Bring your hiking boots, mountain bike, and/or kayak – but don’t forget your camera, cuz wherever you go in the Heart of Appalachia region, its Go Pro worthy! For those who like to play hard and relax soft, Norton, Wise, and Breaks Interstate Park offer great places to rest up from your rugged adventures.
You’ll spend a full day exploring Breaks Interstate Park on 2 wheels and on foot. The 4,600 acre park bears the moniker “The Grand Canyon of the South” for the 5 mile gorge that was cut through the landscape eons ago by the Russell Fork River. There are over 25 miles of hiking trails that vary from Easy to Extreme with elevation changes ranging from 870 feet at the Russell Fork River in the canyon bottom to 1,978 feet at Clinchfield Overlook where the Overlook Trail begins.
Mountain Biking thru the Breaks is beautiful any time of the year. The stack loop trail system offers 12 miles of riding from moderate to difficult. Depending on the route chosen, bikers may plan rides of varying length, with the possibilities of good climbs and long downhill runs on systems like the Cardiac and the Rattlesnake Loop which comply with IMBA standards.
Several times each year, water is released from the Flannagan Dam and Reservoir, creating world class rapids on the Russell Fork through the Breaks Gorge. Different sections of the river provide varying levels of difficulty. Rafters will find Class Two and Three rapids closer to the Flannagan Dam area, and rapids up to Class Six through the Breaks Park area. Not interested in the stretch called “20 Stitches?” There is plenty of water for an enjoyable and less dangerous adventure.
Don’t worry about how many calories you burn off during your activities, the Rhododendron Restaurant has good home cookin’ to set you right – served up with a spectacular view of the gorge. In addition, Breaks offers a variety of activities including canoe or pedal boat rental, geocaching, white water rafting excursions, Elk viewing tours as well as exhibits on moonshine and regional coal history.
Start with a hike to the Guest River Gorge or on Chief Benges Scout Trail to get yourself warmed up. The 5.8 mile Guest River Gorge follows age-old sandstone cliffs that plunge 400 feet to the pristine waters below. This gentle grade rails to trails path offers a comfortable walk or pleasant bike ride but always provides captivating scenery through the 1922 Swede Tunnel, across trestles, and near rough rapids.
The 15-mile Chief Benge Scout Trail links the cool waters of High Knob Lake to Little Stony with 28-foot falls, rapids, and small pools. As with the Guest River Trail, you may want to hike a portion and scope out the water for an afternoon kayak adventure, which is sure to ELEVATE your heart rate. This hike is not as gentle as the Guest River Gorge trail with several steep climbs. Signs help point the way on the trail, but they don’t tell the story of this infamous path which was used by the half breed Chief Bob Benge as he fled with numerous kidnapped women and children whom he intended to sell. After three days, a militia party from Lee County ended Benge’s escape and his life.
You may get inspired from your morning hike to kayak the waters that paralleled your path. Little Stony offers some advanced water-fun even if you stop short of the 28 foot waterfall. However, if you like the water but prefer smoother sailing, you can bring your own kayak to one of the many put-ins that the Clinch River has to offer or rent one at Natural Tunnel State Park where they offer guided trips allowing visitors the unique adventure of Canorkeling.
If your mountain bike is beginning to feel left out, than head to Flag Rock Recreational Area outside of Norton for a fun trek on Sugar Maple Trail. It’s just 2 miles so far, but its heart pumping! Flag Rock also offers some great hiking, rock climbing and scenic views. Check out the birds-eye view of Norton and the American Flag erected in 1922 above the city. For an even higher perspective, head on up to the High Knob Tower, elevation 4,223 ft, where you can see 5 states on a clear day. And then give a thought to what it was like for Daniel Boone who traversed this region for a path westward.
After a long day of rugged adventure, kick back and relax at MountainRose Vineyards in Wise or keep your toes tappin’ to traditional music at the Country Cabin on Saturday Nights. You can relive your childhood days at the Central Drive In Theater in Norton or head to Big Stone Gap for a live performance of Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Virginia’s Official Outdoor Drama, performed under the stars from June thru August.
Takes you to absolute-lee beautiful Lee County for a hike in the Cumberland Gap National Forest, at the apex of where VA, KY and TN meet. When you pass near Pennington Gap on your way to Cumberland Gap, take note of the natural rock formation called Stone Face Rock on Hwy 421 North. Folklore says that the face was carved by Cherokee Indians honoring their chief at the time. But nowadays, it makes for a great photo memory of your trip.
The 3.5 mile journey to the White Rocks will give you a birds-eve vantage of the terrain navigated by Daniel Boone and his party of 30 men, searching for a passage through the mountains to allow the westward migration in 1775. The Gap has a long and storied history in America’s past. During the Civil War the Gap changed hands several times and was considered a strategic location. However, the Gap never saw much action.
The moderate hike to the White Rocks takes you up in elevation to the crest of the mountains where the thick mountain laurel and rhododendron bloom in late May.
Nearby Sand Cave is a natural formation created by eons of wind and water erosion. The cave itself was carved from sandstone but the floor itself is almost pure white sand from the quartz found in the White Rocks. The ceiling of the cave boasts gold, red, and green.
And the hike is not finished yet. Join park rangers on an exciting two-hour adventure exploring this majestic underground Gap Caverns and discover glistening stalagmites and flowstone cascades, or catch a glimpse of a bat. This is a moderately strenuous excursion for about 1.5 miles, exploring 4 levels of the cave via 183 steps.
There are so many ways for you to ELEVATE your heart rate in the Southwestern corner of Virginia.