Length/Type: Approximately 1.6 miles one-way, out-and-back; Difficulty: Moderate (some moderately steep but short climbs, poor footing in several stretches); Other Considerations: Access issues and a lack of reliable parking information are a challenge at the trailhead – see parking considerations in the introduction of this post. A detailed trail map is available via the park’s website.
The 44 mile-long Pine Mountain Trail, straddling the border of Virginia and Kentucky for most of its length, has no shortage of hiking destinations. The mountain is pockmarked by high overlooks and sheer cliffs all along its length, making scenic destinations for day and overnight hikes plentiful. Some of the most easily-accessed viewpoints can be found in a tandem of companion overlooks north and south of the trail’s crossing of US-23 at Pound Gap. We’ve profiled the southern route to the gap from Twin Cliffs previously, although the northern route profiled here provides equally better, if not more scenic, rock overlooks.
Before describing the hike, a couple of disclaimers are needed. The first is that no formal trailhead lot exists for the PMT in Pound Gap, and the Pine Mountain Trail Conference (the trail’s governing body) unfortunately provides no information on where to park for day or overnight hikes on the official trail website. This confusion leaves hikers with a handful of uncertain options: the trailhead for the northern route is on private property at a church, with the southern trailhead in the gap located at a private gas station across the highway. A Civil War memorial and roadside kiosk provide the only public parking on the Kentucky (north) and Virginia (south) sides of the gap, respectively…but these require either walking alongside the busy highway and/or crossing it with little visibility to reach the trail. Regardless of where you park, be sure to ask permission first if parking on private property, and be incredibly careful if you need to cross the highway.
The actual trail north of Pound Gap (where the PMT leaves the pavement for good) starts at the top of the entrance road for the Stateline Apostolic Church, which leaves US-23 to the right just before the gap and immediately after a gas station, if traveling from the south. Yellow or lime green blazes mark the route up this roadway, including where it leaves the road just before the church on a dirt-gravel woods road. The PMT then climbs along this roadway for approximately 0.75 miles, all the way to a set of radio and cell towers on a knob of the ridge above Jenkins, Kentucky.
At the last radio tower, the trail leaves the roadbed by continuing straight ahead into the woods (follow blazes). A short 0.15 miles later, the trail passes a rock pedestal on the left with a limited view down a very short side trail. The trail then continues on or near the ridgecrest, providing easy and scenic walking, especially when leaves are off of the surrounding trees. You may also notice that the PMT is frustratingly blazed with different colors along this stretch, some yellow and some lime green. This appears to be the result of an effort to switch the blazing scheme on the PMT, although in some places – especially where the yellow and green blazes have been placed next to each other – this can create the perception that there are two trails running together. This isn’t the case. Both blaze types mark the PMT, and any side trails leading away from the PMT and the ridge will be blazed with blue paint.
A short distance beyond this initial overlook, the PMT reaches a fork at 1.1 miles from its departure from the pavement. To the left, another short side trail leads out to an overlook on the north side of the ridge. The PMT itself angles right here and drops for the first time significantly below the summit of the ridge. The trail runs just below the summit of the ridge for 0.1 miles from this fork and reaches a particularly scenic stretch over bare rock. Views here are extensive and provide vistas into Wise and Dickenson Counties in Virginia. The town of Pound, Virginia is visible in the valley below, with 4,200-foot High Knob in the Jefferson National Forest visible as the high peak on the horizon at center. Take care passing over the rocks here, especially in icy or wet conditions.
The trail continues past this rock slab and reaches yet another viewpoint at 1.4 miles. This overlook is the last one for a distance along this stretch and is arguably the most scenic. Views to the south again appear here, although a knobby pinnacle of rock rises to the left of the trail at the outcrop’s far end, just before the PMT dives down the rock’s southern face. This overlook, Raven’s Nest, gives an incredible view to the northeast, right down the spine of Pine Mountain itself. It’s easy to see just how long and linear Pine Mountain is from this spot, as the ridge trends on to the horizon with no end in sight. Considering that you’re seeing only the mountain’s northern end here (miles and miles and miles continue in a similar way into Tennessee to your southwest), it’s not a stretch at all to state that Pine Mountain is one of the most imposing features in this part of the Appalachians.
From Raven’s Nest, the trail dives down the rock face in a short but particularly steep, hand-over-hand section to more trailbed. The PMT then switchbacks down below Raven’s Nest, passing a sign for the Staircase Caves (a series of rockhouses below the overlook), and reaches Austin Gap at 1.6 miles. The gap forms a great loafing point and turnaround for this hike, with private property on the north side of the ridge (respect landowners and do not leave the trail) and the blue-blazed Austin Gap Trail leading away from the PMT to the south. The Austin Gap trail is currently unmaintained, so take care if you decide to follow its blue blazes and venture down off the ridge. To return to the car, simply retrace your steps back up the PMT, over Raven’s Nest, and back to Pound Gap.
Although its name might suggest otherwise, Raven’s Nest (the name for the overlook near the end of this hike) does not have an actual raven’s nest on its high pinnacle. Instead, this outcrop of sandstone appears to have gotten its name from the odd shapes and angles created by eons of erosion here on the ridgetop. The outcrop itself even looks a bit like a raven when viewed from the correct angle.
So, what is a raven, anyway? Although most folks know the bird by way of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, the Common Raven is a truly fascinating bird here in central Appalachia. That’s because ravens are typically not found in the eastern U.S., being instead more widespread in the western U.S., central America, Canada, and the Great Lakes and New England. Ravens do trend down into the central and southern Appalachians, though, and you’re likely to hear the raven’s call – which often sounds like “grunk, grunk” when you’re hiking in our region’s higher elevations and near open cliffs and bluffs.
Ravens look much like a large crow and are big, intelligent birds. Studies have shown, for example, that ravens have a remarkable ability to discern both natural and human-produced sounds and can even hone in on the sounds of gunshots to find carcasses (a food source) left by hunters. While ravens are mostly seen scavenging on dead animal matter in our area, they can be fierce predators and have been known to attack everything from hatchling birds to newborn lambs. While there doesn’t appear to be an active nest site at Raven’s Nest Overlook, ravens are known to use cliffs for nesting, and hikers can often see ravens’ large nests made of sticks (some up to three feet long!) on rock ledges and overhangs in our area. Give a listen to the raven’s call, linked above, and see if you can hear it when out on the PMT or other trails in our region.
Directions: Pound Gap is located where US Highway 23 crosses the Virginia-Kentucky State Line atop Pine Mountain, located approximately 20 miles north of Norton, Virginia and 32 miles south of Pikeville, Kentucky. The Pine Mountain Trail crosses the four-lane highway in the gap. Parking is an issue at the trailhead (see the introduction of this post of more info). If you choose to park on private property, make sure that you ask permission from the landowner first.