Abby Worth-Jones, a local community college student, and friend Taylor Wright explore the Channels on a warm spring day.
HAYTER’S GAP, Va. – In April, the trees have begun to bud on Clinch Mountain, but the Channels are still full of snow and ice.
There are places in the maze of weather-beaten sandstone crevices that never see sunlight - where the temperature drops and your breath hangs in the air, even as streams of sunlight dance on the rocks above.
A remarkable sandstone formation long known to the locals on the Washington-Russell county line in Virginia, the Channels has recently become more accessible to visitors with the opening of the Brumley Mountain Trail through the newly-created Channels State Forest.
The freshly-graded parking area is at the top of the mountain on State Route 80, a short drive up a winding road from Abingdon or U.S. Highway 19. The hike to the Channels from there is about three miles up on a well-cleared pathways through the state forest and its Channels Natural Area Preserve.
It’s a great spot on a sunny afternoon, when the views are as much worth the hike as the curious rock formation just below the ridgeline. When the weather’s nice, it’s a popular destination for young people and families with children old enough to complete the hike, which can be done in an afternoon.
The first mile of trail follows a private gravel road marked by white blazes and little arrow signs. In the early spring, before the leaves are on the trees, the view of blue mountain ridges can be seen almost from the beginning, and a utility clearing less than a mile above the trailhead gives a narrow glimpse of what the view will look like from the top.
After the second mile, the wind is refreshing, and the trail flattens out to a leisurely stroll. Then it goes up through a rocky rhododendron and azalea thicket, bathed in sunlight among stunted, lichen-covered trees that are gnarled and broken from the elements. When the red shale gives way to sandstone, the path turns to sand.
As the trail climbs, views switch back and forth between Washington County, with its patchwork of fields; and Russell County, whose communities look small and white nestled among the rolling pastures and woodlands.
The spur trail that leads to the Channels splits off up and to the left and winds around the mountain a little more before it ends with a scramble up some rocks to an old cabin, which was in tact just a few years ago but has since been wind-blown to a splintered ruin.
Nearby is the abandoned 1939 fire tower; the bottom rungs of the ladder have been removed to discourage climbing. The mountaintop itself, at just over 4,200 feet, offers 360 degrees of mountain views, parts of which can be seen from various outcrops.
From the trail, the entrance to the Channels is just on the other side of the tower. The top of the formation is also accessible, but with the danger of falling into the crevices. For those who are very sure-footed, it offers a stunning top-of-the-world view, a nearby mountaintop creating a curved horizon as raptors ride the breezes above the ridge.
As I took in the view, voices echoed from below, where two young people were on an impromptu scavenger hunt, looking for an item that one of them had accidentally dropped from above. I went down the narrow path to the Channels, slip-sliding between icy rock walls where I skinned up my arms trying to stay on course, to find them in the icy cave maze.
“It’s definitely a favorite place around here to go,” said Abby Worth-Jones, a local community college student who on a warm spring day had brought her friend Taylor Wright to see the Channels for the first time.
“This is my first time to the Channels, and I like this,” said Wright, a fellow student. “It’s definitely one of the top spots, I would say, in the Tri-Cities area.”
A topographic map might agree: the ridge offers a commanding view of the region, where on a clear day it’s possible to see mountains in several surrounding states.
Just one word of caution if you decide to explore the Channels: Don't get lost in there.