by Richard Kretz
Richard Kretz is a regionally-acclaimed naturalist and photographer whose digital images capture the vibrant beauty and diversity of nature. His life project is to photographically document as much of the flora and fauna as possible in far Southwest Virginia. He resides at the foot of Clinch Mountain near Lebanon in Russell County, Virginia.
All images contained herein are copyrighted by Richard Kretz unless otherwise noted.
Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is located on the western end of Brumley and Clinch mountains in Washington County, Virginia. The WMA encompasses approximately 6,400 acres, including a 61 acre lake.
Access to the WMA is from Hidden Valley Road on US 19 North. The hardtop road terminates at an area near the top of the mountain referred to as Low Gap. At Low Gap there is a small parking area on the left where the west end trailhead for the new Clinch Mountain Trail is located and another trail emanates that follows the base of the cliffs. Here the road becomes gravel and splits to the right and left. The road to the right (Skycraft Road) continues up the mountain for approximately 1.5 miles. Going left (Hidden Valley Road), the road meanders down to the lake where there is a trailhead at some boulders and gate on the right for a trail along the lake’s south shore, a turnoff to the right for the boat ramp, and another turnoff to the right a little further on for the primitive camping area, terminating at the dam parking area.
Elevation along the ridges of Brumley and Clinch mountains that surround Hidden Valley undulates between approximately 4,000 and 4,200 feet above sea level. At Low Gap, elevation is approximately 3,780 feet; Hidden Valley Lake is approximately 3,600 feet; and at the base of Brumley and Clinch mountains approximately 2,000 feet above sea level.
From a geologic perspective, Brumley and Clinch mountains that surround Hidden Valley were formed during the Appalachian Orogeny, which occurred during the mid to late Paleozoic Era over 300 million years ago. This was a time when surface layers of the Earth’s crust, called plates, collided with tremendous force, overriding one another, folding, and faulting to create mountains. Rock from this period includes limestone, dolomite, sandstone, and shale. Thus, the Clinch Mountain chain, a natural geographic barrier that runs northeasterly from Tennessee into West Virginia, was formed. Fossilized flora and fauna, such as shell-like Brachiopods and Arthrophycus trace fossils that lay on the seabed about 350 million years ago, are found in rocks high on the mountains. Little Moccasin Gap, located immediately below Hidden Valley, is one of only two true gaps through Clinch Mountain.
After the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, the area surrounding Hidden Valley was lushly vegetated. Forests of centuries-old trees, many over a hundred feet tall, with trunks so large it would take several men to stretch their arms around, dominated the landscape. A high elevation cranberry bog flourished where Hidden Valley Lake now glimmers. Eastern bison, elk, white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, cougars, wolves and many species of birds were on the mountain. Brumley Creek was full of native trout (actually a variety of cold water char), and the North Fork of the Holston River contained a large variety of fish as well as freshwater mussels.
The first people to arrive in the area surrounding Hidden Valley probably came down the Holston River or followed trails made by animal herds. The earliest known evidence of humans in far southwest Virginia are projectile points, such as these found in Hansonville at the base of Clinch Mountain, dating from the early archaic period between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. It is not known who these people were, but Native Americans from time immemorial have considered this region as sacred hunting grounds, and permanent settlement was forbidden. However, there is plenty of evidence of temporary hunting stations. One such station, dating at least as far back as the woodland period about 700 years ago, was in Hansonville. It was also a strategic location that controlled access and trade through Little Moccasin Gap where Route 19 runs from Hansonville toward Abingdon.
Europeans began exploring and surveying far southwest Virginia in the late 1600s. Indian tribes encountered in those days included the Cherokee and Shawnee. Immigrants began settling the area surrounding Hansonville, Clinch, and Brumley mountains during the 1740s. Troubles pioneers had with the Indians resulted from building permanent settlements in sacred hunting areas and along trails used for centuries for trading and warfare. Daniel Boone and his family traveled through Little Moccasin Gap and resided at Moore’s Fort in nearby Castlewood from 1773 through 1775. By the summer of 1774, Indian hostilities increased. Captain William Russell, who settled in Castlewood in 1770, was placed in command of both Moore’s Fort and Fort Blackmore and ordered to “collect all the settlers in the Clinch Valley into the forts.”
In early July 1776, John Douglas, who served as a Sergeant in the militia under Captain William Cocke in August 1774, was shot and killed by Indians in Little Moccasin Gap, just south of where Hidden Valley Road turns off from US 19 North, while returning to Clinch after visiting friends and relatives in Holston. The Daughters of the American Revolution erected a plaque at the site and a rest stop was established known as John Douglas Wayside. By the late 1800s, many more newcomers were traveling through Little Moccasin Gap and settling in the surrounding area. During this time, John Hanson built and successfully operated a store at the northern mouth of Little Moccasin Gap, close to where the Indians had established a temporary hunting station centuries before.
At the turn of the 20th century, the forests on Clinch and Brumley mountains surrounding Hidden Valley were still virgin. The timber industry was booming by then, and a small gauge railroad along Brumley Creek was built to haul out the logs. Oral histories claim a tree had to be at least four feet in diameter when chest high on a man to be logged out. Few trees of that size remain today. Later that size requirement was forsaken, and most all of the trees on the mountain were harvested. The forest surrounding Hidden Valley today is secondary growth. Remnants of the old narrow gauge railroad can still be found along Brumley Creek below the dam of Hidden Valley Lake, as well as several other unmarked timber trails and roads zigzagging across the mountain.
