Fall in Southwest Virginia: 12 Hours in Dickenson County

Fall is here, and you’ve got one day to see it. OK, you probably don’t have just one day, but let’s pretend you do: where do you go, and what do you see? Southwest Virginia is one of the best places on Earth to see fall foliage, but knowing where to look is half the battle. That’s why we’ll be publishing a series of posts over the next few weeks detailing a one-day roadtrip throughout various SWVA counties that are guaranteed to maximize your fall goodness. First up? Dickenson County. 

Dickenson County, Virginia – like much of southwest Virginia – often gets little respect. “Why would you go there?” visitors are often asked. “There’s nothing to do up there.”

If anyone has ever told you this, you’ve been told a lie. While Dickenson County is one of the state smallest and most geographically isolated counties (so small that it lacks any U.S. highways within its boundaries!), that’s all part of the allure. This often-forgotten corner of Virginia is also one of the state’s most beautiful spots, with friendly people and scenic views around every corner. Dickenson County also has some of the state’s best opportunities to get up close and personal with fall color. Use the map above and the detailed stops below to plan a day trip to visit the county for the first time…or perhaps rediscover it for yourself.

A gravel backroad near Breaks Interstate Park in early fall.

1.) Clintwood, Virginia: The start of this driving trip can be found in downtown Clintwood, Virginia. Nestled at the southern foot of rugged Pine Mountain and just south of the Pound River, Clintwood is an idyllic town in a beautiful setting. While we’re primarily using this county seat as a starting point for a fall foliage trip, there’s also plenty to do in town itself. While you’re here, consider checking out places like the Ralph Stanley Museum before or after striking out on this roadtrip. Lodging options also exist in town.

2.) Birch Knob: Head north from Clintwood on SR-631, following signs for Birch Knob Tower. Eventually, this route will take you on a steep climb up a dirt-gravel Forest Service road to the summit of Birch Knob and its observation tower at 3,144 feet above sea level. There are few words that can adequately describe the view from Birch Knob, but the 360-degree view stretches across several states and is simply spectacular, especially when fall color is at its peak. Check out what you can see from the tower at our post on the vista, and consider taking a quick hike on the Pine Mountain Trail, which heads east out of the tower’s parking area. (Note that the side trip up Birch Knob requires a long drive up a dirt-gravel forest road. While this road is well maintained and is typically passable by virtually all vehicles, a higher clearance vehicle may be beneficial, especially after heavy rain. If you’re not comfortable making the trip up to the top, don’t worry – you can simply follow the mapped roadtrip loop to the next stop.)

Birch Knob in the summer – just imagine the same view with fall color!

3.) Pine Mountain and Flannagan Dam: Back at the foot of the forest road up Birch Knob, head east on SR-611, a paved county road that winds its way around the foot of Pine Mountain. This road gives you a bit of everything, from long-range views of the color on Pine Mountain to stretches of roadway that run through the heart of thickly-forested woods. After winding through this scenery for several miles, take SR-739 south and cross Flannagan Dam, the source of the 220 square-mile U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir known by the same name. A short side road on the far side of the dam takes you down to the impoundment’s base, where the Russell Fork gushes forth on its way to Breaks Interstate Park and its spectacular gorge, a later stop on this trip. On select dates in October, in fact, scheduled releases from the dam increase the flow of the river, creating a whitewater lover’s dream framed in fall color (see photos here). Time your visit for one of these releases and get an extra treat here and at the next stop below.

4.) Breaks Interstate Park: The next stop on this trip heads out to the eastern end of Pine Mountain, where the Russell Fork cuts its way through a thousand foot-deep gorge at a “break” in the mountain. On the way over to the park, check out the town of Haysi, located a few minutes south of the park entrance. Breaks Interstate Park has the odd name because it both straddles and is managed by two states: Kentucky and Virginia. The park itself is an outdoor lover’s paradise, with cabins, a lodge/restaurant, camping opportunities, a lake, and trails galore. Rock climbers are also increasingly frequenting the park’s many cliffs and boulders. It’s the park’s scenic overlooks, though, that really make the park a treasure in autumn. Consider taking the moderate, 1.5-mile Prospector’s Trail to get up close with the gorge itself, or simply stop at the park’s many roadside overlooks if hiking isn’t your scene.

View the Towers Overlook at Breaks Interstate Park

5.) Clintwood and the Cranes Nest Trail: After enjoying the Breaks, loop back towards Clintwood by following VA Highway 83 through a maze of riverside scenery. This route follows and/or crosses two major streams – the McClure River and Cranesnest River (both headwater streams for the Russell Fork) – on its way from Haysi to Clintwood and provides incredible views of the rivers and surrounding forests on its way. Just outside of Clintwood, consider stopping at the new Cranesnest Trailhead just beyond the bridge over the Cranesnest River. A fishing platform exists here, as well as a pea-graveled, multiuse trail for hiking and biking. If you need a leg-stretcher, it’s the perfect place to get in a woodland stroll. On the other side of the river, a gravel road leads to several top-notch campgrounds on the river itself.

When you’re done on the Cranesnest, head back to Clintwood (just a few miles away) to complete your loop.

Special Considerations For This Trip: The terrain in Dickenson County is steep and rugged. While the roads in the county are well-maintained and easily navigated (and you’ll never be too far from a town), the steep terrain can block cell service from many major carriers. You may want to consider printing out detailed directions for the stops listed above rather than relying on a phone-based GPS app or Google Maps.


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