Great Channels of Virginia: Hike to a Mysterious 20-Acre Sandstone Maze Atop Clinch Mountain

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.

Turned around inside this 20-acre labyrinth of sandstone near Abingdon, I had no idea where I entered this maze. Certainly, there were no enter or exit signs. 

Hiking Trail Leading to the Great Channels of Virginia

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

I was inside the Great Channels with a couple that started this 6.6-mile round trip hike at the same time as me. I soon learned a trick I paid forward.

Slot Canyon-Like Crevices at the Great Channels

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

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

I later highlighted this mildly harrowing experience in an article I wrote for The Washington Post about the natural beauty and wonders of Southwest Virginia. 

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 of Virginia

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.

Small Parking Area for the Great Channels Hike

Even on a weekday, I recommend that you arrive early. The parking lot is located off State Route 80 in Saltville, just off a two-lane road. 

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

Signage in the Parking Area for the Hike to the Great Channels of Virginia

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. You will want to plan ahead for this hike. 

Brumley Mountain Trail

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

A Trail Kiosk on the Brumley Mountain Trail

At the .25-mile mark, there is a turn-off for Raven Ridge Lodge in Hayters Gap. There is an information board 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 with an obstructed view is on the left.

A Scenic Powerline Vista on the Brumley Mountain Trail

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

Cabins on the Right Side of Brumley Mountain Trail

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

Clinch Mountain 

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

The Brumley Mountain Trail at Channels Natural Area Preserve

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

In .1 miles 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…

A Fire Tower on Top of Middle Knob in Saltville, Virginia

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

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.

A Rocky Outcrop with Views of Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain

Soak in the great view, including Mount Rogers (5,728′) and Whitetop Mountain (5,520′), Virginia’s two tallest peaks, then navigate back to the main trail.

Middle Knob

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 as you close in on the unique geological formations.

A Trail Sign with an Arrow to the Slot Canyons

In a few more steps, you will reach the labyrinth of crevices. Plan to duck, squeeze, climb and crawl as you explore with curiosity.

Spend time navigating what feel like sandstone slot canyons. They were created some 10,000 years ago by permafrost and ice wedging. 

Great Channels of Virginia

Revel in this otherworldly experience. When you’re ready, re-trace your steps to the small parking area. Leashed dogs are allowed on this scenic hike. 

My hope is that you take my early advice and leave 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, including more time than I expected navigating the network of maze-like crevices. 

Lots of people get lost on their way to the Great Channels hike, so use 4250 Hayters Gap Road in Saltville as the address for Google Maps or Apple Maps. 

Great Channels of Virginia

Early mornings are best for a hike at Great Channels Natural Area Preserve. Late afternoon is also good for exploring one of the most singular natural wonders. 

Take your time and enjoy every moment inside the unique maze of sandstone crevices on top of the mountain.