Length/Type: Approximately 3.0 miles total, out-and-back; Difficulty: Moderate (gentle grades, some route-finding and light boulder-hopping at the trail’s end); Other Considerations: The overlook at the turnaround point for this hike is exceedingly steep and potentially dangerous. Take special care when spending time at Buzzard Rock. A detailed trail map is available via the Virginia Department of Forestry website.
It’s hard to go much of anywhere in Southwest Virginia without seeing Brumley Mountain. Its high, broad summit is visible from multiple peaks in the area, including High Knob in Wise and Scott Counties, Whitetop Mountain in Grayson County, Pine Mountain on the Virginia-Kentucky line, and even some of the higher peaks in extreme northeastern Tennessee. Brumley is also visible from multiple roadways in the region, with US Highways 19 and 58 even passing right below its rim. But despite being seemingly everywhere, very few people in our region know what Brumley Mountain is, much less that there’s a fantastic, 14-mile hiking trail along its crest.
Straddling the border of Russell and Washington Counties above Hansonville, Virginia, Brumley Mountain is a large spur (or offshoot) of Clinch Mountain, which itself runs some 150 miles in length from Tennessee to Burkes Garden, Virginia. Clinch Mountain is relatively low and narrow along much of its length – a spine of erosion-resistant sandstone peaking over the Ridge and Valley – but at Brumley Mountain the ridge both widens and soars in height. Here the mountain is several miles across and reaches heights exceeding 4000 feet above sea level. As you can probably imagine, the scenery on Brumley’s summit and rim is both rugged and sweeping.
Until the past few years, folks wanting to hike Brumley’s ridgecrest had to rely on a patchwork collection of unmarked hunting paths and old roadbeds. That changed in the summer of 2012, though, when the new Brumley Mountain Trail opened to the public. The BMT is a 14-mile route running the northern crest of the mountain and connects Hidden Valley Lake on the mountain’s southern end with the popular Great Channels of Virginia near Hayter’s Gap. Scenery along the way is fantastic, ranging from high, sweeping overlooks to high-elevation woods walks to unique geological formations. Dayhikes are possible starting from either end, as well. Although the dayhike from Hayter’s Gap to the Channels has become one of the most popular hikes in the region, very few people are aware that an even better overlook exists a mere 1.5 miles from the trail’s southern end at Low Gap, above Hidden Valley Lake.
The BMT’s southern terminus is located at Low Gap, a saddle in the ridge that lies above Hidden Valley Lake and separates Brumley’s northern rim from its radio and cell tower-topped southern spur. Low Gap itself is a major crossroads for human access to Brumley: the road leading to Hidden Valley Lake from US 19 crosses through the gap, and Skycraft Road (providing access to the aforementioned towers) leaves the main road there, as well. Within the past couple of years, the previously private property surrounding Brumley’s high cliffs has also been purchased as public land by a climbing coalition. As a result, multiple foottrails now branch off from the gap and its obvious parking area, most unmarked and leading to rock climbing opportunities.
The BMT starts at an obvious sign at the back of the parking area in Low Gap and is marked with the white-and-black arrows along its entire route. The trail makes a hard, 90 degree turn almost immediately after leaving the parking area (a separate trail leading to rock climbing bends to the left instead) and begins a long but easy climb away from the gap, mostly following the contour of the ridge. This climbing continues, looping around the east side of a knob on the ridge, until topping out just beyond 0.5 miles from the trailhead. An unmarked side trail – presumably providing access to rock climbing below – bends off to the left here. Be sure to follow the arrow signage here to turn right and continue following the BMT.
From here, the BMT circles the headwater bowl of a hollow that falls away to the east towards Hidden Valley Lake. At 0.75 miles from the trailhead, the trail enters a saddle at the head of this hollow and bends right, where other faint side trails angle out towards the end of the ridge. As before, stay with the BMT by following the signed arrows. The trail then briefly flirts with an old roadbed and soon reaches the 1-mile mark, denoted by a yellow mileage sign. A prominent but unmarked side trail also branches off to the left from the mileage sign; ignore this trail and continue following the arrows for the BMT.
Approximately 3/100ths of a mile from the 1-mile marker, the trail reaches an obvious junction. Arrows guide the BMT to the right at this fork, while a very obvious side trail branches off to the left. This unmarked trail is a spur leading to the Buzzard Rock Overlook, the turnaround point for this hike. While mostly easily followed and well-worn, this 0.5-mile side trail is nonetheless unblazed and requires some minor rock scrambling near its end. You should therefore be confident with backcountry navigation before attempting this trail, and you should of course hike it at your own risk.
