Big Falls and the Pinnacle (Pinnacle State Natural Area Preserve)

Length/Type: Approximately 1.8 miles one-way, out-and-back; Difficulty: Easy to moderate (easy grades and footing; well-maintained trails); Other Considerations: The Pinnacle has multiple trail options beyond the one described here, which can be pieced together into a longer day hike, if desired. A detailed trail map is available via the Virginia DCR website.

Out of all the counties in Southwest Virginia, Russell County has arguably some of the most varied and contrasting natural features. While much of the county is dominated by the agricultural lands of the Ridge and Valley, some of its eastern peaks tower near 5000 feet above sea level, harboring high-elevation forests of Red Spruce typically found only on the high summits of the Blue Ridge to the east. The Clinch River cuts a gash through the county’s lower elevations, creating a menagerie of limestone-dominated karst habitats with waterfalls and odd, perplexing geologic features.

Located between the towns of Cleveland and Lebanon, the Pinnacle State Natural Area Preserve is the region’s highlight of this latter scenic category. A mere 800 or so acres in size, the Pinnacle’s four miles of trails cover more natural features – scenic overlooks, perplexing rock formations, idyllic streams, and roaring waterfalls – than perhaps anywhere else of similar size in the state. It’s easy to spend most of a day exploring these options in the preserve, but we’ve pieced together a collection of trails that form a great introductory overview to the preserve and its offerings. Along the way, you’ll pass scenic Big Falls, enjoy a hike along wild Big Cedar Creek, and visit a towering, 400-foot spire of rock known as the Pinnacle before ending along the banks of the Clinch River.

The Hike

Although the preserve contains five overall trails, each of these uses the 1.5-mile Big Cedar Creek Trail as the preserve’s main artery. Starting from the gravel trailhead lot, the Big Cedar Creek Trail immediately climbs a wooden set of stairs to an impressive swinging bridge over Big Cedar Creek at the head of its gorge. Cross the creek on this bridge, descend on the opposite side, and follow the narrow footpath down a sidehill stretch above the creek to the preserve’s low-water vehicle ford at 0.15 miles. From here, the trail enters what is possibly its easiest stretch grade-wise along a gravel road directly beside Big Cedar Creek, reaching  a clearing and handicapped-accessible parking area at 0.9 miles. Along the way, the 1.3-mile Grapevine Hill Trail – an alternate, high-elevation route paralleling the Big Cedar Creek Trail just below the summit of the ridge – branches off to the left.

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Swinging bridge at the trailhead

 

This clearing and its parking area also serve as one of the preserve’s major trail junctions. Across the clearing and angling to the right, the Spring Falls Trail leads a quarter-mile to its namesake Spring Falls, a low cascade on Big Cedar Creek and a good introduction to the much more impressive Big Falls, which lies downstream. To continue to Big Falls and other destinations within the preserve, take the left fork at this clearing, still following the Big Cedar Creek Trail as it begins to climb through a forest of cedars above the stream. The trail then descends to the bank beside Big Falls at mile 1.1.

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Big Falls from below

 

While not a large waterfall in terms of its overall drop, Big Falls compensates with its width and sheer flow: the falls are actually a massive, bank-to-bank cascade and accompanying drop over a ledge of sandstone at the heart of the preserve. Adding to the dramatic scenery is the fact that Big Cedar Creek performs a virtual 90-degree righthand turn just below the falls, placing Big Falls in one of the most unique settings for any waterfall in the central Appalachians. A brief side trail heads a few yards down the base of the falls, and it’s not uncommon to see folks swimming and lounging at the falls’ base in warmer months.

Although most visitors to the preserve turn around at Big Falls, most of the area’s truly dramatic scenery lies just down the trail. Leaving Big Falls, the Big Cedar Creek Trail continues following the stream around a long horseshoe bend, reaching another trail junction at approximately mile 1.4. The main trail bends left here, while the Pinnacle View Trail forks off to the right. Also near this junction, the 0.5-mile Copper Ridge Trail climbs strenuously up to an overlook on the divide between Big Cedar Creek and the Clinch River. To continue on this hike, follow the Pinnacle View Trail down the hill towards the stream.

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Big Cedar Creek near the Pinnacle

 

The Pinnacle View Trail drops immediately back down near the stream at mile 1.5, where the rugged rock formation giving the preserve its name towers above the riverbed. The Pinnacle is actually a sheer spire of dolomite (a rock type not too dissimilar to limestone), open to air on all four sides and rising several hundred feet above the stream in the depths of a cliff-lined gorge. An interpretive sign marks the best view from the trail. From the Pinnacle, the Pinnacle View Trail continues in a horseshoe-type loop back to the Big Cedar Creek Trail at approximately mile 1.75. Turn right on the Big Cedar Creek Trail at this junction, and proceed a short distance downhill to the trail’s terminus at the confluence between Big Cedar Creek and the Clinch River at mile 1.8. To return to the trailhead, simply retrace your route – if desired, you can bypass the Pinnacle View Trail on the return trip by remaining on the Big Cedar Creek Trail to shortcut across the low ridge dividing the former trail’s start and finish.

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Final stretch of Big Cedar Creek, looking upstream from its confluence with the Clinch River

 

Nature Notes

Although it’s known mostly for its hiking options today, the Pinnacle was originally protected for a somewhat different reason: its biodiversity. That’s because this relatively small area along the lower portion of Big Cedar Creek contains an astounding array of plants and animals, many considered rare and some found virtually nowhere else on Earth. This list includes eight plant species, five animal species, and four natural communities considered globally rare and/or of high conservation concern. Among these organisms are the cliff-hugging Canby’s Mountain-Lover, the monstrous Hellbender salamander, and the tiny Big Cedar Creek Millipede, the latter only found on Earth at this site and several other nearby locales.

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Yellow Ladyslipper blooming in the forest below the Pinnacle in early spring

 

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Eastern Fence Lizard in a sunny clearing in a cedar glade above the creek

So, what’s going on? What makes this particular part of Big Cedar Creek so unique? A big part of that answer lies in rock. This part of Russell County – like the low valleys all across much of the Valley and Ridge Province of the Appalachians – forms a karst landscape. That is, these valleys are formed by rock types, such as limestone, that easily dissolve when water from precipitation and associated groundwater percolate through the soil. This activity can open up caves and sinkholes belowground and, aboveground, can lead to the oddly-shaped structures like the Pinnacle seen on this hike.

That’s not all that’s going on here, though. The Pinnacle’s karst landscape is built partially on dolomite, a rock similar in many ways to limestone but with a high magnesium content. That difference is a key one, too: soils built on rocks like dolomite tend to be incredibly harsh for most of our native plants, opening up glades – open, prairie-like areas devoid of the dense hardwood forests found across most of the mountains. Instead, only  plants that are adapted to survive these harsh soil conditions can thrive in glades…and even if they try to grow on “regular” soil elsewhere, they become easily outcompeted by our more common plant species.

It’s this difference in rock types and soil that drives much of the plant diversity here at the Pinnacle. Some plants are even more specialized beyond just preferring specific soil and instead cling to the steep, open sides of cliffs like the Pinnacle. This makes the scenery and wildlife of the Pinnacle intimately linked…and adds another layer to understanding why this particular preserve is such a special place.

Directions: From downtown Lebanon, Virginia, travel south on US 19 Business to the intersection with VA-82 on the west end of downtown (a sign for the Pinnacle is placed at this intersection). Turn right (west) onto VA-82 and travel approximately 1.1. miles to SR-640. Turn right on SR-640 and drive 4.3 miles, crossing Big Cedar Creek, to the signed turn onto SR-721. Turn left on SR-721 and proceed to the end of the road to the gravel parking area. (Please note: SR-721 is a one-lane gravel road that can be slightly rough and rutted in one section after prolonged heavy rain or winter weather.)

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