High Knob Recreation Area: The Best Spot in SWVA You’ve Never Heard Of

 

There’s no shortage of outdoor secrets in far southwest Virginia – heck, the whole goal of this site is to feature some of the best of them – but why some of these places remain so unheard of is a mystery, especially when they’re already developed and promoted for recreation.

That’s the case for the High Knob Recreation Area above the city of Norton. No, we’re not talking about the mountain of High Knob, the 4,200-plus foot peak with a scenic observation tower at its summit. We’re also not talking about Flag Rock Recreation Area above Norton – you’ve probably been there to see the view from Flag Rock overlook, ride a mountain biking trail, or snap a selfie with the Woodbooger. Instead, we’re talking about a fully developed recreation area, managed by the Jefferson National Forest, tucked into a high-elevation cove just below High Knob’s summit. There’s a campground, a lake (complete with a swimming beach!), a bathhouse, picnicking areas, and hiking opportunities galore. You can pick up the Chief Benge’s Trail, for example, and hike downstream along Mountain Fork and its trout fishery all the way to Little Stony Falls, some 15+ miles away.

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Dam at the lower end of High Knob Lake, where the Chief Benge Scout Trail leaves the recreation area.

If this is your first time hearing about High Knob Rec Area, you’re not alone: many residents of southwest Virginia have heard vague details about the place but have never been there or, at worst, don’t even know the spot exists in the first place. We have no idea why this is the case, but the rec area’s relative anonymity makes it one of the region’s most underrated treasures. The scenery is spectacular, the temperatures in summer are a good 10-15 degrees cooler than the valley below (you’re in a climate at this elevation that’s more akin to upstate New York than SW Virginia, in fact), and the rec area is a mere 10-15 minute drive from most spots around the town of Wise and City of Norton, making it a must-visit location if you live nearby.

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One of High Knob Recreation Area’s campsites on an early September morning.

If you’re interested in checking the rec area out (and we recommend that you do!), you can get the lowdown on details at the rec area’s official site on the USDA Forest Service webpage, and directions from the City of Norton are included below. Better yet, consider coming out to the rec area next Saturday (September 24th) and get your intro to this awesome spot by taking part in the Clinch Coalition’s High Knob Naturalist Rally (details at the link). The annual event is free and hosts a series of presentations on local wildlife and outdoor topics, includes guided hikes to observe wildlife in its natural habitat, and is generally a great day in the outdoors. Lunch is also provided at the event. Come on out to the Rally to see the rec area or, if you can’t, consider making a visit of your own soon – the site will close in the fall and reopen in mid-spring, a consequence of the harsh winter weather that occurs at the higher elevations atop High Knob.

Update (19 September): We’ve received a few comments that are critical of the USDA Forest Service for not “keeping up” this rec area. The only response to these comments is: have you actually been to visit the rec area lately? While this site was seeing some impacts from neglect a few years back, two caretakers now live on-site at the rec area and do an outstanding job of maintaining the area and working with visitors. Thanks to their work and the work of the Jefferson National Forest as a whole, this is now a top-notch site.

Most negative comments also seem to revolve around the beach and lake, e.g. “there’s grass on the beach” or “stuff grows in the lake”. Well, welcome to the mountains. At the upper elevations of High Knob, you’re never going to find any pond or lake that’s a crystal clear swimming hole. The climate at High Knob Rec Area is basically a temperate rainforest, meaning that plant growth is explosive and extensive. In fact, almost every other USDA Forest Service site in the mountains with a lake and beach has the same characteristics, even in popular tourist locations such as those near Asheville, North Carolina. This is a consequence of the ecology of the part of the world we live in – not poor management or a lack of care for the recreation area. If you’re looking for a sugar-sand beach to lay out on or a turquoise lagoon to swim in, you’re probably best off heading for the coast. 

Finally, criticism of outdoor rec efforts and assets is a dime a dozen in southwest Virginia, but you’re often hard pressed to find any of the people that are complaining so much doing anything about it. If you truly care about the outdoors in our region, get involved! The USDA Forest Service occasionally takes volunteers to help maintain rec sites (see contact info in the link for the rec area in the post above), and groups like the High Knob Enhancement Corporation and High Knob Outdoor Club are working to improve the region and welcome participation from the public. Groups like the Clinch Coalition also help to maintain our local trails and need as many volunteers as they can get. As the old saying goes, get up from your couch or computer and try to improve things before you complain.

Directions: From Exit 1 on US Highway 23 in the City of Norton, take State Route 619 up the mountain (passing the entrance to Flag Rock Recreation Area and following signs for High Knob) 3.8 miles to the junction with paved Forest Service Road 238. A sign here marks the turn towards High Knob Tower. Turn left onto FR-238 and follow it 1.4 miles (passing the turn up to High Knob Tower) to the signed entrance to High Knob Recreation Area on the right. Turn right at the rec area entrance and follow the road downhill to its end at the rec area’s cabin and parking area. High Knob Lake and most of the site’s recreational opportunities can be found by walking a short distance down the gravel road at the back of the parking area.

Note that a small day-use fee ($3 per vehicle) is needed to access the recreation area. This is standard for nearly all USDA Forest Service recreation areas across the country and goes to help with upkeep and management of the area. Do your part and drop the fee in the pay box near the parking area when you visit – it’s well worth the cost.

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