Russell County High Point Trip Report

Date: April 2000
Author: Ron Tagliapietra

Beartown is certainly the highest remaining "virgin" county HP in the East (its the only one in the highest 50 East that neither I nor Fred have done). I am certain that it well deserves its place in the Eastern toughest 20. This was my second attempt (the first never left the car since we realized we lacked time, especially as it was raining). This time we had topo maps, compass, good weather (though there was snow on top), got a little head start by backpacking part of the way in, and had a GPS. Still we turned back 0.9 mi. from the BM. Before you tackle it, consult the summit quad and the next quad east and carefully consider these comments.

Exit I-81 at Chilhowie onto VA 107. Drive north perhaps 10 miles to VA 91 at Saltville. Go left and not far to Alison Gap road. Turn right and continue on this road to the Clinch Mountain wildlife management area sign. Turn right and drive up the gravel road several miles to the area boundary and buildings. Just beyond the first buildings (concession, camping permits on the right) is the ranger's residence (also on right) and just beyond that not the gravel road signed "Muck" on the left. Take this road a mile or so to the gate at the end. Park so as not to block gate. This trailhead is at about 2500 ft. so even the net gain will be over 2000 feet.

Notice that a minor road turns left off of the main gravel road near the buildings on Big Tumblin Creek. Notice also that this "road" forks higher up with the right route going to Mutters Gap with a possible 2 mile approach from the northeast (the ranger said he knew of no route to Mutters Gap, so we scrapped this idea). Notice also the left branch of the road that goes up to the flats and crosses a ridge line that ascends a south ridge (ranger suggested this but said the only remnants of a trail remain on the ridge itself). Notice also that in between it looks possible to ascend almost to the summit on Red Creek (the ranger said this is a continuous miserable tangle of rhododendrons). Finally, notice the broad ridge south of Red Creek that goes west to the summit area (this became our approach route).

We parked at the gate as previously recommended and walked maybe a tenth of a mile to a fork and turned right up the more used way (ahead is grassy), which I now suspect took us off the intended south ridge route and pointed us toward Mutters Gap. In about the same distance again we came to another fork (at blue blazes) and chose to go slightly up left rather than down right, which I now believe took us off the route to Mutters Gap over 3 miles away (more enticing if it could be reached from the north as its not far from a paved highway). To the left the road-dead ended very soon in a large grassy area. We had come only 0.2 miles and faced a steep slope after 5:00 pm. We ascended as best we could off trail with packs until 6:00. The first ascent tops out on a narrow ridge (key spot when returning) which ascends right, eventually flattens out, and ascends again to join a somewhat larger ridge. At this point we camped (very nice spot, free, and no permit needed).

In the morning we continued up the ridge about 8:00 am. The main landmark is a small bump and dip just before it ascends broadly to cliffs. A good path ascends left of the cliff and a passable one ascends a cleft at right. Once above the cliffs, you will finally be on the broad ridge that goes left (west) toward the goal. Note the spot for your return. As you ascend left you will soon see a large tree with a distinctive N shape (a major trunk having grown downward before returning upward).

The broad ridge is great traveling through open woods. The main summit is rocky outcrops and cliffs but the roughest parts can be easily skirted along the right (north side). After descending to the next gap and beginning to climb, you will come to more rock cliffs. You have a choice of trying to skirt left, right, or ascend the fissure in the middle. We chose the last which goes through a natural bridge to the north side. We then re-climbed into the central area and continued ahead into easy rocky areas with scattered rhododendron to a summit area where we found a red marker or two. This is where our intended South Ridge Route joined our actual East Ridge Route. As we returned we learned that if we had skirted the cliffs left and ascended the cleft of broken down rocks at the next curve we could have saved at least 15 minutes or more. I was happy to link back to the intended ridge where we hoped for trail remnants and we were now at 4500 feet elevation so less than 200 feet of elevation remained. However, this was the beginning of the end for us.

We wandered some on this rounded summit trying to go northwest. The brush was not terrible but worse than anything thus far. We soon found part of an airplane and continued to find portions of it for the next tenth mile or so. Beyond the plane we got into deep rhododendron and spent over an hour and reached only the gap toward the next subpeak west. By this time we needed to eat lunch. I realized that at our present rate it could be dark before we completed the last 0.75 miles much less returned. We tried to continue, from our tiny clearing but more rhodies surrounded us both north and west, so we scrapped it. Amazingly as soon as we tried to return we found a trail remnant and followed it quickly near a couple of the plane portions and all the way back to the first red marker (eye level attached to tree). This saved a good 1.5 hours and if we had found it early we might have made the summit (assuming it continues). The key is to stay on the path toward the south edge of the summit ridge and avoid the rhody thickets.

Finding the remnant trail returning and then the shortcut by the cliffs saved us much time returning and will be useful to future ascents. However, it is good we returned when we did because we reached the car at 3:00 pm and Greenville at 9:00 pm.