St. Paul’s Sugar Hill: A Story of Biological Diversity, Pioneer History, Murder, and Nature Trails

Native Red Columbine along the Cliff Trail. Look up to catch these spring beauties.
Native Red Columbine along the Cliff Trail. Look up to catch these spring beauties.

As travelers pass by the small town of St. Paul, Virginia, on Alternate Route 58, they may notice a fairly large blue and white sign announcing “Hiking/Biking.” I drove by this sign at least a hundred times before I bothered to stop, assuming that the wayside was a small town park with a playground and paved walking path. Imagine my surprise when I was finally introduced to eight miles of maintained trails and frequent information stations threaded through a hundred acres of woodlands and meadows.

Sugar Hill’s paths wind over hill and dale, following a giant sweeping curve of the scenic Clinch River and showcasing our area’s astounding natural heritage and intriguing history. As icing on the cake, the town’s adjoining Oxbow Trail is the entryway to Sugar Hill. The trail encircles a lake created in the 1970s after large floods swept through the town of St. Paul. To prevent further flooding, the river was shortened, bypassing the town and leaving behind easy to develop land in a flood-free zone. The mile-long, graveled Oxbow Trail loops around the lake and provides a great warm up or cool down walk when combined with the more natural trails of Sugar Hill. Together, the trails offer exercise, solitude, and natural beauty to all who hike or pedal there.

A Profusion of Life
Sugar Hill contains the only public hiking trails along the Clinch River in Virginia. This river is Southwest Virginia’s hidden jewel and has been named by The Nature Conservancy as the number one river worth protecting in the entire continental United States. The average hiker is unlikely to stumble across the river’s rarest features — the two-foot-long Hellbender salamander and 21 types of federally threatened or endangered mussels and fish, for example. Even if you miss these rare species, though, a trip along Sugar Hill’s trails reveals an astonishing profusion of plant and animal life.

Spotted Mandarin: One of Sugar Hill's rare flowers.
Spotted Mandarin: One of Sugar Hill’s rare flowers.

The trail system runs through half a dozen habitats and represents a microcosm of central Appalachian ecology. My favorite path is the Cliff Trail, winding up the east side of Sugar Hill past boulder fields and limestone cliffs dripping with Red Columbine and Walking Fern. Spring is the best time to visit, when thousands of trilliums run down the shaded hillside. If you can tear your eyes away from the trillium blooms, you might notice Spotted Mandarin and Guyandotte Beauty, two of the six state-listed rare plants found on Sugar Hill. Other trails pass through floodplain forest, rich cove hardwoods, and oak-hickory hillside communities.

The remains of the Frenchman's Settlement after an arsonist's fire, along with a picnic shelter.
The remains of the Frenchman’s Settlement after an arsonist’s fire, along with a picnic shelter.

A French Baron
The human history of the property is equally intriguing. Hikers who reach the top of the knob step back in time hundreds of years, to the early phases of Southwest Virginia’s European settlement. In 1791, Baron Tubeuf fled France under pressure from the French Revolution to stake out 55,000 acres of land in what is now Wise County and the surrounding area. At the time, this region was considered the Wild West, beyond the control of the European settlers who had reined in the eastern shoreline of the continent. But the Baron was unwilling to seek the protection of established forts. Instead, he settled atop Sugar Hill and proceeded to wage a war of words and harassment upon a mixture of Native Americans, Melungeons, and white settlers who had illicitly settled on or freely used his land and took advantage of him in trades and barters.

Virginia Bluebells near the Frenchman’s Settlement, probably transplanted from the Clinch River. Plants growing far from their natural habitat are often a sign of human habitation.
Virginia Bluebells near the Frenchman’s Settlement, probably transplanted from the Clinch River. Plants growing far from their natural habitat are often a sign of human habitation.

Baron Tubeuf burned cornfields, killed a neighbor’s cow, and sent armed servants to chase men, women, and children through the woods. Despite his show of strength though, Tubeuf had an Achilles heel — he was terrified of snakes. Before leaving Europe, the baron had bought a special pair of boots reputed to be impenetrable to snake bites, but he was no match for the snake-wise inhabitants of Southwest Virginia. Before long, dead rattlesnakes began to appear with regularity on his cabin’s doorstep, and his servants were scared away by men “bearing vicious snakes in sacks.”

On Election Day 1795, Baron Tubeuf was killed under mysterious circumstances by white thieves who escaped custody never to be found again. Now only the chimney and foundation of his cabin remain to mark the spot of this Frenchman’s settlement atop Sugar Hill. Visitors can stop to rest at a nearby picnic shelter, built more recently by an Eagle Scout and housing copies of a wanted poster for the Baron’s killers and a history of the site.

Sign for the Frenchman's Settlement and the River Trail at Sugar Hill in St. Paul, Virginia.
Sign for the Frenchman’s Settlement and the River Trail at Sugar Hill in St. Paul, Virginia.

Plan Your Visit
To reach Sugar Hill, follow Alt. Rte. 58 to St. Paul. Coming from the west, turn right at the first stoplight once you reach St. Paul. Coming from the east, turn left at the second stoplight. In either case, drive to the parking lot at the end of the road. The trailhead is located across the Oxbow Dam from the parking area.

Sugar Hill’s trails are open to hiking, mountain biking, and fishing as long as users pack out their litter and keep dogs under control. No horses or motorized vehicles are allowed. Biking requires an intermediate experience level around the Sugar Hill Loop while the River Trail provides an easier biking experience over flat ground with some sandy and rocky spots. Keep in mind that the town of St. Paul owns the Oxbow Lake Trail and only walking is allowed on that particular pathway.

Our native asters provide fall color and much-needed food for pollinators.
Our native asters provide fall color and much-needed food for pollinators.

The Sugar Hill and Clinch River trail easement was donated to Wise County for public use by the publisher of Mountain Peeks, