Great Channels of Virginia: Hike to a Mysterious 20-Acre Maze of Sandstone Slot Canyons

I hate to admit this, but I spent 30 minutes wandering the Great Channels of Virginia, the sandstone maze atop Clinch Mountain in Southwest Virginia.

I was turned around inside this 20-acre maze near Abingdon. I had no idea where I entered this other-worldly labyrinth. Certainly, there were no enter or exit signs. 

The narrow passages, the rocky overhangs, the climbing sandstone formations, they all looked the same. I was doomed. Then, a helping hand.

I was inside the Great Channels with a couple that had set off on this 6.6-mile hike (round-trip) at the same time as me. I soon learned a trick I quickly paid forward.

Great Channels of Virginia-Slot Canyons

The gentleman had set his backpack inside a small sandstone crevice where he entered the slot canyons. Together, we re-located the backpack and I was set free.

I had enjoyed 10 minutes of freedom outside the slot canyons when I saw a group of hikers. I barely said hello before I passed along this crucial bit of advice.

Trail Stats 
Length6.6 miles
Trail TypeOut-and-Back
Elevation Gain1,555 feet
Duration4-5 hours
TerrainMostly dirt & gravel trails
Driving DirectionsClick Here

Great Channels Hike

The hike to the Great Channels of Virginia along the Brumley Mountain Trail in Russell County is a popular one, despite the mostly uphill slog the first three miles.

Even on a weekday, arrive at the parking lot early. It’s located off State Route 80 in Rosedale. You’ll round a bend along this two-lane road, then there it is.

There are only 10 parking spaces for the Channels Natural Area Preserve. There is no legal street-side parking.

Local authorities are more than happy to ticket and tow, too. I arrived at 8:30 am on a Monday. Even then, I was the third or fourth car in the parking lot.

By the time I departed at 11:30 am, every parking spot was taken. Yes, on a Monday.

Brumley Mountain Trail

The hike along the Brumley Mountain Trail through Channels State Forest begins on easy gravel terrain, which crosses private property (the first mile).

Brumley Mountain Trail-First Kiosk

At the .25-mile mark, you’ll see a turn off on the right for a cabin. This may be Raven Ridge Lodge. There was a sign for this mountain retreat at the trailhead.

Just stick to the left and press on. At the .5-mile mark, a relatively scenic powerline vista on the left.

The trail splits again at the .65-mile mark. Bear left to access more of a foot trail than a gravel road.

Near the one-mile mark, a couple of private cabins appear on the right. Just past these cabins, the trail changes from mostly gravel to mostly dirt terrain.

Veer left when you see the sign for The Channels. In a few more steps, you’ll see a trail kiosk on the right and then an iron gate to walk around (legally).

From this point, the trail gets narrower, darker, steeper and rockier as you continue your ascent to the top of Clinch Mountain.

At the 2.9-mile mark, you will veer left for the Channels Spur Trail to the summit. But first, a surprise. An Easter egg, if you will.

In .1-mile you will reach a bit of an intersection. You’ll see a rock scramble and an old fire tower on the right. On the left, an enticing lightly-trafficked trail. Hmmm…

Great Channels-Fire Tower 2

Turn left and walk as far as you can (you won’t need to go far). You’ll see a stack of rocks. Step up onto the rocks, push some brush out of the way, then wow.

You will be awed by the most fantastic south-facing views. You may be the only person there (I was), standing on these gigantic rocks with wide-open views.

Once you soak in the views, including vistas of Mount Rogers (5,728′) and Whitetop Mountain (5,520′), Virginia’s two tallest peaks, navigate back to the main trail.

Walk across a massive rock field on Middle Knob. Go under or around the tallest fire tower I’ve ever seen (you cannot climb this fire tower).

The trail picks up on the other side, then envelops you in dense foliage.

In a few more steps, you will reach the breathtaking maze of sandstone slot canyons. Plan to duck, squeeze, climb and crawl as you explore with curiosity.

Spend time navigating and snapping photos throughout this sand-floored labyrinth. It was created 10,000 years ago by permafrost and ice wedging. 

Great Channels-Slot Canyons

Since this is an out-and-back hike, re-trace your steps to the parking area.

My hope is that you took my early advice and left a marker, like a backpack, at the entrance. This will help you find your way out and back to the trail.

Wrap-Up Notes

From the parking area, this hike took me nearly 3.5 hours to complete, including more time than I expected lost in – er, exploring – the slot canyons.