Overview : Approximately 3.5-mile one-way hike through Roaring Branch Cove, a scenic area of old-growth forest above southwest Virginia's Powell ... more »
Approximately 3.5-mile one-way hike through Roaring Branch Cove, a scenic area of old-growth forest above southwest Virginia's Powell ... more »River. Although this trail is commonly referred to as the Roaring Branch Trail by locals, it is formally the eastern end of the Stone Mountain Trail, a much longer path connecting the Powell River with Cave Spring Recreation Area in the Jefferson National Forest. The most popular portion of this trail - a moderate dayhike from the Powell River through old-growth forests to High Butte Overlook - is mapped here.
The Roaring Branch Trail provides some of southwest Virginia's most scenic streamside scenery, as well as some of the only old-growth forest in this portion of the state. Centuries-old hemlocks line the middle portions of this hike, and the climb to High Butte provides a fascinating example of forest transitions in the southern Appalachians as one moves from moist, sheltered coves to drier ridgetops. The view from High Butte Overlook, near the turnaround point for this hike, provides a sweeping vista of the Powell River Valley. less «
Hikers should be aware that parking is limited along US-23 at the trailhead. Most dayhikers park in a series of gravel pullouts just... more » south of the trailhead and walk back along the highway to the trail. Please be aware that this stretch of road is often busy, and extreme caution should be used if walking along US-23 to the trailhead. Cars are likely best not left unattended along the road overnight. The start of the trail is at the base of a set of stone stairs heading up from the road just to the left of a scenic waterfall on Roaring Branch just beside the highway. A Virginia DOT sign is placed at the trailhead, but there is no formal sign announcing the trail itself (although Roaring Branch is obvious).
Hikers should also be aware that there are no footbridges at several stream crossings along the trail, and these would become difficult after periods of extremely wet weather. less «
Although trailhead parking is limited, a series of small gravel pulloffs along US-23 is the best place to park a car to get to the start of the trail. To reach the trailhead, you will need to cross the road to a set of stone steps beside the bridge over Roaring Branch. Please take care crossing the highway, as it receives heavy traffic and... More crossing occurs near a curve.Less
The beginning of the trail is marked by a Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail sign and a series of stone steps. Watch your step going uphill, as they will be slippery if it has rained recently.
The steep set of stone stairs you are using to climb the lowest reaches of Roaring Branch Cove was originally constructed in the 1970s by the Youth Conservation Corps. These steps (while exhausting to climb!) serve an important role to the trail itself by preventing erosion of the moist soil along this steep stretch of mountainside.
Hemlock trees are abundant in this forest but are dwindling nationwide due to a sap-sucking insect, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (Adelges tsugae). This insect arrived in the U.S. in the 1920s from Asia and is deemed an invasive species due to it being non-native to our region.
The adelgid arrived in Virginia in the 1950s and is slowly killing... More the hemlocks off across much of their range. The adelgid specifically attacks the hemlocks by feeding off of nutrients in the trees' sap. Although adult adelgids can be virtually invisible to the naked eye, their egg cases can be seen on the underside of a hemlock branch, appearing as white "puffballs" (see photo above).
The first major stream crossing on the trail can often be made dry-shod. This crossing can get high enough to become a wade, however, if the water is high.
The path gets a bit muddy in this seepage area. There is a makeshift bridge in the mud using logs to cross this area - watch your step! In the southern Appalachians, seepage areas such as these can harbor incredibly abundant salamander populations.
Can you find any wildlife under rocks and logs in this area? If so, snap a photo (please don't... More handle or otherwise harm wildlife) and submit it to our iNaturalist page, linked below, to help us learn more about wildlife in southwest Virginia.
Another small stream crossing. This is a good place to take a rest, listen to the sound of the birds around you or to look in and around the stream for wildlife. Many frogs, salamanders or small invertabrates make their home in this habitat.
The trail appears to split here, but the path tracking to the right side of the cove clearly dies in just a few feet. Thicker woods appear as you are traveling further away from the stream you were walking beside at the start of the trail.
As you walk along this portion of the trail, you will notice that many trees are of incredibly large size, relative to other forests in the region. Many of the trees in this forest were not chopped down when the major logging companies were in business earlier in Appalachian history in the early 20th century. Only small patches of old-growth... More remain in the mountains today from the ancient forest that once covered the mountains, and these areas often are found where terrain prevented large-scale logging. Roaring Branch Cove is one of these special places. Take a look around - there are many trees that have diameters of 10 feet or larger, including some hemlocks that are over 300 years old!Less
You appear to be walking into a dense tunnel in the forest along this stretch of trail. This "tunnel" is actually a dense growth of rhododendron arching over the trailbed. Some biologists believe that this shrub has increased in population size since the fungal blight that virtually eliminated the American Chestnut tree in the early... More 20th century. The chestnut trees contain a chemical compound that has been shown to inhibit the growth of rhododendron and other plants, providing evidence that the chestnuts helped to control the composition of Appalachian forests through "chemical warfare," called allelopathy in biology.
Today, chestnut breeding projects are underway to incorporate blight-resistant traits from the Chinese Chestnut (a close evolutionary cousin) into American Chestnuts, which could then be replanted across the East. Southwest Virginia is home to both one of the main research farms engaged in this work near Meadowview, with several sites locally near Roaring Branch planting the first trials of these potentially blight-resistant trees.Less
The mature forest and thickets of Rhododendron in Roaring Branch Cove make wonderful homes for a common Appalachian bird, the Ruffed Grouse. If you become lucky enough to encounter one of these birds, they will sound like a tractor going off in the distance or a gun shot (if you are really close) as they fly away. Many long-time Appalachian... More residents say that one feels this bird's presence before it is actually seen - a fact that many can identify with when they flush a grouse in the forest!Less
Near this point in the hike is when you begin to finally "top out" at the head of Roaring Branch Cove. At this point, you have also traveled the entire length of a mountain stream, from its mouth (at the Powell River) to its source (at the spring just below the ridgeline).
Ridgetop environments such as this also tend to be drier and... More warmer than riparian, or streamside, forests along the water. Do you notice a visual difference in the forest here, compared to the one that you hiked through earlier?
Beyond the head of the cove, the trail continues as the Stone Mountain Trail for a total of 14.3 miles one-way. This trail ultimately links Roaring Branch with Cave Spring Recreation Area at its western terminus and Lake Keokee via a short side-trail approximately one mile from the head of the cove.
Hikers may wish to continue on the Stone... More Mountain Trail along the ridgeline a short distance to High Butte, a rock bluff with a fantastic view overlooking Powell Valley, before turning around to head back to the trailhead.Less