What The Heck Is That Over There? Flag Rock 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 developed a series of posts highlighting exactly what you can see from our region’s most scenic viewpoints.

This post will feature the view from Flag Rock Overlook, a sweeping vista from an open rock ledge that forms the centerpiece of the City of Norton’s Virginia’s Flag Rock Recreation Area. If you visit Flag Rock, though, come for the vista but make sure to check out everything else. The rec area contains not only this vista but two high-elevation lakes with trout fishing and paddling opportunities, two campgrounds, and hiking and mountain biking on the City’s new Flag Rock Area Trails. It’s simply one of the best public municipal parks in the state. But what the heck are you seeing from the overlook? The photos below are annotated to illustrate some of the major features you can see from Flag Rock.

I. North View (Looking out over downtown)

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1.) Mountaintop Removal Mining (formerly 3700-3800 feet; 9 miles away): There’s no questioning what you notice first from Flag Rock – it’s the sweeping vista of downtown Norton that immediately catches the eye. But there’s also a mountain that looks oddly barren on the horizon. What is that? Before we get into some of the other features you can see from Flag Rock, let’s address this elephant in the room.

What you’re looking at is a mountaintop removal mine on the eastern slopes of Black Mountain’s Rogers and Divide Ridges (see more on Black Mountain below). These ridges are home to the headwaters of both the Powell and Guest Rivers and today are several hundred feet lower than they once were. The reason is due to the activity of mountaintop removal (often shortened to MTR). What is MTR? As opposed to deep mining (which extracts coal using shafts dug deep underground) and traditional surface mining (which removes overlying rock to expose coal in smaller “strips” or blocks), MTR mining blasts overlying rock off of coal seams and deposits it in the valleys below. MTR has become a controversial practice since it causes massive ecological impacts – burying streams and altering topography – and also since it requires fewer people to do, restricting employment for miners. It’s also the reason for the mountain’s odd shape in the distance as viewed from Flag Rock Overlook.

2.) Downtown Norton (2,141 feet above sea level; 1 mile away): The buildings and city streets below you belong to downtown Norton, Virginia’s smallest independent city. If you like friendly people, outdoor recreation, old-time music, and history, Norton is for you. Check out all the city has to offer here, plus a recent feature on the city as an up-and-coming outdoor rec town at Blue Ridge Outdoors.

3.) Pound Gap (approx. 2400 feet above sea level; 16 miles away): If you’ve driven between Virginia and Kentucky on US Highway 23, you’ve crossed through Pound Gap – a low pass on the long ridgeline of Pine Mountain – on your way over the mountain. You can see Pound Gap from Flag Rock on a clear day, but it might not be obvious. Bring your binoculars, though, and it’s possible to make out the low dip on Pine Mountain as it passes behind Black Mountain and even see one of the gas stations located near the gap. Although it’s hard to tell from here, Pound Gap is also a significant geologic location. Read all about it here.

4.) Pine Mountain (mostly 2600-2800 feet above sea level in this view; 16-25 miles away): Pound Gap (mentioned above) is just one feature on Pine Mountain, one of the most dominating and imposing natural features in Virginia. Although southwest Virginians will know the mountain as much of the Virginia-Kentucky line, Pine Mountain is actually a much longer, 125-mile ridge running from Tennessee northeast to Breaks Interstate Park near Haysi, Virginia. Along the way, travelers can be hard-pressed to find an easy way over the mountain, meaning that the positions of roads and towns in the region are dictated by the mountain’s path. Pine Mountain exists thanks to a geological feature called a thrust-fault, and when you’re looking at the mountain you’re actually looking at the uppermost broken lip of this fault, which mostly extends underground. Check out the Pine Mountain Trail for an up-close experience of the mountain’s rugged and scenic terrain.

5.) Wise, Virginia (2,454 feet above sea level; 5 miles away): You can’t see the town of Wise itself from Flag Rock – it’s nestled in a valley below the ridges you see from the overlook – but you can see much of the development that surrounds the town and the outer edges of Norton. Even though you can’t see it, you should still check the town out if you’re visiting the region. The newly-renovated and historic Inn at Wise offers food, drinks, and lodging, and the town is home to The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, a top public liberal arts school.

II. Northwest View (Looking out over the jagged ridges to the left of the overlook)

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1.) Big Stone Gap (1,600 feet above sea level; 9 miles away): If you grew up in Southwest Virginia – or maybe if you saw a recent movie by the same name – you know Big Stone Gap as the small town located at the lower end of scenic Powell Valley. You might not know, though, how “Big Stone” got its name. That’s thanks to a gap in Stone Mountain, which is the long ridgeline running off into the distance from this view. Stone Mountain later becomes named Cumberland Mountain closer to Cumberland Gap but is really one long, continuous ridge running from High Knob (the mountain Flag Rock is located on) past Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and into Tennessee. Big Stone Gap is the gap in this ridge where the ridge itself appears to dive sharply down below the horizon. This is one of the only places along Cumberland Mountain’s 100-mile length where the ridge is broken by a gap and allows the Powell River (and, today, US-23 Business) to pass from one side of the mountain to the other – a fitting reason to give the town of Big Stone Gap its name.

