Sunday, April 14, 2013

Middle Knob And The Great Channels - Maze In The Sky

I knew about the existence of one of the neatest places in Virginia for a long time before I was able to actually go there, despite the fact the trailhead was only an hour away. The Great Channels are a maze-like system of 20-40 feet deep interconnected crevices between huge sandstone blocks on top of the Clinch Mountain peak of Middle Knob. They have somewhat of the feel, on a small scale, of a cross between a Utah slot canyon and a cave. The moss on the walls, and the way the light filters down between the rock walls, sometimes coloring them red, adds a distinct enchantment to this small but rather unique area.

I first learned about this wonderful place sometime after the Nature Conservancy bought the five thousand acre tract containing it in 2004. Even then, with TNC wanting to preserve its pristine nature, it was not open to the public until 2008, when they sold it to the State of Virginia. Information on the best way to get to the Channels was sketchy at first, and required for some exploratory hiking on my part to get to them from the one public access point in Poor Valley - and it required a 10 mile hike with 2,600 feet of elevation gain. I wasn’t even sure of just exactly where they were even located on Middle Knob.

I've now been up there several times since that first visit, and it has become yet another favorite place of mine, well worth far more effort to get to - but the last few hikes have been much easier since the opening of a second trailhead on Route 80 at Hayters Gap, on the crest of Clinch Mountain at 3,017 feet. That’s the way +Leanne and I went today. It only requires a six-and-a-half mile hike with 1,200 feet of elevation gain from here, a small price to pay for such a big reward. The new, easy route starts out on a gated right-of-way that crosses private property for the first mile or so, but then enters into Channels State Forest for the rest of the way to the top of 4,208’ high Middle Knob.  The hike follows an old jeep road, presumably once used as the means of access to the still standing firetower on top of Middle Knob.

Beartown Mountain and Corn Valley from Middle Knob.
We were a little too early for Spring wildflowers this time, so the hike up was rather uneventful until we reached the top. But there is plenty to enjoy once there. First, we clambered up onto the large rock that forms the true summit and ate lunch in the sunshine and pleasant breeze of this perfect spring day, all while enjoying the great view of mighty Beartown Mountain just a few miles to the east. This hulking mountain is Virginia’s sixth highest at 4,689’ above sea level, and its large, balsam-capped plateau is, depending on the route used, one of the more difficult peaks in Virginia to get to, or arguably even in the Eastern US for that matter. It took me three tries to first reach the top, which I have now been to four times. Obviously, it has its rewards...

Virginia's two highest peaks in the distance.
The next attraction is the retired, but still standing firetower. It is in desperate need of refurbishing to be safe, and hopefully that will eventually happen, rather than it being dismantled - a fate that has befallen far, far too many of these magical houses in the sky. I can’t recommend climbing the tower, as the lower flight of stairs has been removed, and the rest look none too safe. That said though, I must admit that I couldn’t resist the urge to carefully make my way up above the trees to take in the jaw-dropping 360° panorama that it allows. On a clear day, the number of peaks in view is staggering. Besides the aforementioned Beartown Mountain and other peaks on the crest of Clinch Mountain, there are also notable prospects of Big A Mountain, River Mountain, House and Barn Mountain, numerous peaks in the rugged Amphibolite Range of North Carolina, as well as distant Grandfather Mountain and the Roan Highlands. The eye is also drawn towards the broad balsam-capped domes of Mount Rogers and Whitetop, towering over a thousand feet higher than anything else in the Old Dominion. After studying the horizon for a suitable period of time, I then looked down onto the top of the Great Channels only a hundred yards from the tower, their hidden passages not readily apparent from this perspective, but still beckoning for exploration.

Looking down on the Great Channels
Following the short path from the base of the tower to the edge of the rocks, we turned right and downhill along their eastern edge, following the obvious route into their depths. While there are other similar outcrops spread over a larger area up here, this best, most interesting section covers probably little more than a half acre. The first corridor opens into a 50 yard long passage between forty foot high walls that vary from maybe 6-12 feet wide. But they aren’t necessarily straight up and down. In places, they curve and interlock one way or another, at times blocking the sky from view, and obviously are part of the same rock that long ago split in half and separated. Moving down the corridor, there are intersecting passages laid out like intersecting narrow alleys between buildings. Some are only a foot or two wide, and a few are too small for a person to enter, but most are of an easy size to walk through. Nearing the perimeters, the blocks become lower, and the passages lead back out into the forest, but there are enough passages to explore to occupy an hour, especially on a first visit. They may even seem a bit confusing at first, but it doesn’t take long to figure out where to go and how to get back. And it doesn’t take long after the visit to want to come back again to this enchanting maze in the sky.

The base of the tower gives some idea of how the nearby Great Channels look from above, except they are much deeper.

Despite the limited area the cover, the Great Channels have a slot-canyonesque feel to them.

The crevice is about 30'-40' deep.

Route to Middle Knob from Hayters Gap. To see a larger map click here.

Hike Stats: 6.5 miles out-and-back, 1,200' elevation gain

Pictures from this hike

Pictures from other hikes to Middle Knob and the Great Channels
August 2012
October 2011
July 2011
April 2011
November 2010
May 2009
July 2008
May 2008

gpx files and topo maps
Virginia DCR page for The Channels Natural Area Preserve
Channels State Forest brochure and trail map (opens as pdf)
Virginia Dept. of Forestry page for Channels State Forest
TEHCC page for The Channels Natural Area Preserve Guide to The Brumley Mountain Trail article about Brumley Mountain Trail

View Larger Map
Hayters Gap trailhead coordinates:

Google Map for trailhead

Scan QR code to navigate to trailheads with Google Maps on your smartphone

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