Sand Mountain (Crystal Springs to High Rocks)

Length/Type: Approximately 4.6 miles (one-way, out-and-back); Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult (well-maintained and signed trails throughout; moderate grades on Boundary Trail; difficult, steeper grades on the final climb to High Rocks); Other Considerations: Another, shorter route leads to High Rocks but climbs up through the Big Survey Wildlife Management Area, which requires a permit fee to hike (info here). You may see other hikers at the summit as a result. (This hike requires no permit provided you stay on the Town of Wytheville’s trails.) Multiple other hikes exist in the Crystal Springs Recreation Area, and you can view these options by viewing the recreation area’s trail map

As you’ve probably heard if you live in the Cumberlands, our region is undergoing a current boom in outdoor recreation development. New outfitters are opening along regional rivers, activities from hiking and mountain biking to ATV riding are expanding, and local communities are building new trail systems to support it all. While some of these local trail systems are small, others are relatively expansive and allow for hikers to reach some downright incredible scenery that has previously been off-trail.

The town of Wytheville, Virginia is one of those places. You might know Wytheville as a series of exits along crowded I-81 in southwest Virginia between Bristol and Roanoke, but Wytheville actually has much more to offer. Beyond having an interesting, historic downtown, Wytheville also sits at the base of Sand Mountain, a towering collection of ridges and hollows that looms over the town to its south. In recent years, Wytheville has begun to capitalize on its location by developing a trail system at its Crystal Springs Recreation Area, a parcel of town-owned land on the mountain.

While Wytheville is technically outside of the Cumberlands (the area our site profiles), we’ve decided to give Crystal Springs its own rundown on our site since (i) it’s an outstanding trail system, especially for one managed by a local town, and (ii) there don’t currently seem to be many detailed guides for hikes there online. While there’s a lot to see on Crystal Springs’ trails beyond what we’ll detail here, we’re going to focus on one of the area’s highlights: a long dayhike to the summit of High Rocks, an outcropping with sweeping vistas of Wytheville and beyond.

The Hike

The route detailed here follows the northern leg of the Boundary Trail – a 7.0-mile loop on Sand Mountain – up a stream valley to the High Rocks Spur Trail. From there, the High Rocks Spur Trail ascends to High Rocks overlook, and the route returns to the trailhead for a total of approximately 9.2 miles. You may want to consult the Crystal Springs trail map to learn more about other options here, since they are plentiful.

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Bridge on the lower part of the Crystal Springs Loop Trail

Begin this hike by leaving the back right corner of the trailhead parking area (when facing away from the parking lot) through an open, grassy field. A roadbed/trail ducks into the woods on the other side of this field and immediately crosses a small stream (Venrick Run) on a bridge. The trail, blazed red here and named the Crystal Springs Loop Trail, then bears left and heads upstream along Venrick Run. Numerous other routes branch off from the loop trail along this lower section, but you’ll want to stay on the loop trail (occasionally also signed for the Boundary Trail, which shares its treadway with the loop trail here) for the start of this hike.

The trail follows Venrick Run relatively closely along this lower stretch, and that’s a good thing: the stream is scenic, especially after rainfall has caused bit more water to flow over some of its small drops and falls. You’ll cross the stream a few times on wooden bridges and pass some pit toilets (stay left on the northern leg of the loop trail, along the stream), flirting with a powerline right-of-way as you hike. You’ll eventually reach a trail junction, where the Crystal Springs Loop Trail angles right and crosses the stream on another footbridge, while the Boundary Trail heads off to the left and above the stream. You’ll be taking the left fork here, following the white-blazed Boundary Trail, for this hike.

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Boundary Trail as it follows a powerline right-of-way

From this junction, the Boundary Trail continues its flirtation with the powerline cut, paralleling Venrick Run, until 1.3 miles from the trailhead. Here, the Boundary Trail doglegs to the right, leaving the powerline cut and crossing Venrick Run at an unbridged, rock-hoppable ford. Take special note here since an unblazed, old roadbed continues straight to follow the powerline cut – simply follow the blazed and signed Boundary Trail instead.

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White-blazed Boundary Trail taking on more a singletrack character as it climbs the mountain.

From here, you’ll be heading uphill through the woods along Venrick Run, essentially following the stream to its source even though you won’t always be hiking beside the water. Thankfully, the climb is mostly gentle, and you’ll cross several small tributaries of the stream that cascade off of Sand Mountain on your way up. About a quarter mile out from the junction between the Boundary Trail and the High Rocks Spur Trail, the trail will begin to switchback up a bit more steeply to leave the stream valley and climb to a gap. You’ll reach this gap and the trail junction at 2.8 miles from the trailhead.

This gap is a major pivot point for the trail system, so much so that the town has installed a kiosk and map here in the woods to help with navigation. The white-blazed Boundary Trail enters the gap and leaves to the right, heading further up the ridge and eventually rounding back to the original trailhead to complete its seven-mile loop. An obvious clearing and roadbed also lie straight ahead as you enter the gap – ignore this roadbed, as it’s not part of the trail system. Instead, you’ll want to leave the Boundary Trail here and take the orange-blazed and signed High Rocks Spur Trail, which heads uphill and to the left on singletrack from the gap.

