Little Stony National Recreation Trail

Length/Type: Approximately 2.7 miles one way, out-and-back; Difficulty: Moderate (some rocky/uneven sections); Other Considerations: trailhead parking is available at both the lower and upper ends of the trail and provides the opportunity for a shuttle hike. A smartphone-based guide for this trail is also available here.

Most residents of Southwest Virginia have heard of Little Stony Falls. One of the most scenic waterfalls in all of Virginia, Little Stony is an impressive, single-tiered, freefalling drop of around 25 feet into a deep swimming hole and horseshoe-shaped amphitheater of rock on Scott County’s Little Stony Creek. It’s a postcard-worthy waterfall in every sense, and it’s not uncommon to find professionally-photographed shots of the falls on local visitors’ guides and hanging in businesses across the region.

What most residents and visitors are unaware of, however, is that the stream’s namesake falls are just the tip of the scenery iceberg. An outstanding and well-maintained trail runs just shy of three miles from the falls all the way to the mouth of Little Stony Gorge, ending at Hanging Rock Recreation Area just off of Virginia Highway 72 outside of Dungannon. Along the way, the trail follows one of this part of Southwest Virginia’s most outstanding trout streams past two additional waterfalls, high cliffs, scenic forests, and boulder-choked rapids. If you’ve only hiked to see the upper falls, you’ve simply been missing out.

The Hike

Most visitors to Little Stony Gorge park at the upper trailhead lot outside of Coeburn, Virginia and hike south (downstream) to Hanging Rock Recreation Area outside of Dungannon. From there, hikers can backtrack to the upper lot for a round-trip hike of approximately 5.5 miles or end at Hanging Rock if opting to bring a second car as a shuttle. This hike description is therefore patterned around hiking from the upper trailhead downstream, although the trail can be easily hiked in either direction.

The yellow-blazed trail starts just past the information kiosk at the back of the gravel trailhead lot off of Forest Service Road 701, following a set of stairs down to the creek. From there, the trail bends left to follow Little Stony Creek downstream for several yards before crossing the stream on a wooden bridge at the top of the upper falls at around 0.2 miles. To reach the bottom of the falls, follow the trail past this bridge to an obvious side trail descending a set of stone stairs to the left of the main trail. This side trail switchbacks to the base of the falls and provides access to the large swimming hole at the falls’ base. To continue on the hike, backtrack up the stairs to the main trail.

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The Upper Falls after a heavy fall rain event.

The trail continues downstream from the upper falls, passing a series of bluffs and crossing the creek on another footbridge at mile 0.33. The trail descends shortly beyond this bridge and reaches the middle falls, an equally-impressive drop that is visible from a viewing deck built into the hillside beside the trail. An unofficial and much more treacherous side-trail descends to these falls, although the best view can be had from the viewing platform. Below the falls, the trail continues on the left side of the stream to a crossing of Ramey Branch on an unusually long wooden footbridge around 0.7 miles from the trailhead. This bridge provides an outstanding view both upstream and downstream along Little Stony Creek, with the lower falls found by following the main trail a short distance farther downstream.

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Little Stony Creek just upstream of the Middle Falls.
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Crossing of Ramey Branch between the Middle and Lower Falls.

From the lower falls (more a slide than a true drop), the trail stays on the left side of the creek, still headed downstream. Footing becomes increasingly rougher and rockier along this section, with the trail climbing above the stream in places to avoid more precipitous hillsides along the creek itself. The trail crosses Star Branch (another small tributary) high above the main stream at an unbridged, rocky slide at mile 1.4 and then descends steadily to another crossing of Little Stony Creek on a wooden footbridge at mile 1.5. From here, the trail enters a long stretch of beautiful trail along the main creek, with stretches resembling more of a Smokies-type stream rather than a creek on the Appalachian Plateau. Boulder-choked runs are common, with a “drop-pool” character found on most trout streams elsewhere in the Appalachians. Put simply, this is one of the best streamside walks in all of Southwest Virginia.

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Little Stony Creek living up to its name at low water just above the mouth of the Gorge.

The trail crosses the creek one last time at a wooden footbridge at mile 2.35, following the opposite side of the creek downstream to the trail’s southern terminus at Hanging Rock Recreation Area. Shortly before the end of the trail, the footpath weaves through a particularly scenic section with house-sized boulders dotting the creekbed and forest, with a gated cave entrance located just off-trail at the base of the cliffs along the trailbed. The official end of the trail is located at the sign and kiosk at the back parking area of Hanging Rock Recreation Area.

Nature Notes

Little Stony Gorge might be scenic, but it also has a scientific side. That’s because the gorge itself is a prime example of the physiography (or “physical geography”) of this part of the Appalachians. Little Stony Creek specifically runs off of the Appalachian Plateau:  a high, steep-sided yet flat-topped landform that runs along the western side of the Appalachians from Alabama all the way to New York. Streams forming high on the Plateau often cut into the Plateau’s steep sides as they flow downstream, cutting into rock types such as sandstone and limestone that are easily eroded by the force of moving water. This activity forms deep, canyon-like gorges that become “dissected” into the face of the Plateau.

Little Stony Gorge is one of these dissected stream passages, carrying water from high on the Plateau out into the Clinch River, located in the Ridge and Valley Province of the Appalachians just downstream of Hanging Rock Recreation Area. Along the way, the steep cliff faces that the stream has cut into the gorge provide a wealth of habitats for wildlife – including some rare species – to thrive. Moisture-loving plants cloak the more shaded and moist cliff faces deep within the gorge, and evergreen Eastern Hemlocks shade the gorge floor. The rare Green Salamander – a cliff-dwelling species – is present but rarely seen hiding in crevices in bluffs above the trail. Bats can also be found in undercut rock houses and caves nearer the mouth of the gorge. The gated cave near the trail’s southern terminus, in fact, has been closed out of an abundance of caution to limit the spread of White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease responsible for decline of bat populations all across the Appalachians.

Directions: From the junction of US-58Alt and VA-72 in Coeburn, Virginia, travel south on VA-72 for 3.3 miles to CR-664. Turn right on CR-664 and travel 1.2 miles to Forest Road 700. Turn left at this signed junction and follow gravel Forest Road 700 1.3 to gravel Forest Road 701 on the left. Follow Forest Road 701 to the gravel parking area just before the bridge over Little Stony Creek.

To Hanging Rock Recreation Area (Lower Trailhead): From the junction of VA-65 and VA-72 in Dungannon, Virginia, travel VA-72 north for 2.6 miles to the signed entrance to Hanging Rock Recreation Area. Turn left into the recreation area and follow the entrance road to the rear of the recreation area and the signed trailhead.

 

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