The side trail leaves the BMT and winds out an obvious spur trending away from the main Brumley Mountain ridgeline. It descends gently for some distance and eventually reaches a collection of rock outcrops as the spur ridge begins to narrow considerably. From here, the trail fades and becomes much less obvious. To reach Buzzard Rock, pick your way through this boulderfield out towards the obvious end of the ridge (a couple of hundred yards, at most). While no obvious trail exists here, the most frequented route is to hug the right side of this line of boulders on the ridgetop until it drops a short distance into rhododendron and emerges onto Buzzard Rock, some 1.5 miles from the Low Gap Trailhead.
Buzzard Rock is a breathtaking, near 270-degree panorama looking immediately out over Hansonville but ultimately providing views well into northeast Tennessee. Clinch Mountain and Little Moccasin Gap (where US 19 passes on its way to Abingdon) are seen down and to the left, while the Ridge and Valley province ripples directly in front of the overlook. High Knob rises in Wise and Scott Counties on the far horizon just right of center, with the Coalfields of Southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky visible on the horizon to the right. Unlike most of the overlooks in our region, Buzzard Rock has the good fortune of being mostly free of graffiti left by disrespectful and ignorant visitors. Make sure it stays this way: leave the Sharpies and spray paint at home, and take a picture to memorialize your hike instead. Pack all of your trash out with you, and leave this place nicer than you found it. Also take special care here: the drop is incredibly steep at the rocks and there are no railings or other safety structures, meaning that a fall would have extremely bad consequences. After enjoying the view, retrace your steps up the side trail and back down the BMT to your vehicle at Low Gap.
Brumley Mountain is an important natural feature in the Southwest Virginia landscape. From serving as a barrier to movement for early settlers to harboring an ancient cranberry bog now buried below Hidden Valley Lake on its crest, the peak holds a fundamental place in the natural and human history of our region. The view from Buzzard Rock, though, is perhaps the biggest natural highlight of this hike due to its stunning view that gives a cross-section of central Appalachia’s physical geography.
You may notice when looking left to right from Buzzard Rock that the landscape features you see go through a distinguishable change. High mountains to the left of the view give way to the long spine of Clinch Mountain and similar linear ridges and intervening, parallel valleys to its right. From there a mass of jumbled mountains rises as the view becomes obscured by trees to the far right of the rock.
What you’re actually seeing here is a near-complete overview of all of the Appalachian Mountains’ physiographic provinces, or regions with roughly similar physical and natural features. In central Appalachia, these provinces include the Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Appalachian Plateau. All of these regions were formed some 300 million years ago, when the Appalachians were created as a result of a collision between the North American and African continental plates. This collision created an immense amount of force that manifested itself in multiple ways, depending on how close each region was to this point of collision and what rock types were present:
- Blue Ridge: Seen to the far left of the view from Buzzard Rock (and on the far horizon), the high summits of the Blue Ridge are created from metamorphic rocks, or rock types changed by immense heat and pressure from continental collisions. This collision also lifted these rocks to the lofty heights seen at places like Mount Rogers in Virginia and the Great Smokies in North Carolina and Tennessee.
- Ridge and Valley: The “middle” province of the Appalachians, the Ridge and Valley is formed from what geologists call a “fold and thrust belt.” This occurred when forces from the continental collision mentioned above caused sedimentary rocks (those laid down in ancient, shallow seas) like sandstone and limestone to fold and buckle, much like an accordion. Over time, erosion has modified these features to linear parallel valleys (underlain by erosion-susceptible limestone) and alternating ridges (built from erosion-resistant sandstone). At Buzzard Rock, you are looking down the axis of three of these long, seemingly unbroken ridges (from left to right): the higher Clinch Mountain and lower Moccasin Ridge and Copper Ridge.
- Appalachian Plateau: Forming of the western side of the Appalachians, the Plateau is what it sounds like – a high, elevated yet flat-topped landform that falls away steeply to the east. The Plateau is home to the Appalachian Coalfields and a number of deep, incised gorges cut by erosion into the face of the Plateau. From Buzzard Rock, in fact, you can see the Plateau rising to the far right of the view and, in clear weather, even make out the linear scars of aging surface mines used to extract coal.
The arrangement of these differing landforms has literally defined Appalachia’s history, from the movement of early wildlife in the region to the maneuvering of Civil War soldiers to the paths of modern-day highways such as Interstate 81. Take a few moments to see if you can detect each of these provinces from the overlook at Buzzard Rock. A labeled panorama can be seen above to help (zoom in, if needed).
Directions: From the junction of US 19 and US 58-Alt in Hansonville, Virginia, travel 4.3 miles south on US-19 to SR-690 (Hidden Valley Road) on the left. A brown Virginia Wildlife Management Area sign also marks this turn. Turn left onto SR-690 and drive 2.3 miles to the top of the mountain at Low Gap (note: while paved and easily navigated by low-clearance vehicles, this road is very steep and may be treacherous in icy conditions). Park in the obvious trailhead lot at the top of the mountain in Low Gap, marked by the large wooden kiosk.
If traveling from Abingdon, follow US-19 approximately 10 miles north and turn right onto SR-690. From there, directions are the same as above.