Viewing the Cumberlands at High Knob Tower

This post isn’t necessarily a hike summary, but it still features one of the Cumberland Mountains’ must-see sites: High Knob. “The Knob,” as locals often refer to it, is the highest point in the Cumberland Mountains at 4,223 feet above sea level and is a towering peak on the longer ridge of Stone Mountain. Stone Mountain itself is a long, linear ridge also known as Cumberland Mountain to the south, running from near High Knob all the way to Cumberland Gap National Park and points beyond.

For years, High Knob has been a popular recreation asset for locals. A paved road in good condition provides access to the summit from the city of Norton, Virginia, and a developed recreation area and campground exist just below the mountain’s summit. One hiking trail, the Chief Benge Scout Trail, also leaves the Knob to start a 19-mile trek downhill to the head of Little Stony Gorge at the mountain’s foot. The main attraction of the mountain, though, is its lookout tower and commanding, 360-degree, five-state view.

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Looking across Southwest Virginia’s Powell Valley, towards Cumberland Gap, from the summit of High Knob

High Knob was once used as a firespotting station, although once changing technology rendered firetower observers mostly obsolete, the mountain became known as a local tourist attraction. A remarkable, multi-level tower once stood in a small bald on the mountain’s summit, providing views into the coalfields of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky to the north and sweeping, long-range views all the way from Mount Rogers to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the south and west. It’s one of those places where family photos, picnics, and proposals were all made over generations.

That changed in 2007, though. On halloween of that year, an arson burned the tower to the ground, with authorities arriving too late to extinguish the fire and save the tower. The mountain then sat vacant for several years until 2014, when a new tower built partially using funds raised by local residents opened on the summit. This new tower is handicapped-accessible and provides much of the same commanding view that its predecessor did. In the past couple of years, this new lookout has once again made High Knob a popular tourist attraction.

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The new observation tower on High Knob

Rather than writing up the view here, we’ll simply provide a link to the following guide produced by students from UVa-Wise. The guide at the link has been developed for smartphone devices and allows users to see the same views on their phone that they would see at the tower…but with landmarks labeled and described as an interpretive guide. This way, visitors can not only enjoy the view but also learn a bit about what they’re seeing and why those features matter to the natural and cultural history of our mountains. In addition to the tower, a number of other attractions can be found on the mountain and are listed below:

  • High Knob Recreation Area: Located just beyond the final turnoff to the tower, this developed USDA Forest Service recreation area boasts a campground, lake, swimming beach, and hiking trail. See more info at the USFS website.
  • Flag Rock Recreation Area: Managed by the City of Norton, Virginia, Flag Rock Park is found two miles up the road leading to the Knob from the City of Norton. The park boasts two campgrounds, hiking trails, two high-elevation lakes, a developing mountain bike system, and Flag Rock itself – a sweeping overlook of the city from a sandstone outcrop on the north slope of High Knob. Find more into at the city’s website.
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Looking into the City of Norton from Flag Rock Recreation Area on the north slope of High Knob
  • City of Norton: Located right at the foot of the mountain, the City of Norton contains a number of attractions for folks coming off of the Knob. Multiple restaurants exist in downtown, along with shops and an outfitter (Pathfinders Outdoor Adventures). Pathfinders offers info on local trails and canoe and kayak rentals for trips on the region’s several high-elevation lakes. Downtown is located on the opposite side of US-23 from the road up to the summit of the Knob; if leaving the Knob, simply travel under the four-lane highway at the foot of the mountain and turn left at the first traffic light. Downtown begins just beyond at the next light. More info can be found at the city’s website.

Directions: From Exit 1 on US-23 in the City of Norton, Virginia, follow SR-619 steeply up the mountain, following signs to High Knob. Flag Rock Recreation is located 2.0 miles up the mountain, with High Knob Tower 4.5 miles from the highway (be sure to note the signed left turn onto FS-238 approximately 0.7 miles from the summit). The High Knob Recreation Area is located a bit beyond the final turn into the lookout tower parking lot on FS-238, 5.3 miles from the highway. While the road up the Knob is paved, in great condition, and is fine for even low-clearance vehicles, do be aware that winter weather on the Knob can be extreme. Check road conditions before your trip after snow in the winter months.

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