The Great Channels Natural Area Preserve is one of Virginia’s most geologically fascinating areas. This 6.6 mile out-and-back takes you down into a network of maze-like crevices formed in soft sandstone. You won’t find any other hike in Virginia like this one!
Who would have thought there were slot canyons in Virginia? I have read about the slot canyons in the southwest of the US and thought it would be so cool to actually go hiking through these formations. It wasn’t until recently that we had heard about the Great Channels in the southwest of Virginia and we just had to take a trip and explore them. We decided to take a four-day trip down to Abingdon, Virginia and rented a house that served as a great launchpoint for some of those interesting hikes we have heard about in the area.
We left our car in the parking lot and then followed the Brumley Mountain Road up the fire road (blocked from cars by a gate) that went up the hill to the right of the parking lot. The initial part of the hike follows this wide fire road, making it nice to walk side-by-side with your hiking partner. The trail is mostly a gradual uphill climb to the top, with the first 1.5 miles being very little climbing at all. At about .6 miles, you reach a set of power lines that are cut in that may give you an obstructed view to the left of the trail of the valley below. At .75 miles, you reach a junction where the fire road takes a sharp turn to the right and goes uphill. Stay straight instead of veering to the right to stay on the trail. The trail continues along and at 1.0 miles, a cabin and picnic area appears to the right of the trail. This is private property, so stay on the trail. Continuing along the trail, at 1.5 miles, you reach Shallow Gap, which provides some obstructed ridgeline views to the right of the trail.
The trail becomes slightly steeper from this point and at 2.25 miles, you reach an outcrop of sandstone, which is what you will later see that forms the Great Channels themselves. You hit a few switchbacks shortly after that take away the steepness of the terrain. At 2.8 miles, you reach the junction where the Great Channels trail breaks off to the left of the Brumley Mountain Road. Take this trail to reach the summit of Middle Knob, which you should reach around 3.0 miles.
At the summit, you will find a shelter with rotted boards and exposed nails (it looks like quite the danger, so don’t explore). Behind the shelter you will see some exposed boulders that allow for some obstructed views around you. Straight ahead also is the incredibly tall fire tower that was once used to spot fires from a long distance. The rocks that you walk across near the fire tower will show you exposed cracks that travel deep below. Shortly past and to the right of the fire tower, you will see a blaze that enters into the woods. Take this trail as it leads down a steep, hillside. We found another rock on the way down that we could hoist ourselves up which gave us some nice views. While the views are nice, you do need to be extremely careful here, since there are gaps in the rocks below where you are looking from the top of the Great Channels down below. One slip could spell catastrophe here.
The trail descended the hillside until it led to the entrance of the Great Channels. I will say this is one of the most unique things I have ever seen. You walk down a path in between these sandstone formations that creates a maze of trails and rocks. You will feel like a kid again with your desire to explore this maze. Most of the paths between the rocks are passable (I did squeeze my body through one tight area just to see what was on the other side), but get your bearings early so you can remember the proper way back. We found you can get a little turned around as you explore these channels, which could create some panic from anyone claustrophobic. It was much darker in the Channels, but occasionally you would find a spot where the sun shined down to the bottom. The formations were so unique that you will want to take some time to explore down all the channels. The only real exit to the Channels is going back the way you came.
After we were done exploring, we climbed back to the top and ate a snack underneath the fire tower before finishing up our trip. We came across a few other families at the top, but we enjoyed having the Great Channels to ourselves. We made our way back the way we came, giving us about a 6.6 mile hike total. We were so glad we were given this hike recommendation. This is a true geological treasure that is surprisingly not as well known beyond the local community.
The idea to hike the Great Channels came from one of our readers (thanks, Dj!) We had never heard of the area and were excited to add this hike to our itinerary on a recent visit to Abingdon, Va. Since Adam has covered all the details and distances, I’d like to use my part of the post to share some of the fascinating history of this area.
The Channels has only been accessible to the public for a little over a decade. It’s really one of Virginia’s newer hikes! In 2004, The Nature Conservancy purchased the 5,000 acre tract land from a private owner. Then in 2008, through a partnership with the state, Channels State Forest was established.
In the early years of the new state forest, the route to the Channels formation was traversed only by the rugged Channels Trail. Marked in green on this map, the hike required an 11-mile round trip effort with about 2,600 feet of climbing.
