Pine Mountain Trail: Birch Knob to Jenny Falls

Length/Type: Approximately 1.0 miles one-way, out-and-back; Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous (very steep climbs and poor footing in places, yet short overall); Other Considerations: The trailhead is located at the end of a long and rough gravel road that travels to just below the Birch Knob summit. While this road is navigable with care with even a small sedan, high-clearance vehicles are likely best. This road is also gated during winter months (January-April) and may be ice- or snow-covered prior to its closure. A detailed trail map is available via the park’s website.

Pine Mountain, the long ridge that covers much of the Virginia/Kentucky border east of US Highway 23, is full of surprises. Overlooks from the Pine Mountain Trail – a 44-mile long trail that runs much of the mountain’s northern extent – are surprisingly rugged and scenic. Views from these open outcrops and cliffsides extend well across Kentucky’s Appalachian Plateau and southeast towards Virginia’s Mount Rogers High Country and the Roan Highlands of North Carolina and Tennessee.

It’s when you drop off of the ridgecrest, though, that you begin to stumble across Pine Mountain’s real treasures. The middle and lower slopes of the mountain are specifically home to an almost immeasurable number of rock features, including waterfalls plunging over jagged cliff edges, outcrops carved into all manner of shapes by wind and water, and rock houses big enough to fit a three-story home into…nearly all of them hidden below the forest canopy. As if that wasn’t enough, reaching many of these features can require a tortuous and sometimes even risky bushwhack down steep and foreboding slopes.

That’s not the case for Jenny Falls. This small, backcountry waterfall and its companion cliffs are located on the south side of Birch Knob, one of the higher summits along Pine Mountain’s 125-mile length. And since cars can drive to within mere yards of the knob’s summit, this means that hikers can pick up the Pine Mountain Trail and travel down a side trail to the falls with relative ease. The hike is steep, but it’s worth it – and it’s a wonderful introduction to what Pine Mountain has to offer.

The Hike

The hike to Jenny Falls begins at the parking area for the Birch Knob Observation Tower, located at the end of USFS Road 616 north of the town of Clintwood. Rather than following the obvious roadbed to the observation tower from the parking lot, take the signed Pine Mountain Trail northeast out of the parking area and slightly downhill into the woods. Within a couple hundred yards, the neon-yellow blazed PMT reaches the bottom of this grade at a spring and impressively large boulder below the Birch Knob summit. A sign here details a bit of the history behind Birch Knob itself.

A bit farther down the trail and over a short rise, the PMT reaches the Birch Knob Shelter at 0.3 miles from the trailhead. The shelter is impressive, even by the lofty standards of Appalachian Trail shelters, and features double-decker sleeping platforms, bear cables for hanging food, and a privy located just behind the shelter and up the hill. Unfortunately, the shelter has also become an apparent party destination due to its proximity to the road. If you’re planning a hike past the shelter, consider packing in a trash bag or two, cleaning up around the shelter, and carrying the bag back out with you upon your return to the car. Trail volunteers – and Birch Knob’s resident wildlife – will thank you.

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Looking south on the PMT near its junction with the side trail to Jenny Falls.

The trail continues just below the ridgeline past the shelter a short distance to the signed junction with the side trail to Jenny Falls on the right. This blue-blazed trail first climbs beside and over some trailside boulders, hops the ridge, and then begins its plunge downward towards the falls. The trail will lose a few hundred vertical feet in elevation between its junction with the PMT and the falls, and it unfortunately does this without the benefit of switchbacks or grading. This makes for a muddy scramble after wet weather, but the trail is easily followed and is well worth the trip.

A little over halfway down the side trail, you’ll pass one final junction. The blue-blazed trail you’ve been following cuts left and quickly descends to rock-hop the small headwater stream that forms the falls. This trail presumably goes all the way down to the valley and appears to be a route used by horseback riders, although it doesn’t appear on the official PMT map. The trail to Jenny Falls instead stays straight (a sign denotes the way) and descends through its steepest section down to the falls.

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Band of multi-colored sandstone outcrops just off-trail on the approach to Jenny Falls.

Shortly before the falls are reached, around 0.8-1.0 miles from the trailhead, the path reaches a slight plateau. A simply massive rockhouse sits just to the right of the trail and runs back into the side of the mountain a few hundred feet. Almost cavelike in appearance, it’s the kind of place you could imagine a fugitive hiding out in days past to escape the law. The trail’s final few feet wriggle down from this bench of sandstone and end at the base of Jenny Falls. While the falls themselves may only be a trickle in dry weather, that doesn’t matter: the ruggedness of this place is more than enough. Massive boulders dislodged from the cliffs litter the amphitheater at the falls’ base, while the sandstone ridge the falls tumble over bends around at odd angles. It’s like the whole world has been turned on end, an entirely unique ecosystem from what you’ve seen higher up on the mountain.

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Looking into the rockhouse just above the falls.
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Massive sandstone amphitheater at the base of Jenny Falls. The falls were mostly a trickle when this photo was taken but may be flowing much more strongly in wet weather.

Rock features like this one are sensitive habitats for a number of species, and the pristine nature of this place is what makes it so attractive. Help keep it that way and leave the spray paint and Sharpies at home when you make the hike: respect this place and don’t litter or cover it with graffiti. When you’re done admiring the falls, simply retrace your steps to the PMT (staying straight at the junction just above the falls) and follow it back to the Birch Knob parking area and your car. Don’t forget to walk up to Birch Knob before you leave, and consider grabbing some food or something to drink in Clintwood on your way out – it’s a neat town in a beautiful place.

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Looking south down the spine of Pine Mountain (Virginia on the left, Kentucky on the right) from Birch Knob summit.

Nature Notes

Places like Jenny Falls are more than just a pretty place to sit and admire nature. They’re also one of the reasons why our corner of Appalachia has such an astounding array of wildlife. “Spray-cliffs” like the one below Jenny Falls – places that stay almost continually wet thanks to the misting of a nearby waterfall – possess unique microclimates (literally “tiny climates”) relative to the surrounding forests. These areas tend to be wetter and cooler than other spots in the woods, especially when combined with the shading action of steep cliffs like those found around Jenny Falls.

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View of the spray-cliff zone below Jenny Falls.

Why would these temperature and moisture differences matter? Many plants and animals in our region are adapted to live specifically in these types of conditions, some actually found nowhere else but the special places created by the mist from waterfalls. Take a look while you’re visiting Jenny Falls: do you notice any differences in the plant and animal life here versus what you saw further up the mountain? It’s these types of places that only serve to add to the incredible array of wildlife found in Appalachian forests, and these places are especially common on places like Pine Mountain.

Directions: Turn north (left if coming from Pound, Virginia) onto SR-631 at the junction of SR-631 and Virginia Highway 83 in downtown Clintwood. Follow SR-631 north for 2.8 miles. After crossing the Pound River, bear right onto SR 611 and follow it for 2.3 miles to dirt-gravel FR 616/Birch Knob Road.  Turn left onto this road and follow it to the observation tower parking lot.  FR 616 is closed from January to April.

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