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Kiosk at the junction of the Boundary Trail and High Rocks Spur Trail
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Old roadbed adjacent to the gap where the Boundary and High Rocks Spur Trails meet. Ignore this roadbed – it is not part of the trail system.

The spur trail almost immediately takes on a different character from the wide, mostly easy Boundary Trail. You’ll be climbing here to reach the overlook, and the trail shows it: you’re on a true mountain trail now, which switchbacks up and away from the gap to follow the ridge. The climb never gets overly strenuous, but be aware that it may be hot in summer months, especially where the trail hangs out on the sunny, south side of the ridge. You’ll climb this trail for approximately 1.6 miles to the overlook. It’s easy to tell when you’re getting close since the rhododendron growth gets a bit thicker and the trail gets much rockier. As you near the overlook itself, you’ll notice large rock outcrops appearing along the trail.

You’ll know when you reach High Rocks, thanks to a series of sweeping vistas from outcroppings at the summit. A memorial bench here also marks the turnaround point of this hike. The first overlook, off to the right of the trail, looks out across an incredible vista of downtown Wytheville, I-81 passing through the Great Valley far, far below, and the long ridges of the Valley and Ridge Province off to your north. The second, found on top of the next set of rock outcrops a few yards away, also looks out over this same vista but provides a peek back towards the Blue Ridge and Mount Rogers, as well as a view down the ridge on Sand Mountain. Some radio towers dot the summit a short distance down the ridge in this view.

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View over Wytheville and the Great Valley from High Rocks

High Rocks is your turnaround point for this hike. Although a blue-blazed trail comes up the mountain from the opposite side here, don’t follow it for your return hike – it comes up from a different trailhead and passes through the Big Survey Wildlife Management Area (a permit fee is required to hike these state game lands). Instead, simply backtrack the way you came, down the orange-blazed High Rocks Spur Trail, right onto the Boundary Trail back at the gap and kiosk, and down the mountain to your car.

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Sweeping vistas from an overlook at High Rocks

Nature Notes

While the scenery along this hike is beautiful, Sand Mountain is also fascinating. As you hike Sand Mountain, in fact, you’re walking on a landform that lies between two of the major physiographic provinces in Appalachia. What are physiographic provinces? Physiography refers to “physical geography,” or the geology, hydrology, climate, and ecology (think wildlife) of a general area. Here in central Appalachia, there are three physiographic provinces that run from west to east: the Appalachian Plateau, the Valley and Ridge, and the Blue Ridge.

If you’ve driven I-81, you’re already familiar with the Valley and Ridge – a region characterized by long, linear, and alternating ridges and roughly parallel valleys. I-81 traces most of its length in southwest Virginia through the largest of these valleys, called the “Great Valley,” that runs all the way from Alabama northeastward nearly to New York. As you stand at White Rocks and look north, the long, high “mountains” you see in the distance are some of the ridges within this province, while the Appalachian Plateau lies mostly out of sight farther north, near Kentucky and West Virginia.

If you look back to the south from Sand Mountain, though, you might notice that the mountains look different. The hills are more jumbled here and reach much higher elevations than what you see to the north – the high country of the Mount Rogers area, in fact, can be seen in the distance and approaches 6000 feet above sea level! These mountains belong to the Blue Ridge province, the easternmost portion of the Appalachians that was lifted up to these lofty heights due to the intense heat and pressure caused by the collision between the African and North American continental plates that created our mountains some 300 million years ago.

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Catawba Rhododendron near High Rocks

Sand Mountain is unique since it lies mostly between these two regions – it’s not quite like the rest of the Valley and Ridge, yet not quite like the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge, either. You might even see this influence in the vegetation you can see along this hike. Some of what you’ll see at low elevations looks like much of the rest of the area around Wytheville, while in the spring you’ll pass orange Flame Azalea and brilliant, purple Catawba Rhododendron – two species that are iconic in the Blue Ridge province. In this way, you’re hiking in a blend of two ecological worlds.

Directions: From I-81 near Wytheville, take Exit 70 and turn east onto US-52, towards downtown Wytheville. In downtown, turn south onto Main Street (south on US-11), and then shortly after follow US-21 south as it leaves town. Follow US-21 south from its junction with US-11 for 2.7 miles to State Route 684 (Pump Hollow Road) on the left. Turn left here onto SR-684, which will shortly pass a convenience center, narrow, and turn to gravel (don’t worry – you’re on the correct road). Follow SR-684 for 1.2 miles, where the gravel road enters into a small, open valley and forks. Take the left fork into the signed Crystal Springs Recreation Area (the right fork heads to private property), and park in the large gravel parking area. Trails begin near the kiosk at the back of this lot.

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