The Great Channels are located along the Clinch Mountains in Southwestern Virginia. Channels State Forest contains a 721-acre area known as the Channels Natural Area Preserve which contains the Channels themselves. This unique, remote area, once a “hidden gem,” is becoming quite popular.
Not only does this hike have a great view at the top, but also unique sandstone geological formation that you can explore. I would rate this hike as moderate for a healthy hiker (“difficult” for those out of shape). I am posting about the shortest and easiest trail which is a 6-mile-round-trip.
The day I went, we spent a total of 5 hours on this hike: 2 hours up, 2 hours down, & 1 hour exploring the slots.
I would say this is a Family-friendly hike for upper elementary age kids on up; except it is a long way up…they might get bored and complain. I did see one poor mom with a toddler and maybe a 5-year-old. She had her hands full! My parents said they would be terrified taking a toddler on this hike just from a safety standpoint (falling off boulders & cliffs) but also the fact a child could easily crawl into a dark recess (crevice, cave) within the slots themselves and become unreachable (same thought goes for dogs). The only way they said they would consider taking a toddler would be if you have an adult with each child.
Tennis shoes would be fine on this hike, but beware of mud. I would not recommend this for the wheelchair-bound or those without a lot of stamina (to go up that 3 mile hill). There are really no good places to sit and take a break.
Dogs on a leash are allowed, but I wouldn’t recommend this hike for dogs, especially down in the slots.
Please forgive my pictures on this post; they do not do this area justice. I hadn’t thought about the website when I was taking these pics. When I go again, I’ll try to take better pics.
Cell service is spotty. We did not think we had cell service until we received a call on top of the mountain, which was totally unexpected (scared us).
There are 3 main trailheads you can use to get to The Channels. This article will assume that you want to do the easiest hike, which is a 6-mile-round-trip along the eastern portion of the Brumley Mountain Trail.
WARNING: When traveling along State Route 80, do not follow Google Maps’ instructions! Do NOT follow signs to Brumley Gap Road, which is Route 689, stay on Route 80 for Hayters Gap Road.
FYI: There is a Channels Trail that starts on Route 689/Brumley Gap Road, but this trail is mostly wooded with switchbacks going 5.5 miles uphill towards the summit. Making an 11-mile-round-trip which is not marked as well and definitely harder.
The Parking is FREE with no Fee to get into the park. However, parking is strictly limited to 10 spaces at the Hayters Gap Road trailhead (near the Washington & Russell County line).
In fact, tickets are being written daily and cars are being towed if you park outside the lot or along the roadway.
Only 2 cars can wait in line for hikers to return to their cars. If the Park Ranger is around, he will make the 3rd car drive away. People do sit-in or stand next to their cars waiting for morning hikers to finish their hike. So it is possible to catch a parking spot around late afternoon.
The State Forest is only open during daylight hours only (dawn to dusk).
We went early, arriving at 8:00 on a Wednesday morning, and were the 3rd car in the parking lot. This was during mid-October. When we finished our hike and were returning to our car at 1:00 in the afternoon, the parking lot was full, 2 cars were waiting, and others were being turned away. We did not eat lunch on the trail.
From Hayters Gap, the trail looks more like a forest road than a narrow path. It was gravely near the bottom but turns into more of a dirt fire road the higher you go. It runs alongside private property, so you must stay on the trail in certain sections. The path does get narrow towards the top of the mountain. There is a mile marker every 1/2 mile along the trail, but the trail is so obvious you won’t get lost.
The trail is mostly even, but some parts of it are rocky. It is a steady uphill incline where you have to force yourself to keep going. Turns out this hike has a little over 1000 vertical feet in elevation with sections of 20-35% grade. So going up seems like it took forever. When we were coming down, it was much easier, but I was tired and felt like I would slip sometimes. It is 3 miles up & 3 miles back down, making a total of 6 miles.
At the top of the mountain, the trail is narrow for about 3/4th of a mile and you need to watch your step, because it does become rocky periodically. There also seems to be a spring near the top, causing the trail to be muddy & damp.
At the summit of Middle Knob (4,208′), the trail forks – turn right towards the fire tower (walk under it) and towards the trail to go down into The Channels themselves at the edge of trees. (There will be signs at the trees pointing the way to the trail.)
Or, at the fork you can turn left, go about 100 yards out onto the rocky cliffs for a broad vista view. Do not try to reach the bottom of these outcropping, this is not the trail for The Channels.
There are no bathrooms. There is no running water, so bring your own water bottle. Nor are there any trash cans – so Pack it IN & Pack it OUT.
The Hayters Knob fire tower is cool to look at, but is unsafe to climb. In fact, they have removed the lower steps to discourage people from climbing. It also happens to be illegal. This fire tower was built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was used until it was retired in 1970.
The Great Channels of Virginia – These look similar to the slot canyons of Utah. The sandstone formations are 30 to 40 feet tall with slots or crevices that you can walk through. The slots are the result of erosion & mechanical weathering (ice wedging, expansion cracks). There is probably about 1-3 acres worth of these slots (not sure – just guessing) which make up a kind of rock maze beckoning to be explored. It’s easy to become disoriented (or lost) while roaming around in the slots. However, you can find you way back out rather easily, if you just keep walking uphill. Probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to carry a whistle to signal distress or for help (blow 3 times – pause – blow 3 times) just in case…we carry a whistle at all times in our daypack.
Although, we did not encounter any surprising wildlife, I understand that bears and rattlesnakes are frequent sightings depending upon the time of year. Some people have reported seeing grouse. During the summer, bug spray may be needed.
Channels State Forest Info
There is no camping or campfires allowed within Channels State Forest. Also, there is no removal of any tree, plant or mineral. Nor are ATVs allowed.
Permits are required for anyone age 16 or older for: hunting, trapping, fishing, horseback riding, and biking. See the following websites for more details:
- VA Dept of Forest – Channels State Forest website
- Channels State Forest – 2-sided brochure
- Brumley Mountain & Channels Trail MAP
Abingdon is the closest town, which is still a 40 minute drive from The Channels parking lot.
We stayed at Alpine Motel. It was inexpensive and clean with that old-school roadside motel feel. Which is great since you can unload your car right in front of your room. The rooms have microwaves and mini-fridges. The website is alpinemotelabingdon.com
We also ate breakfast and lunch at the Cracker Barrel restaurant that was 3 minutes from the motel.
There is a neat looking place to stay at Hayters Gap called Raven Ridge Lodge. In fact, the Brumley Mountain Trail runs across the property, although you cannot see the lodge from the trail. The website is ravenridgelodge.com
This unique hike may be boring and tiring go up the hill, but the slots were totally cool – both in temperature and in awesomeness. Everyone should visit this place at least once.