In 2012, the non-profit group Mountain Heritage opened the Brumley Mountain Trail. The trail was built over several years with the assistance of volunteers and labor supplied by inmates from the Appalachian Detention Center. All in all, the Brumley Mountain Trail covers 14 miles along the spine of Clinch Mountain from Hayters Gap on VA80 to Hidden Valley Lake. If you park in the new lot at Hayters Gap and follow the Brumley Trail, you can access the Channels formation via a moderate, well-graded trail – totaling six miles, round trip. The establishment of this trail made the Channels infinitely more accessible for hikers of all abilities!
The sandstone maze at the heart of Channels State Forest sits hidden at the top of Middle Knob – elevation 4208’. Formed 400 million years ago, the deep crevices and slots likely formed due to permafrost and ice wedging during the last ice age. The expanding ice fractured the sandstone and water slowly spread and smoothed the breaks over millions of years. What we’re left with now is a labyrinth of slots and crevices through the rocks. The pathways range from 20 to nearly 40 feet deep and wind their way through damp, moss-covered walls of stone. It stays shady and cool in the Channels – even on a hot mid-summer day.
The entrance to the maze is located near one of the tallest and most rickety fire towers I’ve ever seen. You could not pay me a million dollars to climb that tower! However, when doing research for this post, I stumbled across the blog of another hiker who DID climb the tower in 2013 (despite the bottom two flights of stairs being removed and posted signs saying NOT to climb the tower.) We implore our readers to stay safe and stay off the tower. I will add that photos shared by this particular hiker showcased 360 degree views all the way to Mt. Rogers, Roan Mountain, and Grandfather Mountain. From the tower’s top, you can also down into the maze from above. His photos were pretty cool – but again – do not attempt to climb the tower. An article from the June 3, 2012 issue of the Bristol Herald Courier says that funding is being sought to renovate the old tower and turn it into an observation platform. Clearly, nothing has happened between 2012 and 2016!
I enjoyed exploring the labyrinth of passageways that make up Great Channels. The scale and size of the formation exceeded what I pictured before visiting. The maze covers about 20 acres. Some pathways loop around and connect to other paths and some just reach a dead end. There was plenty to explore, but the area is not so expansive that you feel you’ll get lost and not find your way out. I will add that after a suitable amount of exploration, I was ready to see the land from back ‘on top’. After a while, the maze started feeling eerie and close. I guess I’m more claustrophobic than I thought!
Another couple things I wanted to note about this hike! The first one is a big plus — there were TONS of sweet, ripe, juicy blueberries around the fire tower when we visited in late July. It was a treat to enjoy them with our packed lunch. The negative I wanted to remark on is the amount of litter left in the Channels. There were so many plastic water bottles, candy wrappers, and beer cans tucked into crevices in the rocks. It’s always a bummer to visit a beautiful, unique place and find it covered with garbage, and unfortunately that was the case with the Channels. If you think about it when you visit, bring a trash bag and try to carry some of the trash out with you.
- Distance – 6.6 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1200 ft
- Difficulty – 3. The hike isn’t as tough to approach the Middle Knob fire tower, but the climb down to the Channels may be a little steep for some.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail mostly follows a large fire road, so footing is easy.
- Views – 2. There were some obstructed views along the way, but nothing overly dramatic.
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. non-existent.
- Wildlife – 3. This area is not as well populated and black bears have been spotted. We saw several deer along the trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. There are only a few junctions that could lead to any confusion. Finding the trail down to the Great Channels was a little tough since there was no sign, but with our directions, you should have no trouble.
- Solitude – 3. This is a popular spot for locals on nice days, but overall isn’t used heavily.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates: 36.864640, -81.946982. Take exit 24 on I-81 and get on VA-80 W. In .2 miles, take a left on VA-80/609/Hillman Highway. Take a right shortly after the light to stay on VA-80/Lindell Road. Continue to follow VA-80 for 13.5 miles until you reach the parking lot on the left of the road. You will find the name for this road changes from Lindell Road to Hayters Gap Road. It takes a sharp left turn about 10.5 miles in on your 13.5 mile trip and the road winds up very steeply until you reach the crest and the parking lot on the left.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.