By 1963, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) acquired Hidden Valley, upgraded the small dam, and created Hidden Valley Lake. During the spring of 1978, Appalachian Electric Power Company (AEP) targeted Hidden Valley and the community of Brumley Gap for the creation of what was intended to be the world’s largest pumped storage facility. At an estimated cost of $2 billion, the project plan was to dam Brumley Creek at the gap, flood the valley, pump the water up to Hidden Valley Lake, and then release it back into the valley during peak demand, thus generating as much as 3,000 megawatts of electricity. A metal container to house water monitoring equipment that was helicoptered in and assembled in pieces in a gorge along Brumley Creek about two miles below the dam can still be seen. Approximately 300 families would have been displaced by this project. A David and Goliath struggle ensued, as the citizens of Brumley Gap fought AEP. Ultimately a series of delays caused AEP to cancel the project. In November 1988, Hidden Valley Lake was drained to repair the spillway below the dam and was refilled in July 1989. Over the years, VDGIF has routinely stocked Hidden Valley Lake with a variety of fish with varying degrees of success.
Low Gap is an area at the top of Hidden Valley Road where the road transitions from pavement to gravel with a small parking area on the left. Two trails can be accessed from the parking area: a trail that leads to the base of some cliffs referred to here as the Cliff Trail, and the western terminus of the newly dedicated Brumley Mountain Trail. The Cliff Trail is on private land, and the Brumley Mountain Trail starts on VDGIF public land, crosses Baptist Camp private land with permission, then traverses Channels State Forest land and the Channels Natural Area Preserve, then to Route 80 at Hayter’s Gap. A newly restored lodge atop nearby Raven’s Ridge is now open for rental: www.airbnb.com/rooms/295257. You can read about the newly opened trail here.
Brumley Mountain Trail officially opened June 11th, 2012, and is dedicated to the memory of Jack Kestner and Charles Kennedy. Frank Kilgore, the publisher of Mountain Peeks, was the driving force in coordinating efforts with land owners and agencies, surveying the trail, and coordinating and supervising work efforts to complete it. Accessed from the northern side of the parking area at Low Gap, the well-marked trail averages 3,800 feet and maintains a grade of 10% or less as it follows the meanders of the Brumley/Clinch Mountain complex approximately fourteen miles along the Washington and Russell county lines east to US Route 80 at Hayter’s Gap.
Five land-owning parties were involved in making the trail possible: VDGIF, which maintains the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area, Virginia Department of Forestry (DOF) and Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) Natural Heritage Division, which jointly manage the Channels State Forest, and Brumley Cove Baptist Camp. An easement along the old fire tower road was donated by Alona Kennedy after her husband, Charles, passed away after years of dedicating himself to the protection of the mountain.
Open only to foot traffic, the trail allows hikers to transit southern Appalachian and northern hardwood forests, high elevation cove forest, and calcareous cliff plant communities, with high elevation vistas into Russell County. Near its eastern extremity the trail provides access to The Channels.
Access to Hidden Valley Lake is the gravel road that splits to the left at Low Gap proceeding downhill. The lake is a 61 acre high elevation impoundment managed by VDGIF. At approximately 3,600 feet above sea level, it is nestled in a valley just 400 feet or so below the surrounding ridges of Brumley and Clinch mountains. Discharge from Hidden Valley Lake below the dam forms the headwaters of Brumley Creek which flows east. The deepest point of the lake is about 24 feet at the eastern end near the dam, and shallowest is a few inches at the western end. Fishing opportunities presently include Largemouth Bass, Northern Pike, Channel Catfish, Sunfish, and Crappie.
Approximately 4,000 feet in elevation, four states (North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia) can be seen from Buzzard Rock, a cliff above Hansonville near the Clinch Mountain Trail. In the photo below, Little Moccasin Gap, one of only two true gaps through the mountain, is seen on the left as the backbone of Clinch Mountain trends southwest to northeast. Many pioneers passed through this gap en route to the Cumberlands and westward.
In addition to fishing, boating and camping can be enjoyed at Hidden Valley Lake. As you drive down the road from Low Gap, you will see a brown sign for a public boat ramp and turn-off to your right. There is a large parking area with a cement boat ramp and a porta-potty. Only electric motors may be used on the lake. About a half mile beyond the turn-off for the boat ramp is a second turn-off on the right to an area designated for primitive camping. Here you will find another porta-potty and a water pump. Camping elsewhere at Hidden Valley is permitted but must be 100 yards from the lake. If, instead of turning off to the boat ramp or camping area, you continue down the road, it terminates in a small parking area at the dam. There is a trail around the south side of Hidden Valley Lake that can either be accessed by walking across the dam or at the small pull-off on the right with gate and boulders as you descend the road from Low Gap.
The discharge below the dam of Hidden Valley Lake is Brumley Creek. In the early 1900s, a narrow-gauge railroad used for logging operations followed the creek for several miles, crossing it several times on trestles. Remnants from this railroad can be seen amidst dense rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets if you hike downstream from the dam. Roughly three miles downstream is the confluence with Little Brumley Creek and a fifteen foot waterfall. Three or so miles further the creek flows through Brumley Creek Baptist Camp. Brumley Creek still has native trout, and in spring Pink Ladies’ Slippers and other wildflowers adorn its banks.