2.) Stone Mountain (3,439 feet above sea level maximum from this view; 3-4 miles away): Stone Mountain (described above) dominates this view and actually runs far beyond the visible horizon into Tennessee. For those traveling US Highway 23 from Big Stone Gap towards Kentucky, Stone Mountain also forms a “wall” of sorts on the northern end of Powell Valley, forcing the highway to climb steeply up to the scenic Powell Valley Overlook. This topographic structure – long, rugged ridges – is characteristic of the Cumberland Mountains and is thanks to both the geologic forces that most recently lifted up the Appalachians and erosion that has been occurring since that time.

3.) Powell Valley Overlook (approx. 2,400 feet above sea level; 2.5 miles away): If you drive US Highway 23 as described above, you know Powell Valley Overlook. You just can’t miss it – it’s one of the Appalachians’ iconic vistas. What you can’t tell from here at Flag Rock, though, is that you’re looking down at this vista from above. You can’t see the overlook itself and its parking area due to them being blocked by nearby ridges, but you can see the gap in the mountain (Little Stone Gap) just above the overlook itself.

4.) Black Mountain (4,144 feet above sea level maximum; 13 miles away): We mentioned Black Mountain in the very first placeholder for this post, and if you’re familiar with the mountain, that might seem odd. Isn’t Black Mountain a single peak and the highest point in Kentucky? Well, yes and no. While Black Mountain’s highest point does form the highest elevation in Kentucky, Black Mountain isn’t a single summit but a long, high ridge trending from near the mountaintop removal site seen from Flag Rock westward into Kentucky and beyond this view. You can get a feel for just how long and massive this mountain is from here on Flag Rock, as it dominates the far horizon.

III. Northeast View (Looking to the right from the overlook)

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1.) Wise, Virginia (2,454 feet above sea level; 5 miles away): We mentioned the town of Wise in a placeholder above, but you can see more of the development surrounding Wise at this angle from Flag Rock. You can also tell from here that Wise sits up on a high, relatively level plateau – one reason why Wise is considered once of the snowiest towns in Virginia and is often much colder than valleys below.

2.) Benge’s Branch Drainage (variable elevations; immediately below the overlook): While you’re standing on Flag Rock, you may notice the sound of rushing water far down below. What you’re hearing is Benge’s Branch – a small stream originating on High Knob – cascading down the mountain as it drops some 1,000 feet on the way from Norton’s reservoirs to near downtown Norton. The branch has also helped carve the steep topography and mini-gorge you see in front of you. If you drive up to Flag Rock from downtown, in fact, this stream comes in from the left near the city’s water treatment plant as you head up the mountain.

3.) Lost Creek Drainage (variable elevations; 0.5 miles away): The terrain only gets more rugged and dramatic as you look farther out the ridge from Benge’s Branch and Flag Rock. Just out of sight and over the ridge highlighted here, in fact, is a deep gorge carved by another stream cascading off of High Knob, called Lost Creek. The Lost Creek drainage is one of those places that seems like it belongs deep in a wilderness area rather than just a mile or less from downtown Norton: multiple small waterfalls exist on the stream itself, towering rock chimneys rise above the gorge, and massive, old-growth hemlocks dominate a rich forest on the gorge’s floor. It’s one of those places that seems like an echo from the time when Daniel Boone and other explorers first ventured into our region. The great news, though, is that you can check out this gorge yourself by hiking Norton’s Lost Creek Trail. You can pick up the trail from Norton’s Reservoir Trailhead or from the bottom of the gorge near downtown. Be forewarned, though – this is about as rugged of a hike as an Appalachian trail can get.

4.) Pickem Mountain (approximately 3,400 feet above sea level; 0.7 miles away): The last thing you can see when looking out over this view is a long, high ridge running to the horizon. This is Pickem Mountain, a ridgeline well below High Knob’s summit that forms much of the northern boundary of settled areas within the City of Norton. If you’ve ever driven US-23 south into Norton from near the town of Wise, in fact, you’ve seen Pickem Mountain before: it’s the tall mountain that lies directly over the town near the first highway exit into Norton. Just beyond but out of sight here, another stream – Clear Creek- cuts a gorge into High Knob and forms an outstanding trout stream for those interested in backcountry fishing.

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