Length/Type: 2.55 miles one-way; out and back; Difficulty: Moderate (several unbridged stream crossings, rough footing in places); Other Considerations: Roads leading to both the upper and lower trailheads may be snow-covered and/or icy in cold weather. The road to the lower trailhead (USFS Road 704) may also be gated during poor weather conditions.
The Chief Benge Scout Trail – or just “the Chief Benge’s Trail” to locals – is one of far Southwest Virginia’s few long (10 miles or more) hiking trails, running a true backcountry route from High Knob on the Wise and Scott County line southeast through the Jefferson National Forest to Little Stony Gorge. It’s also one of the region’s most underappreciated trails, since information online and in guidebooks has historically been scarce and also since its trailheads are located a good distance from heavily-traveled state and federal highways. That doesn’t mean it’s not scenic though – the CBST passes through some of the most remote and scenic terrain the region has to offer.
Earlier this spring, we published a series of topo maps for the CBST, since little reliable info on the trail exists outside of word-of-mouth details. While those topo maps have been one of our most popular posts on this site, route details on the CBST are still sketchy. That’s why we’ll be publishing a series of trail writeups on the various sections of the CBST in coming months, similar to the other trail summaries posted on this site. This post, our first, will actually start with the lower half of the CBST’s first section, since it provides a wonderful introduction to what the rest of the trail has to offer.
Section 1 of the CBST actually starts at the High Knob summit, well above where we’ll start the description of this hike. We’re beginning this hike description elsewhere (at a USDA Forest Service Recreation Area below High Knob), though, since the hike as described here forms more of a cohesive day hike and an introduction to the CBST. If you’re interested in hiking the extra mile or so down from High Knob tower, then of course feel free to go for it – just be aware that you’ll be looking at a final mile’s worth of climbing on the way back if you do so.
The hike as described here begins (if hiking the trail downhill, from High Knob to Little Stony Gorge) at the High Knob Recreation Area, a developed, top-of-the-line facility complete with a campground, lake, swimming beach, bathhouse, and other facilities. The rec area is so nice, in fact, that it’s worth a trip just to spend some time enjoying the scenery there. Rumors have swirled in recent years that the rec area may be shut down if visitation and use don’t increase, though – a sad fact since most of Wise County’s population lives a mere 10-15 minutes away but mostly doesn’t know the site exists. If you like what you see when you visit, spread the word and let others in on the secret.
The yellow-blazed CBST enters the rec area on its way down from High Knob Tower a short distance before the paved entrance road curls down to High Knob Lake, crosses this roadway, and continues down towards the lake. If you’re doing this hike as described here, however, it’s best to drive all the way to the rec area’s large parking area and follow the short gravel roadway down to the lake, where the hike description laid out below begins.
This hike description’s start occurs adjacent to the bathhouse at High Knob Lake, at a yellow-blazed left turn heading up and into the woods. There are actually two yellow-blazed trails that come in from the left here: the first one you see when walking in from the parking lot is the CBST coming in from High Knob Tower. The second trail, located a few yards closer to the lake, is the start of this hike (a sign appears to have been here in the past to mark the way, but it’s missing today). From the gravel road and bathhouse, the CBST climbs a short distance up and away from the water, curling above the lakeshore for a short distance. At 0.2 miles from the bathhouse, an unblazed cheater trail comes in from the right and leads back to the recreation area’s swimming beach. The CBST stays straight here, continuing to follow yellow blazes.
From this junction, the CBST continues to wriggle through the woods well above the lakeshore, descending to cross a rocky tributary at 0.35 miles that eventually flows into the lake. A short distance later, at 0.5 miles from the trailhead, the CBST reaches the dam for High Knob Lake. A major trail junction also occurs here. The more defined trail you’ve been following bends right and switchbacks down to a bridged stream crossing below the dam, while the yellow-blazed CBST continues straight behind a sign. Follow the CBST and its yellow blazes straight here – it may not look like the path of least resistance, but that’s because the other trail forms a popular loop around High Knob Lake and returns in a short distance to your starting point at the bathhouse.
From here, the CBST begins to descend towards Mountain Fork, the stream you’ll be following for the next couple of miles. The trail eventually comes out to an unbridged stream crossing at 0.8 miles, the first of several such crossings that occur here in quick succession. This particular crossing is especially scenic, as the CBST crosses quickly to a small island, runs across the island, and then crosses the other half of Mountain Fork to reach the opposite bank. Although most of these crossings can easily be made dry-shod most of the year, be aware that you may need to wade during periods of high water. When in doubt, look for yellow blazes to see where to cross to the other side of the stream.
The second crossing of Mountain Fork comes quickly, as the CBST follows a faint, old roadbed from the first crossing before descending steeply down and to the left, back down to the stream. Make this second crossing at 0.85 miles and shortly rock-hop a small, unnamed tributary of Mountain Fork down the trail on the other side. The third and final crossing of Mountain Fork on this section occurs just downstream, at 1.0 miles from the trailhead.
