Length/Type: Approximately 3.3 mile loop; Difficulty: Easy to Moderate (one steep grade); Other Considerations: multiple other trail options exist at the Sugar Hill Trail System, including a trail connecting the loop described here with the Bluebell Island Preserve in St. Paul. A smartphone-based guide for this trail is also available here.
The Clinch River is quickly becoming one of Southwest Virginia’s premier outdoor destinations. A tributary of the upper Tennessee River, the Clinch is home to some of the highest biodiversity of fish and mussels in North America and flows from its headwaters in Tazewell County southwestward into Tennessee and beyond. While the Clinch has become a popular float stream along its length in Virginia and is now the focus of an effort to create a Clinch River State Park, there are still few places where hikers can travel by foot along the river.
Local trail guru Frank Kilgore has changed that. The Sugar Hill Trail System, Kilgore’s creation located on a private easement just outside of the town of St. Paul, Virginia, contains some 8 miles of trails along the banks of the Clinch and above the river on a scenic, bald ridgeline. Trail options at this system vary but include hikes to St. Paul Falls – a bank-to-bank rapid on the Clinch – a 1-mile loop around St. Paul’s Oxbow Lake, a disc golf course on the balds above the river, and the remains of a failed 18th century French settlement. The 3.3-mile Sugar Hill Loop Trail detailed here provides a fantastic overview of nearly all of the above features and is a wonderful introduction to what the larger trail system has to offer.
The actual Sugar Hill Loop begins at a kiosk located on the lower end of Oxbow Lake (nearer the Clinch River), a spot that can be reached by walking across a low-water bridge from the parking area to the other side of Oxbow Lake. Although the loop can be hiked in either direction, we have detailed the hike counterclockwise here, which places the long-range views from Sugar Hill’s bald ridgeline later in the hike.
From the kiosk, take the uphill foot trail (not the trail directly along the lakeshore) and begin climbing almost immediately just above the lake. This steep hillside turns into a wildflower bonanza in late April and May, including an incredible display of trillium just above the trailbed. After a short distance, the signed Cliff Trail branches off to the left and angles away from the loop trail. This trail forms an alternate but steeper short route to the ridgetop, following the route of an old settlers’ trail. Continue straight at this junction to continue on the loop.
After approximately 0.25 miles, the trail begins to bend to the left up a side cove away from Oxbow Lake, climbing in two short but very steep intervals initially. This climb then steadily rises above the Clinchfield Railroad until a point approximately 0.7 miles from the trailhead, where it passes the northern portal of the Craigen Tunnel. A train suddenly exiting the tunnel in an otherwise calm woods can be a startling but unforgettable sight here. Beyond the tunnel, the trail climbs steeply again on a series of switchbacks and then along the ridgetop, where it emerges onto an open bald at mile 1.4. Along the way, you’ll pass the upper terminus of the Americorps Trail – another shortcut route from the valley.
Once on the balds, the trail descends briefly to the Frenchman’s Settlement, today a foundation and standing chimney beside a pavilion constructed for the trail system. Be sure to stop for a moment and read the history of this site in the pavilion, which includes a varied past including a failed 1700s French Settlement, murder, and a national manhunt stemming from this one site. Just around the corner, the trail begins to take on more of a double-track appearance (following a grass and gravel roadbed) and enters onto the open expanse of the balds. A near 180-degree view is located here, including a panoramic overview of Southwest Virginia’s southern Ridge and Valley. The low knobs of Copper Ridge roll in the immediate distance, with the much higher summits of Clinch and Brumley Mountains on the horizon beyond. Limited views of St. Paul and the southern extent of the Appalachian Plateau can be seen back to the northeast.
The trail then meanders on the roadbed across the balds before descending in earnest to a junction with the Riverside Trail just above the Clinch at mile 2.3. On the way down, you’ll pass the upper terminus of the Cliff Trail (mentioned above), a signed disc golf course atop the balds, and a signed junction with the Marlene Trail, which descends the southwest side of the ridge towards St. Paul Falls. From the junction with the Riverside Trail, turn left to remain on the roadbed and follow it just above the Clinch River back to the trailhead kiosk at Oxbow Lake.
The Sugar Hill Loop Trail has almost too many natural assets to mention in one succinct section. From a diverse hardwood forest to the pockmarked depressions of limestone sinkholes on the bald ridgetop, nature is literally the star of the show on this hike. The Clinch River, though, is the hike’s most obvious jewel. One of the most biodiverse rivers in all of North America, the Clinch contains an astounding array of imperiled freshwater fishes and mussels, some found nowhere else on Earth. Twenty percent of North America’s 300 or so mussel species, in fact, can be found in this one river system and its companion stream – the Powell River – which flows parallel with the Clinch into Tennessee. A number of efforts are ongoing to study and preserve the Clinch’s unique natural heritage, and you can learn more here. The Clinch River Valley Initiative, another local effort, is seeking to better link this natural heritage with economic development in this part of the mountains.
The Clinch also has a hand in driving some of the earlier scenery on this hike. Oxbow Lake, located at the trailhead, is not a natural lake at all but rather lies in the former path that the Clinch used to round a long bend through the western end of St. Paul. This part of town historically occurred in a low bottom along the river, and so floods were a frequent and damaging occurrence for the homes and businesses along the riverbank. As a result, a project was initiated in the 1980s to literally move the Clinch away from this floodprone area. A gap was blasted into the lower portion of the ridge just east of the parking area, allowing the Clinch to “shortcut” this bend and instead miss most of downtown. The resulting rapids – produced from the new, sharp drop in elevation through the cut – along with the drill marks used to place dynamite for the cut can still be seen by walking a spur trail from the back of the parking area upstream along the Clinch a short distance. As you walk across the low-water dam at Oxbow Lake, in fact, you are actually walking across the length of the old path of the Clinch.
Directions: From the intersection of Wise Street and US-58Alt in St. Paul (at the traffic light at the McDonalds), turn towards the McDonalds and travel this road a short distance downhill above Oxbow Lake. The signed parking area is found at the end of this road just above the Clinch. (Do not block the canoe launch at the lower end of the parking area.)