Hearing about Flag Rock Recreation Area in the city of Norton, Virginia probably isn’t anything new if you’ve lived awhile in the Cumberland Mountains of far southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky, or northeast Tennessee. The park has as its namesake a giant pinnacle of sandstone rising some 40-50 feet above a spur ridge on High Knob’s northern slope. Capped with an American flag, “Flag Rock” is the centerpiece of a much larger recreation area above the City of Norton, complete with camping opportunities, one of the region’s best vistas from a ledge above Flag Rock, two high-elevation reservoirs, and a kitschy Woodbooger statue. Put simply, it’s one of the best municipal parks in the state…possibly even one of the best in the East for a town its size.
This spring, Flag Rock Recreation Area has gotten even better. The city of Norton has opened its Flag Rock Area Trails system within the park and its surrounding backcountry. While designed and built with mountain biking in mind, the trail system is equally amenable to foot travel and is quickly becoming one of the region’s most extensive and premier trail systems. Several miles are currently either in place or in the works, with twenty or more miles ultimately planned for the system.
These aren’t renegade trails, either. Norton’s trailmaster is Shayne Fields, a longtime mountain biker himself and an expert on laying out and building top-notch routes for riding. The trails currently in place include the Sugar Maple Loop (a beginner’s trail), a number of routes tracing old roadbeds and active forest roads, and more difficult trails threading their way along the escarpment in and around Flag Rock. The scenery in the area is not too shabby, also. In fact, the FRAT system offers some of the best and wildest scenery far southwest Virginia has to offer, including towering rock outcrops, cascading streams, and isolated woods with some simply massive, old-growth trees.
Since the FRAT system is currently in development and will change significantly in the coming months, we’re going to refrain from laying out a detailed trail summary at the moment. That doesn’t mean you can’t get out and enjoy the system right now, though. An outstanding 6.4 mile loop through the system has been mapped here (note that you can download the GPS track of this route or even send it to your phone), and we’ve included an early draft of a map for the system below.
If you do strike out for the FRAT system, there are a few things to be aware of:
1.) Since the trail system is under development, signage and blazing can be spotty or even nonexistent in places. Make sure you are comfortable with backcountry navigation before taking off on some of the more remote trails in the system. Trails around the Norton Reservoirs and within Flag Rock Park, however, are mostly signed and easily followed.
2.) If you’re going out on the FRAT system on foot, be aware that the system has been built with mountain bikers in mind. Stay only on established trails, and be respectful of the trails’ purpose. Mountain bikers typically yield to hikers by the rules of general trail etiquette, but be courteous by giving them the right-of-way if you see them out on the trail – after all, it’s their trail network.
3.) Paved roads within the park and on SR-619 (the road up to High Knob from Norton) are open to traffic. If you’re using those roads to connect trails, keep your eyes peeled and don’t become roadkill.
4.) These are new trails, so don’t trash the place. If you pack food or other items in, make sure you pack them out. Our trails are typically the first thing new visitors see in our region, so don’t give them the first impression that we’re all littering slobs. That goes for the road within the park and the road up High Knob, too. Keeping our public lands clean is one of the easiest ways to show your pride for the region.
Lastly, spend some time in downtown Norton on your way back home. Downtown is easily reached by staying straight under the four-lane US-23 bridge if headed down the mountain and turning left at the first traffic light under the bridge. Go buy a Woodbooger or High Knob t-shirt at Home Hardware and Furniture, grab some food at one of the several restaurants downtown, or catch some music down the road at the Country Cabin II (an official venue on Southwest Virginia’s Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail). Ecotourism is a major part of Norton and Southwest Virginia’s economic revitalization efforts, and the folks in Norton will welcome your business. Plus, you’re not going to find much nicer people than you will in the area. More info on the surrounding High Knob region can be found here.
Directions: Flag Rock Recreation Area is located off of SR-619, a one-lane paved road in great condition that runs from the City of Norton over High Knob in the Jefferson National Forest. SR-619 is accessed via Exit 1 off of US Highway 23 in Norton. Turn right onto SR-619 at the bottom of the exit ramp when leaving the highway to head up the mountain. Follow signs for Flag Rock and High Knob.
The main trailhead for the FRAT system is located at the Norton Reservoirs in a large gravel parking area to the left of the roadway 2.3 miles from US-23 (note that you will pass, but not enter, the main gate for Flag Rock Recreation Area on the way up). Trails start behind the kiosk at the entrance to the parking lot and down the short paved road leading to the lake. Trails can also be accessed within Flag Rock Recreation Area (if turning into the park at its main gate 2.0 miles from US-23). From the entrance to the park, follow the main park road 0.6 miles to a large parking area for a pavilion on the right. Trails begin immediately on the left when turning into this lot.