After this third crossing of Mountain Fork, the CBST takes on the character it will hold for the rest of this section. The trail hugs the hillside above the stream through a beautiful, rainforest-like woods choked with hardwoods and rhododendron. Ferns blanket much of the forest floor. At 1.4 miles, these woods open above and to the right to reveal an incredible grove dominated almost exclusively by the papery trunks of birch trees. While it’s hard to tell for sure, this small “island” of forest structure – something that’s more commonly seen on the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge at places like Mount Rogers – may be the result of a “frost pocket,” or a low-lying area of land that dense, cool air sinks into and becomes trapped in, creating a unique microclimate relative to the surrounding area.
The CBST continues downstream from this point, coming directly down to the bank of Mountain Fork at 1.7 miles. The trail may actually become part of the stream’s fringes here in wet weather, when the creek is running high. Shortly past this point, the trail passes directly beside a huge, looming boulder beside the creek at 1.8 miles. Although boulders and outcrops are a common sight along this stretch of the trail, this one is by far the largest at some 25-30 feet in height. Be sure to take a moment and examine the various plants and rock tripe lichens growing on its face. Just beyond this boulder, the natural wonders continue: a simply massive hemlock tree (unfortunately now dead as a likely result of the hemlock woolly adelgid) looms up above and to the right of the trail. This tree easily dwarfs most every other tree in the cove at 10-12 feet in circumference and was likely several centuries old before it died. A similarly huge but slightly smaller hemlock can also be seen peeking out of the woods farther uphill and behind it.
The CBST crosses a small tributary of Mountain Fork on a series of mossy logs at 1.9 miles and enters into a large, open area that appears to be used for camping around 2.0 miles from the trailhead. Just out of sight and on the other side of the stream, a larger tributary cascades down from the higher elevations of Eagle Knob to join Mountain Fork. The cove widens from this open area, and the trail continues downstream, crossing a muddy tributary at 2.45 miles, eventually emerging from the dense forest onto gravel USFS Road 704 at 2.55 miles from the trailhead. You can either backtrack from this point back to High Knob Lake, end your hike if choosing to set up a shuttle on FS-704, or continue on to CBST’s Section 2. The trail continues by crossing Mountain Fork on FS-704 and descending via a series of wooden steps on the other side.
What can be said about the natural features of High Knob and the Mountain Fork watershed? Actually, a lot – far too much to put into a single trail writeup. You’ll quickly notice this if you do this hike yourself, as there seems to be a new and interesting natural feature at every turn in the trail. Most of these features, however, are there thanks to High Knob itself. At 4,223 feet above sea level, High Knob is the highest point in the Cumberland Mountains and is a truly imposing feature even compared to the rest of the rugged Appalachians. The mountain is mindblowingly wide – some 13 miles across in places – and is similarly huge in length. In fact, the Knob is really part of Cumberland Mountain, a 97 mile-long ridge that runs, almost unbroken, from Caryville, Tennessee to near the Guest River Gorge just outside of Coeburn, Virginia.
Here on Mountain Fork, you’re in the literal shadow of High Knob and the immediate ridges leading to its summit, and one of those consequences is the weather High Knob creates. This area is one of the wettest and snowiest places in Virginia, receiving upwards of 70 inches of precipitation per year, an amount rivaled in the eastern U.S. only by places like the higher elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains and similar locations in western North Carolina. This all matters, of course, since water helps to fuel life. The plant diversity and even animal diversity that you may see during your hike is here thanks to this unique climate – an entire ecosystem indebted to the geological context that the mountain creates.
If you want to learn more about High Knob and why it and its weather are so unique, check out the following couple of websites managed by local climatologist Wayne Browning. The first, the Appalachian Climate Center, provides detailed weather forecasts and climate information on the Knob, while Browning’s High Knob Massif page details the natural history and climatological goings-on of the mountain itself.
Directions: High Knob Recreation Area is located deep within the Jefferson National Forest’s Clinch Ranger District, above and to the south of the city of Norton, Virginia. The most direct route involves taking SR-619 from the city of Norton (take Exit 1 off of US-23 and turn right, following signs for High Knob). Follow SR-619 up the mountain from Exit 1 for just under 4 miles, passing the entrances to Flag Rock Recreation Area and the Norton Reservoirs, to a left turn signed for High Knob at the top of the mountain. Turn sharply up and to the left on USFS Road 238 here and follow it for 1.4 miles, passing the right turn up to High Knob Tower, to the signed entrance to the recreation area where FR-238 turns to gravel. Turn right into the recreation area and follow the paved entrance road downhill a little over a mile to the large parking area.
The lower trailhead for section 1 is reached via USFS Road 704, a dirt-gravel road in good condition that is passable even by most low-clearance 2WD vehicles in good weather. While it is best to refer to a detailed map like National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated map for the Clinch District to plan your driving route, FS-704 can be reached most directly from the upper trailhead by following FS-238 east where it turns to gravel past the turn for the High Knob Recreation Area. Follow FS-238 4.2 miles, eventually passing several houses, and turn right onto FS-706 (signed for Edith Gap). Signed FS-704 begins 0.2 miles down FS-706; turn right here onto gravel FS-704. Follow this road approximately 2.5 miles to its bridged crossing of Mountain Fork. An obvious pull-out to the right provides parking at the trailhead.