Length/Type: Approximately 3.15 miles one-way, out-and-back; Difficulty: Strenuous (some steep grades, travel in isolated areas, and difficult access at the trailhead); Other Considerations: Please see the information in the directions at the bottom of this post about vehicle access at Walker Gap.
If you’re from Southwest Virginia, you’ve probably heard of Burke’s Garden. Chances are high, in fact, that you’ve heard of the Garden even if you don’t have close ties to the area. That’s because Burke’s Garden is one of not just Virginia but all of the Appalachian chain’s most unusual geographic features. A low, sunken valley some eight miles by four miles across, Burke’s Garden sits not at the foot of a mountain but on top of one – hovering around 3,200 feet or so above sea level in elevation. This height keeps the Garden one of the coolest and snowiest places in the state.
The Garden is also holds several unique places in the human history of Appalachia. Originally named after explorer James Burke – who reportedly dropped potato peelings in the valley on an early visit in 1748, only to return a year later to find new plants sprouted in their place – the Garden was once the preferred spot for the famous Biltmore Estate before its ultimate construction near Asheville, North Carolina. Today, the Garden is home to an agricultural community and some of the best pastoral scenery in all of Virginia.
When most visitors think of Burke’s Garden, they don’t think of hiking, mostly due to the fact that the entire valley is privately owned and developed for agriculture. But public land – mostly within the Jefferson National Forest – dominates the Garden’s rim, particularly its southern and eastern sides. It’s here that several miles of the famed Appalachian Trail trace the valley’s rim, providing strikingly scenic hiking destinations with virtually minimal crowds. While a challenge to get to, the dayhike described here gives a great introduction to the AT in this part of the state and provides some outstanding viewpoints into the Garden, to boot.
The hike begins where the AT crosses the narrow, one-lane forest road in Walker Gap. A very small pull-out is located here for parking, and we strongly encourage potential visitors to read the disclaimers for access to the trailhead in Walker Gap provided in the directions at the end of this post. When facing south through the gap, the AT runs south to the right of the gap (towards Georgia) and north to the left of the gap (towards Maine). This hike will follow the AT in its southerly direction, to the right and immediately uphill from the gap.
The AT wastes no time climbing from Walker Gap, proceeding uphill using switchbacks or, occasionally, a steep grunt directly up the spine of the ridge. The forest makes up for the difficulty of the climb, though, forming a beautiful, open, high-elevation hardwood forest on the upper slopes of the ridge framing Burke’s Garden’s southern end. Just over halfway up this initial climb, in fact, you’ll break the 4,000 foot line in elevation.
The climbing doesn’t truly abate after Walker Gap until mile 1.3, where the AT tops out on 4,400-foot Chestnut Knob. When you reach the Knob, you’ll know it: the summit is an open field crowned with the AT’s Chestnut Knob Shelter. This elevation is unusually high for areas in Southwest Virginia west of Interstate 81, and you feel it here. Chestnut Knob’s northern slope, for example, has a gap in the trees that provides a stunning view from the high elevations of the ridge down into Burke’s Garden. From this one spot, you can see clear across the valley to the Garden’s northern rim, west to the spruce-covered summit of Garden Mountain, and almost all the way to the Garden’s eastern side. The open fields of the valley floor form a particularly stark contrast to the forested slopes rising above it, making this one of those overlooks that you’ll probably never want to leave.
When you’re gazing out at the Garden from Chestnut Knob, one particular question comes to mind: how in the heck did a circular valley like this one form on the top of a mountain? That answer lies in geology. Most people immediately think of a volcanic crater when they see the Garden’s shape, but that’s not the case here. Instead, it all has to do with the type of rocks present at different areas within and above the valley. While the modern-day rim of the valley is made of erosion-resistant sandstone, that wasn’t the case for what makes up today’s valley floor. There, erosion-susceptible rocks such as limestone – which easily dissolves when exposed to water – dominate instead. Over the ages, those rocks have eroded away to expose the valley that’s seen today, while the remaining sandstone rimming the valley has eroded at a much slower rate. Considering not only this history but the fact that those sandstone and limestone rocks formed in even more ancient, inland seas prior to the formation of the modern-day Appalachians makes the overlook on Chestnut Knob one that literally spans hundreds of millions of years back in time.
Believe it or not, the views aren’t done for this hike once you reach Chestnut Knob. The AT leaves the summit of the Knob and the view described above by turning left just before the shelter and re-entering the woods on the south side of the Knob. From here, the AT winds along the ridgetop through the forest, mostly on obvious or recovering old roadbeds, following Chestnut Ridge as it trends to the southwest, away from the rim crowning Burke’s Garden’s southern end. This theme continues until mile 2.0, where the trail again emerges from under the forest canopy.
From here, the trail runs down the dead center of an open bald, or treeless area, on the ridgeline, providing spectacular views to the south and west that easily top the view back atop Chestnut Knob. The obvious ridgeline of Walker Mountain can be seen on the next ridge over, with the rugged, high peaks of the Blue Ridge rising in the background and to the south. When conditions are remarkably clear, it can even be possible to see the Mount Rogers High Country looming in the far distance. Views are limited to the north of the bald, although the dark, spruce-covered summit of Garden Mountain can be seen peeking above the immediate treeline on the next ridge over.
