Dickenson County Highpoint Trip Report

Birch Knob (3,149 ft)

Dates: April 22-24, 2006
Author: Patrick Craft

Birch Knob, the HP of Pike KY and Dickenson VA, is located along the state line on Pine Mountain. I knew there was a trail on Pine Mountain and have wanted to hike this trail for a few years. I even picked up the guide from the District Ranger office in Wise, as well as the topo maps. I planned to hike the trail with my son and another father/son from our cub pack. Both boys are 9 years old and we all did a 3 day backpack on the Ridge trail at the Cumberland Gap NHP last spring. I summited BM Caldwell but walked past Oesers Dome on the way to Sand Cave. I never made it to Oesers Dome. The four of us met at Pound Gap/US 23 after the Ritterbuschs left a car at Elkhorn City. Breaks Interstate Park is a nearby Virginia state park on a gorge cut by the Russell Fork river. This river is dam controlled by the Corps and is a premier SE whitewater paddle when flowing in the fall.

The trail begins behind the Apostolic Church, out to the tower, and then becomes a nice ridge trail. There were many small cliffs and outstanding views; High Knob, Big A, Clinch, and Mount Rogers to the east with the rolling hills of Kentucky to the west. At mile 5.6 the trail descends and crosses a stream at the Doubles. Unfortunately, the trail becomes a rather nasty ATV track with monster potholes, through a mile of logged land. The ATV track continues to the Forest Service road at Mullins Pond but becomes slightly less nasty past the first power line crossing, about mile 9.7. We camped in an overused site almost on the Dickenson/Wise county line, halfway to Osborne Gap. We built a fire and feasted on Smores.

The next day we packed and hiked to the Forest Service road then road walked to the tower on Birch Knob, mile 12.2. We rested after climbing the 184 stairs to the platform. After the ATV track, we really hoped the trail got better. It did. The trail was a nice double-track past the tower, continuing to follow the ridgeline to the northeast. Past Blowing Rock Gap were some tremendous cliffs on the KY side of the mountain. At mile 14.0, we camped 100 yards down the Counts Cabin Trail. We again collected firewood, ate dinner and the last of the Smores, then went to bed.

On our third day, we had 14 miles to go and we were unsure of our ability to hike this. I had the topos and a few ideas about places to bail off the mountain. All along this section (and the entire trail) there were great views; the previously-mentioned mountains, active mountain top removal strip jobs, and large reclaimed areas. It was impressive. Below the gap east of Skeet Rock Knob showed a jeep trail leading down to KY 197. The entire Kentucky side of the ridge was cliffed out but we found a spot we could safely descend. We descended very steeply down a logging skid. It then leveled out and we came out on the access road to the quarry on Polecat Branch. Large dump trucks loaded with gravel rumbled down the road, empty ones flew up. By the time we reached Rough Branch, we stopped to soak our feet. After a good rest we began our 3 mile road walk to the Elkhorn City. Our 20 mile trip ended and we drove to Pikeville to grab some lunch.

Interestingly the McDonald’s where we ate lunch was on reclaimed land from the Levisa River. In order to make more land for the growing eastern Kentucky town, the powers that be cut straight through the mountain, relocating the US 23 and river. The "Pikeville Cut" is not all the impressive a road cut; when compared to one like Beaucatcher Cut in Asheville but I wondered at the strings that were pulled to relocate a river. Back to pound Gap, my car and home.

Overall a great weekend and great trail (except the previously mentioned section). A few notes follow. It appears much of the VA side of Pine Mountain between the Doubles and Big Lick Gap is privately owned, hence the very poor trail. With all the road improvements, this area is easily accessed via US 23, from the north or south. The Pine Mountain Trail Conference hopes to extend the trail to the Cumberland Gap. The views were outstanding, there were arches, alcoves, cliffs and caves. Water was plentiful and we saw salamanders, wild turkey, deer, and coyote scat. Recommend the trail guide and USGS topos Pound/Clintwood VA, Hellier/Elkhorn City KY. Also see the Trails Illustrated Clinch RD map.