Saturday, February 9, 2013

Clinch Mountain - The Back Of The Dragon

As I turned onto Route 16 North in the town of Marion, Virginia recently, I noticed a sign I hadn’t seen before proclaiming the road “The Back Of The Dragon”. While perhaps an appropriate moniker for this very curvy road that very nearly makes a complete loop at one point, I couldn’t help but think it was a knock-off on the section of US Highway 129 that winds around the western end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That is another exceptionally curvy road that has long been referred to as “The Dragon” or “The Dragon’s Back”. As it turned out though, the name seemed like a great way to describe the hike I was about to do. After a slow two dozen miles across Walker and Brushy Mountains, then up Clinch Mountain, I parked on the crest of the latter and stepped out into an icy wind to begin the day’s adventure. 

I had done the first two miles of this hike before, years ago, so I knew there were some good views, but I had forgotten just how spectacular this route was, and knew nothing about what lay beyond where I had turned around last time. Almost immediately the ridgeline narrowed down to a few feet wide, and soon thereafter small drop-offs began to appear on one side or the other. The crest became increasingly narrow, until it was literally a sharp spine of bare rock, usually with a cliff on the north side and a steep slope on the south. While the cliffs were nothing like you would expect on an alpine arete on a major mountain, they were certainly high enough in many places to demand respect and sure-footedness. Without trees, it would have felt a great deal more exposed in many spots, and a fall would likely be fatal in several of these. Occasionally it would widen out a little, but rarely for more than a few yards. There were bits and pieces of either game or hunter paths, but for all practical purposes this hike was, and is, a bushwhack. Briers were quite abundant, but rarely so thick that I couldn’t pick my way through them. Usually, I found I was able to walk right on the knife edge, but at times there were overly thick briers, or the exposure became too great for comfort. Almost without exception I was able to bypass such difficulties on the south side by dropping down a few feet or yards, often still on the steeply sloping slabs of sandstone, many of which extended a considerable distance downhill.

Much of the first four miles along the crest of Clinch Mountain varied from narrow... narrower... even narrower.
Can you say knife-edge ridge?

A natural arch.
 After about a mile, some limited views begin to appear, and a little farther there is even a small natural arch which is perhaps four feet high and fifteen feet long right on top of the ridgeline. Then the real views begin to appear in steady succession, and the route becomes even more interesting, literally like walking along the back of a dragon.  At various points there are views in nearly every direction, a couple of them essentially 360° panoramas. There is also one particularly notable overhang at one point, which looks like the famous overhang on McAfee Knob tilted upward at a crazy angle. It begged for a person standing on it in the picture, but alas, I was alone.

A crazy overhang ahead needed a person on it.
There were lots of nasty thorns!
Ease through some briers, walk a knife edge, drop down the south side a few yards to bypass a difficult section, climb back up, enjoy an awesome view. Repeat. This was the process for much of the first four miles. The views included such sights as Mount Rogers and Whitetop, Chestnut Ridge, Knob Mountain, and Thompson Valley among others. Eventually the crest starts to broaden and the last good view is at around the 4 ½ mile mark. This would normally be a good turnaround point, but I had another goal in mind.

Ever since my buddy Shane Ashby and I finished bagging all the ranked (300’ prominence) Virginia 4,000 Footers three years ago, and actually, all the 4,000’ peaks down to 200’ prominence, I have slowly been knocking off the few remaining named, but unranked 4,000 Footers as well, just to say I’ve been on them. One of the eight remaining was just over a mile ahead now. Redoak Ridge is 4,580’ above sea level, but it is certainly no peak, only a bump with 80’ of prominence on the ridge extending southwest from the state’s sixth highest peak of 4,710’ Garden Mountain, a.k.a. Balsam Beartown - a major Virginia summit with over 2,000’ of prominence. It has a name on the map though, so I wanted it. It also didn’t hurt my desire that the top was white with rime, and I could see that there was some snow up there. I started getting into snow just a little higher up, around the 4,000’ elevation. A little higher still and the rime started to appear in the trees, always a beautiful sight. Then, near the top, red spruce started to appear and I was again in my favorite type of forest - the boreal. No views, but a beautiful spot nevertheless. ( Actually, in hindsight, there may be more views nearby after all. Upon studying satellite imagery while writing this, I noticed that there appear to be more cliffs just to the north of my route, which could look into the head of Thompson Valley and beyond.)

Great view west of Thompson Valley, Peak 4150, Short Mountain, and Morris Knob.
 Half of the next ½ mile was pure Hell, as I dropped down to the headwaters of Cove Creek and climbed back up to Beartown Ridge. The rhododendron near the creek was pretty hideous. I don’t think I had to crawl anywhere or take my pack off, but there were a few places where it took me most of a minute to take one step. Pry back the interwoven branches, tuck them behind my back, grab a couple more, climb up into the bush and take a jerky step forward, then repeat. It was slow going, with a few choice words uttered aloud. Much to my relief, it eventually thinned out into more open woods and I reached the top of 4,689’ Beartown Ridge, another unranked bump, but one I had been on several times before.
Looking toward Virginia's two highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop.
Rime on top of Redoak Ridge.

A little snow and rime up high.
This hike would actually make for an adventurous route to get to Balsam Beartown (less than 1 mile away now) and even Hutchinson Rock, but certainly not the easiest one. I decided to forego it this time though, and bushwhacked down to Roaring Fork and back up onto the south end of Chestnut Ridge. Then I made my way down into Poor Valley and began the long roadwalk back to my vehicle, though I was lucky enough to catch a ride the last mile or two. I can’t say I would recommend the latter part of this hike to anyone unless they went to the effort to have a second vehicle waiting at the Appalachian Trail parking lot in Poor Valley. In that case, it could make for a long but awesome trek, potentially including Balsam Beartown, Hutchinson Rock, The Swag, and the section of the A.T. on Chestnut Ridge. Regardless of the longer option though, I am already looking forward to eventually returning here with a friend to once again walk the “Back of the Dragon”.

The route of this hike. To view a larger map click here.
Hike Stats:
My hike - 14.2 miles, 2,940' cumulative elevation gain
To last good view (#29) and back -  4.6 miles, 1,560' cumulative elevation gain

Pictures from this hike

gpx files and topos 

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Trailhead coordinates:
37.04104, -81.51839

Google map for trailhead

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  1. Hi Nice Blog and good information about Clinch Mountain. Thanks for sharing this moments. us nautical charts

  2. I would love to know exactly which state you went in an where, my grandson an I enjoy hiking an looking for new places all the time. I would love to travel your tracks

    1. I started on Route 16 where it shows on the map - right on the highest point of the crest where the road crosses it. It's a great bushwhack!