navigate gravel backroads and byways, and most importantly, budget ample time to adequately explore the mountain-entombed sandstone labyrinth and to soak up the scenery from Middle Knob.
Both trailheads are on fairly remote stretches of roadway, so be sure to stock up on any last minute essentials for the trail in the nearby town of Saltville.
The trek from the crown of Middle Knob down into the channels is a steep section of trail. Plan to wear shoes with reliable tread and ankle support, and anyone who regularly uses hiking poles may be happy to have the extra stability during the descent.
Hikers should get their bearings and take note of their route when delving into the sandstone labyrinth of the Great Channels. Although the mountain-entombed maze is fairly condensedâ€”spread over just 20 acresâ€”the formations can begin to look familiar and possibly confuse some hikers trying to backtrack to the entrance route.
If tacking on a trip to the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area or the Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area, keep in mind both are fee areas requiring a $4 access permit, available for purchase from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
For hikers hoping to make an overnight escape out of their foray into the Great Channels, camping is not permitted in the Channels State Forest, the Channels Natural Area Preserve, or anywhere along the Brumley Mountain Trail. However, there are opportunities for primitive camping in both the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area and the Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Abingdon.
Featured image provided by Alan Cressler