Distance: 3.5 miles round-trip, loop; Difficulty: Easy (Well-marked and easy grades along mostly smooth treadway); Other Considerations: Several other trails – including the 19-mile Chief Benge Scout Trail – are located in or pass through the recreation area. As of Fall 2020, campground improvement work is causing intermittent closures of the recreation area; consider contacting the Clinch Ranger District office in Norton, Virginia before your trip to make sure the area will be open when you arrive. Use of the recreation area requires a $3 day use fee that can be paid at the information kiosk at the main parking area.
The High Knob area of the Clinch Ranger District is home to an astounding amount of natural beauty. There’s the sweeping vista from the High Knob summit, the waterfalls of Little Stony, and the beautiful yet comically overcrowded Devil’s Bathtub, just to name a few. But hiding in between those natural features are a number of scenic man-made lakes and reservoirs atop the ridges’ higher elevations.
Bark Camp Lake is one of those locations. Located to the east of the High Knob summit, Bark Camp Lake is built along the upper reaches of Little Stony Creek and is home to a USDA Forest Service recreation area that includes fishing and camping opportunities, as well as several hiking options. The crown jewel of those trails is the 3.5-mile loop trail around Bark Camp Lake, which we’re featuring for this trail writeup.
Starting from the recreation area’s main parking area above the lake, the loop can be hiked in either direction. For the purposes of this writeup, we’ll describe the loop hiked in a clockwise direction, heading east from the parking area towards the lake’s dam. Ignore the yellow blazes heading uphill immediately behind the parking area, as these are for the much shorter Kitchen Rock Loop trail, a different path that travels a short distance up the hill above the pavement.
These first few hundred feet or so of the hike are on the recreation area’s paved access road, which swings downhill towards the dam and eventually crosses it by way of a concrete walkway. The dam underwent a large improvement project in recent years that improved both hiking and fishing access. Walk across the dam – which eventually turns to a grass and dirt path – and you’ll reach its other end around 0.2 miles from the main parking area. The dam affords gorgeous views across the lake’s broader eastern end.
Across the dam, the trail makes a hard right into the woods along the lakeshore, marked by a combination of yellow painted and plastic blazes. Over the next half-mile or so, you’ll be winding in the forest just back from the water’s edge, eventually crossing a small stream the feeds the lake at 0.6 miles. From here, the theme of the trail’s first stretch will continue for another mile or so, weaving through the scenic hardwood forest above the lakeshore. The trail moves closer to the water at times and winds farther away at others, providing some limited views across the water in winter months.
At 1.5 miles, you’ll cross another small inlet stream feeding the lake, and the hike begins to change character. You may notice that the broad, open expanses of the lake disappear and are replaced with a more vegetation-choked wetland area. You’re now entering Bark Camp Lake’s backwaters, which extend for a long distance upstream of the lake as a massive network of beaver ponds, some maintained and others echoes from old beaver activity. In fact, you may notice signs of beavers chewing at the base of trees along this stretch of the trail to help in their work.
The trail crosses a series of wooden bridges and boardwalks as you get closer to the wetlands, eventually crossing the wetlands and Little Stony Creek entirely on a long, scenic boardwalk at 2.0 miles. Immediately across the boardwalk, you’ll reach a signed trail intersection. The path to the right, staying close to the lakeshore, is the continuation of the loop and your return route. The trail turning left and uphill is the 19-mile Chief Benge Scout Trail, which heads from here to the west towards High Knob. Unfortunately, both routes are yellow-blazed, so make sure to follow the signs and bear right here instead of relying on blaze colors alone. The junction overall, though, is well-marked and not confusing: if you find yourself headed steeply uphill and well away from the lake, you’ve made the wrong turn.
The remainder of the hike sticks close to the lake along its steeper northern banks, providing some great leaf-off views of the wetlands and, eventually, the lake itself. You will also loop through several inlet coves on the return trip back to the recreation area, making sure to ignore a couple of side-paths heading left off of the main trail. These are connector trails for the recreation area’s campground. The trail eventually enters a large grassy area along the lake at the recreation area, where you can turn left and follow the path uphill a short distance to the parking area and your car.
While Bark Camp Lake itself is beautiful, the real star of this hike is the massive wetland area that fans out upstream of the lake’s western end and that is crossed by the large boardwalk on the far end of this loop. Large “bottoms” like these – or relatively flat areas along streams – are common on many of the larger waterways draining the higher elevations of Stone Mountain and High Knob and form unique wetland environments that are typically rare across the steep, high elevations of the central and southern Appalachians.
Wetlands form in these low-lying areas because water tends to flow more slowly through them, forming boggy areas that are often enhanced by damming activity from beavers, which is the case here at Bark Camp and is visible along many portions of this hike. You may, in fact, notice a number of game trails leaving the water and crossing the main footpath as you travel this loop; these are trails made as beavers leave the water to find trees and other wood to chew on and cut, dragging branches back into the lake as they return.
Beyond being scenic, wetlands like these provide habitat for a bewildering array of plants and animals, some that can only survive when wetlands like these are present and remain undisturbed. Examples include the beautiful Spotted Salamander, the regionally rare Mountain Chorus Frog, and a number of wetland-loving birds. These wetlands also provide the region’s human residents with a number of benefits, including free water purification and a form of free flood control, since healthy wetlands can absorb extra water from heavy rainfall events and release them slowly, minimizing flooding in communities downstream.
Unfortunately, though, wetlands are also one of the Cumberlands’ most threatened ecosystems, as many have been drained, ditched, or otherwise disturbed regionwide. The Cumberland Mountains already have fewer wetland habitats than other parts of Appalachia thanks to our steep terrain, making the loss of these habitats especially consequential for both people and wildlife. And the outdoor community is not immune from contributing to these problems. Just across the valley from Bark Camp Lake above the towns of Coeburn and St. Paul, regional recreation groups have routed ATV trails through a number of small wetlands on property owned by The Nature Conservancy – an activity that both kills wetland wildlife and disrupts wetlands’ fragile ecological cycles. Here above Bark Camp Lake, though, motorized use is prohibited and wetlands are still mostly intact, providing a great example of how responsible trail development can allow natural ecosystems to flourish.
Directions: Take four-lane US-58 Alternate west just over three miles from Exit 1 in Coeburn, Virginia to a traffic light where State Route 706 crosses the highway in the unincorporated community of Tacoma. Turn left (south) onto SR-706 and travel four miles up the mountain to a junction with SR-699 (Pine Camp Road) on the left. Turn left onto Pine Camp Road and travel 0.3 miles to a signed turn for Bark Camp Recreation Area on the right. Turn right here and follow this road for 1.6 miles to the signed main entrance for the recreation area on the right. Turn right here and travel down the hill to the recreation area’s main parking area, located just past its fee area kiosk ($3 day use fee).
If traveling from Norton, Virginia, head east on US-58 Alternate from that highway’s junction with US Highway 23 for just under five miles to SR-706 at Tacoma. Turn right onto SR-706 and then follow remaining directions provided above.