Winter Wonderland: Trails to Try This Season in the Cumberlands

The winter hiking season is upon us, a time when many folks hang up their hiking boots and enjoy the warmth of the indoors. If you’ve never been hiking during what many hikers refer to as the “leaf off” season, though, you’ve been missing out. Views through bare trees are more expansive, skies are clearer on many days, and features like snow and frozen waterfalls provide new treasures to explore in the backcountry. For many, this season actually beats out the dog days of summer when it comes to getting out into the woods.

For this post, we’ve decided to feature three regional hikes that will get you out and about in all the winter hiking goodness our mountains have to offer. (Before setting out, we highly recommend also checking out our post on tips for winter hiking. And regardless, make sure you always prepare accordingly for cold-weather hiking – special precautions are almost always needed outdoors in the winter months.)

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Meltwater raging through the Guest River Gorge

1.) Guest River Gorge (Coeburn, Virginia): One of the tricks with winter hiking can be finding a trailhead that’s easy to access when snow is on the ground. Forest Service roads can be gated, for example, and even open secondary routes leading to many remote trailheads can be hazardous in winter conditions.

That’s not the case with the Guest River Gorge. Located just off of VA Highway 72 outside of Coeburn, the Gorge’s trailhead is easy to access, found at the end of a paved entrance road right off of the highway. This road is not typically plowed and pretreated in winter months, but that’s no worry – if you’re uncomfortable driving all the way in, simply park in the first few hundred yards of this entrance road, which are relatively level and easy to navigate in all but the deepest snow (just be sure not to block the roadway itself). This adds a steep but beautiful extra mile or so in to reach the trail.

Once you’re on the trail, the winter fun begins. If conditions are cold enough, icicles grace the Gorge’s more shaded clifflines, especially at the entrance to Swede Tunnel just down the trail. Even when snow isn’t on the ground, wetter weather conditions are common in the winter months and supercharge the whitewater of the river and the numerous waterfalls that cascade into the Gorge. It’s simply a must-do trip for winter lovers.

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A frozen (and very cold!) Little Stony Falls

2.) Little Stony Gorge from Hanging Rock (Dungannon, Virginia): There’s nothing like getting deep into the backcountry in the middle of winter. Unless you’re a seasoned winter hiker, though, this can be tough to do. That’s why we’re thankful our region has Little Stony Gorge.

Before we go any further, a clarification is needed: we’re not talking about Little Stony Falls. If you’ve been to see the falls in warmer months, you’ve probably driven in on the gravel road located at the top of the mountain south of Coeburn and hiked a short distance in to the scenic drop above Little Stony Gorge. That can be a problem in winter months, since driving conditions often become hazardous on dirt-gravel Forest Service roads.

Instead, we’re talking about the lower gorge, where the trail from Little Stony Falls ultimately dumps out above Dungannon. You can reach this trailhead from Hanging Rock Recreation Area off of VA Highway 72 and follow the yellow-blazed Little Stony National Recreation Trail 2.5 miles up the gorge to the falls. Many locals, in fact, view this part of the trail as more scenic than the falls themselves, and it’s easy to see why. The stream in the lower gorge looks like something out of the Smokies. House-sized boulders litter the hillsides, with towering cliffs above.

In the winter, these features just become all the more accentuated with snow and ice. When temperatures really plummet, adventurous hikers can even make it all the way to the falls, which can be frozen solid. Just be forewarned: ice and deep snow can make this trek much more difficult and hazardous than it may seem, so prepare accordingly and only make the trip if you have the proper gear and skills.

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A rime ice-encrusted view from Raven’s Nest on Pine Mountain

3.) Pine Mountain (Numerous Access Points): One of the biggest joys of winter hiking is getting to appreciate enhanced views from high vantage points. Leaves are off of the trees, allowing for vistas from spots that would normally be closed in beneath the forest canopy. This is especially the case for narrow ridgeline walks, which can become a bonanza for view-seeking hikers in winter months.

There are few better spots for these types of hikes than Pine Mountain. Thanks to the fact that the mountain itself is really one long, parallel ridgeline, hiking pretty much any trail that runs along the mountaintop will provide hikers with views through the trees. And thanks to the fact that rock outcrops are a dime a dozen on the mountain, you’ll probably be treated to some wide-open views, as well.

There is no shortage of ways to access Pine Mountain in the winter, but we recommend short hikes on the Pine Mountain Trail in either direction from where US-23 crosses through Pound Gap at the Virginia-Kentucky line. This road is well-maintained in winter months outside of the worst of snowstorms, and access to the trail is relatively easy, without the need to navigate a labyrinth of backroads that may or may not be in good shape. Plus, hikes venturing in either direction from Pound Gap ultimately reach open rock outcrops with sweeping vistas – the perfect payoff for a walk through the winter woods. Check out our overviews of the hike to Raven’s Nest and Twin Cliffs Overlook for details.

Another option, while not on the Pine Mountain Trail, is to visit Breaks Interstate Park. You might not want to tackle the park’s steeper trails due to ice and snow, but the vistas from the park’s upper trails and overlooks are spectacular. You can find more info on trails at the park website.

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The views at Breaks Interstate Park don’t stop once the leaves are off the trees.
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