Sitting just a few miles north of Meadowview, Virginia, The Channels are located high atop one of Clinch Mountain’s highest peaks and are one of the greatest hiking destinations in our region. This geological marvel was once a huge capstone that covered the summit. During the last ice age, the constant wear and tear of ice and freezing temperatures split the sandstone into hundreds of individual slabs. After thousands of years, they’ve eroded further to form an intricate network of chasms, caves, and formations that strongly resemble the slot canyons found in western states.
Two trails offer three different routes to the summit. By far the most popular option is via the east end of Brumley Mountain Trail, beginning at Hayters Gap near Meadowview. This is the shortest distance at 7 miles roundtrip, but it does feature over 1,200 feet of elevation gain. Brumley Mountain Trail also approaches from the west as well via Hidden Valley WMA. While there may not be much climbing on this course, a round-trip distance in excess of 20 miles puts this out of the grasp of most day hikers. The last option, Channels Trail, begins in the valley far below. This has the most climbing of the three routes, gaining 2,000 feet in elevation over a distance of 4.5 miles. Once it reaches the intersection with Brumley Mountain Trail, it is still another half mile to the summit, so the round trip here would be right around 10 miles.
For our hike last weekend, we decided to take the shortest path beginning at Hayters Gap since it was our very first visit to the area. There is a large gravel parking lot here and several pull offs further down the road, so it shouldn’t ever be too hard to find a parking spot. Although signs indicate that there are surveillance cameras here, we don’t recommend leaving any valuables in the car as the area is fairly remote.
Brumley Mountain Trail begins at the gate as a wide, gravel road. Since the trail mileage actually begins at the west terminus, the mileage signs posted every half mile run backwards, beginning at mile 14.5. Please stay on the trail for the first mile or so, as several notices remind visitors that this area is actually private property. The landowners have been gracious enough to allow hikers access at the moment, so treat their land with respect. A cabin at the one mile marker looks like it would be right at home in Cades Cove, but resist the urge to inspect it further as this area is still outside the reservation boundary. You’ll know you’re there when you reach a second gate and an information sign.
From here until the summit, hikers will be within the The Channels State Natural Area. Although part of the much larger state forest, the 721 acres of the reserve offer an extra layer of protection for the rare geological formations and botanical communities visitors will encounter. The trail here is in very good shape, as it used to be a road before the park was established. The first half mile climbs at such a small pace it might go unnoticed, but that soon changes once it reaches the ridge crest. As the grade steepens, take it slow and inspect the wildflowers that crowd both sides of the trail. Mid May we saw dozens of species, including saxifrage, mayapple, stonecrop, foamflower, wild columbines, and endless clumps of wood betony.
Leveling out somewhat, the pathway tackles a double switchback before entering a rhododendron tunnel. Although the prime blooming season is in June, we were happy to find dozens of plants already in bloom. Visitors will know they are approaching the end when the trail becomes much rockier, eventually transforming into a series of stone slabs. A sign on the left indicates the start of the spur trail, a narrow, muddy path that leads through the thick rhododendron growth that envelopes the northern side of the mountain. As the trail exits the shrubbery, hikers are greeted with open skies and a wonderful view of the old forest service fire tower. Standing at an elevation of 4,208 feet and built in 1939, the tower served as a destination in itself for many years. Alas, over time it has fallen into disrepair to the point where it is now is off limits due to safety concerns. Several prominent rocks nearby give us an idea of the extraordinary views it once afforded of Southwest Virginia. Far below sits the farm fields of Elk Garden, with Beartown Mountain’s spruce-covered summit rising to the northeast.
After taking in the view, continue past the tower and look for a sign indicating the entrance to The Channels. Here visitors will find a fence prevents access to the top of the rock formations. Not only is it extremely dangerous since the chasms can be 40-50 feet deep at times, the rock surfaces here are home to a delicate mix of plant species that can be permanently damaged by a single step. Be content to take in the view of Brumley Mountain and the formations, then turn right and climb down the steep bank into the coolness of The Channels.
The pathway breaks up into dozens of paths that wander throughout the rocks. There are wide open spaces, tunnels, and crevices that only a child could squeeze through. Although it’s hard to get lost thanks to the thick rhododendron that grows around the edges of area, it is still very easy to get turned around within the formations. We recommend spending at least an hour or so exploring the passageways and enjoying the cool breeze that is a permanent fixture here, even on the hottest summer days.
Directions: From I-81 North, take exit 24 for Meadowview and turn left at the intersection. Stay on VA-80 for 14.4 miles until you reach the top of the mountain. The parking area will be on the left.