What The Heck Is That Over There? (Birch Knob Edition)

Have you ever climbed a local mountain and wondered what in the world you’re seeing? What’s that mountain way in the distance? Is that a lake on the horizon? Which direction faces towards home? Distinguishing landmarks in the jumbled mass of mountains that is the Cumberlands can be a bit tough unless you have a map and compass. That’s why we’ve been working over the last few years to help local residents and visitors interpret what they’re seeing from local summits. Our digital guide to SWVA’s High Knob, for example, lets users pick out landmarks in real-time when they’re at the overlook.

High Knob isn’t the only scenic viewpoint in the region, though. What about those other rock outcrops and overlooks – what can you see from them? Starting this week, we’ll be publishing new posts periodically that feature some of the most well-known scenic views from our region, complete with annotated photos showing what you can see from each spot. We’ll also include a little bit of background on those landmarks, too, in the hopes that you’ll learn something new about the place we call home.

Our first post will start with Birch Knob, a 3,144-foot lookout on a high topknot of rock on Pine Mountain, the long ridge that forms much of the Virginia/Kentucky border in Wise and Dickenson Counties. If you haven’t been to Birch Knob, you should – it has both a unique lookout tower at its summit and has a simply astounding view. In fact, it might be one of the best views in the region.

Birch Knob is also a great candidate for this series of posts because it’s home to a little bit of confusion. Specifically, a number of tourism websites – as well as some physical signage on the tower itself – say that it’s possible to see Ohio from the tower on a clear day. That’s actually a little bit of fake news, since Birch Knob isn’t remotely tall enough to see that far to the north. You’re actually seeing parts of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia behind that sign pointing to Ohio – still pretty, but not quite what’s been advertised. So, what the heck are you really seeing from up there? The photos below are annotated to illustrate some of the major features you can see from Birch Knob’s summit.

I. Southwest View (looking back over the parking area from the tower)

SW View.001.jpg

1.) High Knob (4,223 feet above sea level; 26 miles away): The most prominent mountain on the horizon from this angle is High Knob, the highest point in the Cumberland Mountains and one of the region’s most characteristic peaks. Situated above the towns of Wise and Norton (both not visible here but in the valley at the foot of the Knob), High Knob is known for its characteristic lookout tower and a sweeping view of 5 states. On a clear day, bring binoculars to Birch Knob and take a peek at High Knob. Chances are, you’ll see the thimble-like top of its lookout tower just over the trees…where people are probably looking back at you.

2.) Head of Powell Valley (~2400 feet above sea level; 25 miles away): Just below where the ridgeline leading from High Knob dips below the horizon is the head of Powell Valley, one of the most famous valleys in the entire Appalachian chain. If you’ve driven US-23 from Big Stone Gap to Norton, Virginia, you’ve climbed the valley and passed the incredible view at its head. While you can’t see the valley itself here, the gap where it begins is just on the horizon from this spot.

3.) Cumberland (Stone) Mountain (3400 feet above sea level (max); 25-35 miles away): High Knob above is actually just the highest point on a much longer ridge called Cumberland Mountain. This ridge runs from Tennessee, through Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, and through Virginia’s Lee County up to and just beyond High Knob. (The ridge is renamed Stone Mountain farther north.) Being so long and with steep escarpments, or cliffs, on its south slope, Cumberland Mountain was a formidable barrier to movement for settlers hoping to move west several centuries ago. The famed Cumberland Gap, in fact, is one of the only easy passages through this mountain fortress. Even today, one of the only ways to get across the mountain by car occurs in the gap and at a few other points along the mountain’s length. Here you can see just a few higher knobs on the larger ridge peeking up over the horizon.

4.) Black Mountain, Virginia/Kentucky (4,139 feet above sea level; 33 miles away): Black Mountain is the highest point in Kentucky and sits just above and between the towns of Cumberland, Kentucky and Appalachia, Virginia. In reality, Black Mountain acts more like a ridge or mass of mountains than a single summit, and much of the cleared land that you can see in the distance is the result of mountaintop removal coal mining found along the mountain’s lower slopes and east of its highest point.

