Length/Type: Approximately 2.0 miles one-way, out-and-back; Difficulty: Easy to strenuous (easy grades and footing along Big Cedar Creek, with a strenuous climb to gain Copper Ridge); Other Considerations: The Pinnacle has multiple trail options beyond the one described here, which can be pieced together into a longer day hike, if desired. A detailed trail map is available via the Virginia DCR website.
Pinnacle State Natural Area Preserve, an 800-acre slice of Ridge and Valley heaven near Lebanon, Virginia, is rapidly becoming known as one of far southwest Virginia’s most scenic public spaces. Part of the state’s natural area preserve system, the Pinnacle is not one of our region’s largest parcels of public land but makes up for its lack of size with astounding scenery. From thundering falls on Big Cedar Creek to the Pinnacle itself (a towering spire of dolomite rising from the creek’s surface), the preserve has a ton to offer.
Some of those offerings, in fact, can escape notice unless you’re looking. The Copper Ridge Trail, nestled deep within the preserve, is one of those hidden places. An overwhelming number of visitors to the Pinnacle come only for Big Falls, a scenic drop on Big Cedar Creek with a companion pool at its base that just begs for wading. In fact, most visitors turn around here or walk a short distance downstream to the Pinnacle before turning back, ignoring an unassuming side trail heading up the ridge. This trail, the Copper Ridge Trail, isn’t one to ignore, though: a scenic climb and even more scenic vista await those that venture off of the more heavily-traveled Big Cedar Creek Trail along the stream itself.
Reaching the start of the Copper Ridge Trail requires a little work, since the trailhead occurs at the heart of the preserve and downstream of Big Falls. To reach the trailhead, you must first cross the swinging bridge over Big Cedar Creek at the trailhead and turn right, downstream along the creek, following the main trail into the heart of the preserve. Follow this trail – more of a gravel road at this point – for approximately 0.9 miles to a clearing and a handicapped parking area above the creek. Bear left here onto singletrack, still following the Big Cedar Creek Trail, and climb above the creek, passing the lower trailhead for the Grapevine Hill Trail and eventually descending to Big Falls at around 1.2 miles from the trailhead. Continue past the falls for another 0.2 miles to a four-way trail intersection. (If you’d like a more detailed description of this first part of the hike, check out our earlier post on the trail to Big Falls.)
This four-way trail junction marks the start of the Copper Ridge Trail, which heads uphill and to the left when coming in from the trailhead. The trail to the right heads to the base of the Pinnacle Rock formation, while the trail straight ahead continues along Big Cedar Creek to its confluence with the Clinch River. Turn left on the Copper Ridge Trail and immediately begin climbing. This trail is rated as “strenuous” by Virginia DCR, and you can see why fairly quickly once you start climbing: this is a 0.5 mile grunt straight up the ridge.
Thankfully, the worst part of the climb is its first stretch, which mostly runs right up the spine of the ridge with few switchbacks or grading. The forest here makes up for the climb, though, as a carpet of wildflowers – some rare- blankets the hillside in fall and spring. Through May and into June, species like the rare Yellow Ladyslipper can be seen along the lower reaches of the trail. The brutal climbing relents a bit 0.1 to 0.15 miles up the trail, as switchbacks start to help the treadway gain elevation. As you climb here, notice how steep the ridge falls away to the north.
The climbing continues until you gain finally gain the crest of the ridge and turn sharply right at one final switchback, making one last grind up the nose of the ridge to the overlook at the trail’s end. This overlook isn’t a sweeping 360-degree vista but is instead a unique perch on a nose of rock on a knob of the ridge. The view to the south (back towards the trailhead) is obscured by trees, but the view to the north is spectacular. Rolling hillsides stretch out in the distance, with a set of almost vertical hillsides and bluffs right across the gorge. Down in the gorge is the Clinch River, almost hidden from view but with a few rapids and sluices visible through peeks into the gorge floor.
This reach of the river is remarkably scenic and stands in contrast to the more lazy theme the river takes on downstream, near Cleveland, Castlewood, and St. Paul. You’ll likely hear the rapids far below from the overlook, and bald eagles occasionally patrol this stretch of river and fly even with the ridgetop where the overlook stands. Take a few moments to absorb the view, and simply retrace your steps back to the trailhead. If you’re there during wildflower season, there will be plenty to explore on the way out.
Copper Ridge, the landform that gives the trail featured here its name, isn’t just a place restricted to the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve. Instead, Copper Ridge is an almost continuous ridgeline that runs from here to the southwest some 100+ miles into Tennessee, eventually terminating just to the southwest of Knoxville. While not as high as more famous ridges in our region such as Clinch Mountain, Copper Ridge is important for more reasons than simply being a long geographic feature: its high slopes help to guide the path of the Clinch River and prevent it from turning to flow due south, forming the river’s southern bank along much of its length from here at the Pinnacle downstream towards Tennessee.
Like those higher ridges in our region such as Clinch Mountain, Copper Ridge is part of the Ridge and Valley Physiographic Province of the Appalachians, a “belt” of alternating ridges and parallel valleys all running southwest to northeast from Alabama all the way up into Pennsylvania and New York. Here in far southwest Virginia, Copper Ridge forms the northernmost ridge in this belt, with Moccasin Ridge and Clinch Mountain lying to the south. In between these ridges are Copper and Moccasin Creeks, following the low valleys in between each ridge.
Why do these ridges have this distinctive shape? After all, the higher summits of the Blue Ridge to the east are much more jumbled and not parallel like the ridges and valleys here. The answer lies in the Appalachians’ geologic history. During the region’s last orogeny (the fancy term for “mountain-building event”) some 300 million years ago, the African and North American continental plates collided. This collision produced a huge amount of force, uplifting the high, jumbled mass of mountains forming the Blue Ridge Province to the east near Mount Rogers, Roan Mountain, and the Great Smokies.
Farther to the west near the Pinnacle, though, these forces were somewhat different, causing rock strata to be forced together and folded, much like an accordion. The upward folds from this activity created ridges like Copper Ridge, while the lower folds became the valleys in between. Over time, erosion from water enhanced this process, since resistant sandstone on ridgetops remained more intact relative to the easily eroded limestone in the valleys below. This activity, in fact, is what has helped to carve the gorge that Big Cedar Creek follows, while the highlands on Copper Ridge remain to soar above. This entire landscape owes its existence to these geological processes – something that began hundreds of millions of years before any human set foot along Big Cedar Creek.
Directions: From downtown Lebanon, Virginia, travel south on US-19 Business to the intersection with VA-82 on the west end of downtown (a sign for the Pinnacle is placed at this intersection). Turn right (west) onto VA-82 and travel approximately 1.1. miles to SR-640. Turn right on SR-640 and drive 4.3 miles, crossing Big Cedar Creek, to the signed turn onto SR-721. Turn left on SR-721 and proceed to the end of the road to the gravel parking area. (Please note: SR-721 is a one-lane gravel road that can be slightly rough and rutted in one section after prolonged heavy rain or winter weather.)