Length/Type: Approximately 1.2 miles, lollipop loop; Difficulty: Moderate (easy grades but possible heavy undergrowth can obscure the trail in places during late summer/fall); Other Considerations: The trailhead is located at the back of the Phillips Creek Recreation Area, which may be gated in winter months. You can still park outside the rec area (do not block the gate or roadway) and walk in to the trailhead. Note that this will add just under half a mile (one-way) to the trip.
As we’ve chronicled on this website before, so many of the hiking opportunities in the Cumberlands slip under the radar. Trails are not located in or near heavily-developed urban areas where they might otherwise get noticed, and the Coalfields are often falsely assumed as not being as “pretty” as the rest of the mountains. Spend some time here, though, and you realize that’s not true – it’s every bit as stunning in the Cumberlands as the rest of the Appalachians, and the quiet trails found here are simply the result of much of the region still being unknown.
The Phillips Creek Loop Trail is one of those special places that deserves to lose its “best-kept secret” label. In fact, a few more footprints could do this trail some good. Part of the Phillips Creek Day Use Area and located a few miles west of the town of Pound in Wise County, Virginia, this trail isn’t all that long but makes up for its lack of length with varied and stunning scenery on the south face of Pine Mountain. Such a dizzying array of features is packed into this short hike that you’ll have trouble keeping up with them all: you’ll pass a swimming beach and lake, a wildlife clearing, massive old-growth trees, and a small backcountry waterfall all in about a mile. Beyond these features, the trail has a surprisingly rugged feel for its short length. Expect to feel like you’re on an isolated, little-maintained footpath. This isn’t a well-manicured, over-publicized hike…but that’s all part of the allure.
Although it’s formally called a loop trail, the Phillips Creek Trail is really more of a “lollipop loop,” a term used by hikers to describe a trail that starts out with a single treadway and branches off into a loop later on (much like a single stick leading to a round lollipop). After completing the loop, the trail returns back to the trailhead the way it first came in. The official start for this hike is located at far end of the Phillips Creek Recreation Area, where a small footbridge ducks into the woods at the back of a grassy clearing beyond the rec area’s picnic shelters. The trailhead is so unassuming, in fact, that many visitors to the rec area ignore it altogether while picnicking or swimming at the beach beside the lake.
To reach this footbridge, park as far back towards the end of the rec area’s entrance road as you can. This road may be gated at various points depending on the season, but that’s no worry – you can simply walk the road the rest of the way in beyond the gate. Be sure to pay the small entrance fee regardless, though; your money helps to fund maintenance at this site. You’ll eventually reach the end of the road, which terminates in a large, open field with two picnic shelters on the left side. The trail officially begins at the footbridge on the northeast corner of this field. Cross the bridge to start the hike.
The first few hundred yards of the yellow-blazed trail undergo a bit of a tease before you actually enter a true forest, instead ducking in and out of young trees crowding an overgrown field, likely the remains of an old homestead. This area may become a bit overgrown in late summer and early fall, but don’t be fooled – there’s outstanding scenery just up the trail. On the other side of this old clearing, the trail finally ducks under a thick forest canopy and slips alongside Phillips Creek, which runs off of Pine Mountain to your left. You’ll be following along or above this stream for the rest of the trip.
The loop portion of the hike begins at an obvious split just over 0.1 miles from the trail’s initial footbridge. The main trail continues straight ahead and follows the creek, while another footpath angles sharply uphill to the right. The loop can be hiked in either direction, although we’ll follow the loop clockwise, in what is arguably the easier direction. To follow the loop, stay straight here at the split and continue following Phillips Creek upstream. The farther up the hollow you go, the more dramatic the scenery becomes. Massive hemlocks – many likely a few hundred years old – tower over a forest that stays shaded even at midday. If you look on the other side of the creek, well up and to the left, you’ll even see towering cliffs looming well above you farther up the mountain. It’s a setting that’s reminiscent of a tropical forest and a far cry from the busy lakeshore near the trail’s start.
You’ll reach a turn to the right just over 0.5 miles in, with the main trail bending up and away from the creek. A little exploring here will reveal a small (10-15 feet or less) waterfall on Phillips Creek as it cascades off of the mountain. In dry weather, it may be tough to discern a waterfall here at all, but that doesn’t really detract from the scenery. The feeling here is very remote, making this one of the few hikes anywhere in the southern Appalachians where you can get such a wilderness feel after hiking only a half mile. Be aware that some older maps also mention a spur trail to the crest of Pine Mountain and the Pine Mountain Trail here. If those maps were correct, that trail is now lost to time – there’s no hint of it left.
The route for this hike continues past this turn away from the creek and wriggles uphill, eventually turning back south on a flatter route well above the stream. The woods are noticeably more open and drier here, and you’ll pass a small set of bluffs and other rock outcrops on your left as you head back to complete the loop. The trail begins switchbacking down at just shy of 1.0 miles to follow a small tributary of Phillips Creek, rejoining the main trail at around 1.1 miles. To get back to the trailhead, turn left here (downstream) and follow the main trail back to the original clearing, reaching the end of the trail at 1.2 miles. From here, follow the rec area road back to your car.
As mentioned above, the highlight of this hike is just how rugged and isolated the hollow channeling Phillips Creek can get in such a short distance. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to remark that this hike feels “out there” in spite of its short length, especially when thick undergrowth obscures the trailhead in late summer. Why is this the case?
The answer is simple: it’s all thanks to Pine Mountain. You can read all the gory geological details about Pine Mountain in one of our earlier posts, but the mountain’s ruggedness is on full display here. Streams that cascade off of the side of Pine Mountain’s uplifted rocks tend to carve deep, almost impenetrable gorges into its south face. Bad Branch Falls in Kentucky is one example, and Phillips Creek showcases many of these same traits. The massive, ancient trees that dominate gorges like these, for example, remain here thanks to the fact that it was simply too difficult (or even impossible) to log these areas back during the Appalachians’ timber boom due to their exceedingly steep slopes. A quick peek at aerial imagery, in fact, shows that the Phillips Creek Gorge probably only gets even more impressive up the mountain from the turnaround point of this hike, with massive cliffs poking out through the forest canopy. It can be hard to think about virtually all of our forests looking this majestic, but that’s exactly what our earliest settlers faced when they first arrived in the area.
Directions: From the intersection of US Highway 23 and US Highway 58-Alt in Norton, Virginia, travel north on US-23 14.9 miles to a left turn onto State Route 671. Turn left onto SR-671 (be careful: this can be a dangerous intersection due to fast-moving southbound traffic on US-23!) and follow it for approximately 4.0 miles to a junction. SR-620 bears left at this junction, while SR-671 continues to the right. Turn right to continue following SR-671. Follow SR-671 for 1.4 more miles to the signed turn into the USDA Forest Service Phillips Creek Recreation Area on your right. Note that the recreation area may be gated in winter. See the “Other Considerations” section in the introduction to this post above for more details.