5.) Pine Mountain: The ridgeline running directly in front of you and trending off to the horizon is Pine Mountain. Forming the Virginia/Kentucky border here, Pine Mountain is an important ecological feature, since it forms a barrier to the movement of animals (including humans!) and harbors numerous rare species on its high-elevation rock outcrops and in its unique bogs. You’re close to the northern terminus of the mountain (Breaks Interstate Park) on Birch Knob, but the mountain’s southern end won’t occur until some 100+ miles south near Jellico, Tennessee.

South View (Across the broad valley spreading out below Birch Knob)

S View.001.jpg

1.) Beartown Mountain (4,689 feet above sea level; 38 miles away): Looking south from Birch Knob, there are a number of jumbled but high peaks jutting up over the horizon. The leftmost of these is Beartown Mountain, one of the highest peaks in the entire Valley and Ridge. Located south of Lebanon, Virginia and north of the town of Saltville, Beartown is unique thanks to its high-elevation spruce forests, a leftover remnant of an ecosystem that was more widespread in our region during the last Ice Age. Today, these dark evergreens are found across New England, Canada, and the abnormally cool climates on our highest Appalachian summits – including Beartown. If you have binoculars, zoom in and see if you can pick out the dark, evergreen cap on Beartown’s summit.

2.) Mount Rogers (5,729 feet above sea level; 65 miles away): You probably weren’t thinking that you could see the highest point in Virginia from Birch Knob, but that’s exactly what the faintest peak on the horizon at this vantage point is. Mount Rogers towers over the rest of Virginia’s summits at a staggering 5700 feet and, like Beartown, is home to forest types more commonly found in Canada. The Appalachian Trail also runs just below its summit, meaning that a thru-hiker some 70 miles away might be looking at the distant vista and seeing where you’re standing on Birch Knob! (Can’t see Mount Rogers in this view? Check out the zoomed-in version of this view at the bottom of the post.)

3.) Whitetop Mountain (5,518 feet above sea level; 63 miles away): The south view from Birch Knob comes with a bonus, including not just Virginia’s highest summit but its second-highest peak. That peak is Whitetop Mountain, visible just to the right of Mt. Rogers on the horizon. Whitetop actually looks taller than Mt. Rogers from this point, but it’s an optical illusion as a result of Whitetop being some 2-3 miles closer to Birch Knob. Whitetop is also traversed by the Appalachian Trail and is home to a unique and mysterious ecosystem known as a grassy bald (see more info here). Its summit can also appear bright white in winter when its grassy slopes get covered in snow – hence the unique name.

4.) Middle Knob of Brumley Mountain (Great Channels of Virginia) (4,208 feet above sea level; 37 miles away): If you’ve hiked to the incredible Great Channels of Virginia, you’ve passed the rusting firetower and overlook atop Brumley Mountain’s Middle Knob. Brumley Mountain is a high offshoot of Clinch Mountain, a much longer ridge that runs from near Knoxville, TN northeast through Gate City, VA and on to Burkes Garden in Tazewell County. Middle Knob is Brumley’s highest point and is home to the Great Channels, an odd and remarkable series of passageways eroded by ice, snow, and other forces into a sandstone “cap” on Middle Knob’s summit. If you look close with binoculars, you might even see the firetower on the knob from this point.

5.) Brumley Mountain Above Little Moccasin Gap (4,000 feet above sea level; 34 miles away): Brumley Mountain’s ridgeline continues to the right from Middle Knob and the Channels all the way to this point, where it drops precipitously down to Little Moccasin Gap. You maybe haven’t heard of Little Moccasin Gap, but you’ve probably driven through it if you live in southwest Virginia – US-19 uses the gap to cross from Hansonville towards Abingdon, passing the John Douglas Wayside in the center of the gap. Above the gap and on the final knob of the ridge that you see from this viewpoint sits Hidden Valley Lake, literally hidden just out of sight from here below the rim of the ridge.

Zoomed-In View of Mount Rogers and Whitetop


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