The AT follows this bald downhill for a full half mile (look for white blazes painted on wooden posts to mark the way) and re-enters the woods at mile 2.55. The trail then alternates between scraggled open areas and young forest for a short distance before emerging onto the last significant bald on this stretch at 3.0 miles. An old farm pond 0.15 miles ahead on the left (3.15 miles total from the trailhead) forms a great turnaround point before the AT leaves the balds and just after starts its descent off of Chestnut Ridge in earnest. To return to the trailhead, simply reverse course and retrace your steps from the pond.
Although you don’t get to experience it directly on this hike, Garden Mountain (just north of Chestnut Knob and Chestnut Ridge) harbors one of the most unique ecosystems in Virginia, especially west of I-81. Garden Mountain’s summit is cloaked in a thick forest of red spruce, a tree most commonly found in North America far to the north of Virginia in New England and Canada. An evergreen, red spruce is a popular Christmas tree and makes the forest look much more boreal than southern in appearance. On this hike, you can catch a glimpse of the dark, spiked tops of red spruce crowning Garden Mountain if you look north from the start of the first bald past Chestnut Knob. These trees peek up from the summit just over the treeline on the side of the bald opposite its open view – one of the only places in far Southwest Virginia beyond Mount Rogers, Whitetop, and Beartown Mountain (in Russell County) where this forest type occurs.
The presence of red spruce in southern and central Appalachia is bizarre. Why, for example, would a tree more common to Canada be found hundreds and hundreds of miles to the south? The trick to understanding this tree’s affinity for our high mountain summits is considering both these summits’ elevation and the region’s long-term ecological history. In terms of elevation, Garden Mountain is exceedingly high for the immediate region, topping out at over 4,700 feet above sea level. Like Mount Rogers (5,729 feet) and Whitetop (5,518 feet), this height is uncommon for Southwest Virginia and creates cool, moist microclimates not that unlike what you might find hundreds of miles to the north (where red spruce is mostly found today).
But if the climate of our higher mountains explains why red spruce can grow there, it still doesn’t explain how it got there. That takes going back some 10,000-20,000 years into the past. During that time, North America was in the grips of its most recent glacial period: the phase in which temperatures were much cooler than they are at present and massive ice sheets covered most of North America just to our north. The forests in our region, just like our climate, were vastly different during this time. How do we know? Pollen evidence from ancient bog sediments in nearby Saltville, Virginia and elsewhere give us a glimpse into what these ancient Appalachian forests were like…and most importantly for this writeup, they tell us that even our low-elevation forests were covered in evergreen trees like red spruce during this time.
When you consider this information – that cold-adapted red spruce once covered our region before it ever cloaked New England and Canada – understanding how it got to our highest ridges becomes relatively simple. As we came out of our last glacial period, temperatures warmed and the ice sheets covering the continent to our north melted. And as those temperatures warmed, cold-adapted red spruce were forced to move north into areas where the climate was more suitable for them. This eliminated the low-elevation spruce that once occurred in Southwest Virginia, but those spruce could not only move north but up….onto the highest summits of our mountains, where cool temperature “islands” allowed them to thrive.
This history explains why, today, red spruce and similar conifers occur only in small, isolated islands atop the Appalachians’ highest summits, from near the Great Smokies in North Carolina and Tennessee all the way to Garden Mountain on this hike. Along with the spruce, these ecological outliers contain other species adapted to climates usually found much farther north, including rare species of owls, flying squirrels, invertebrates, and amphibians. This rare collection of wildlife just adds to the already staggering amount of life in the Appalachian region and, in an ecological sense, allows you to walk back in time (or hundreds of miles north) in just a short hike.
Directions: The AT crossing at Walker Gap is one of the tougher trailheads to reach by car in the region and is located on the ridgeline at the far southern end of Burke’s Garden. To reach the Garden, first locate the junction of US 19/460 and VA Highway 61 (Exit 3) in Tazewell, Virginia. Head east on VA-61 (into Tazewell), traveling approximately 6 miles from the highway exit to VA-623 on the right. Turn right onto VA-623 and follow it over the mountain for 5.5 miles to where it enters Burke’s Garden (at its junction with VA-666).
Stay straight on VA-623 and follow it through the valley for 3.6 miles to VA-667 (Medley Valley Road) on the valley’s southern end. Turn right onto VA-667 and follow it 2.2 miles to a T-intersection. Turn left at this intersection onto VA-727 (West End Road) and follow VA-727 1.5 miles to where the road becomes a narrow- rutted, one-lane gravel road heading sharply uphill. Follow this road to its end at the top of the mountain and the AT crossing at Walker Gap. A small pullout for parking is located to the left in the gap.
Hikers should be aware that the final gravel road stretch up to Walker Gap, while short, is incredibly steep, rutted, and requires a high-clearance and preferably 4WD vehicle to reach. This is not a road to attempt with a small passenger car, and the road may be impassable for all vehicles in icy or snowy weather or after prolonged periods of heavy rain. Use your best judgment if you plan to attempt to drive up to the trailhead.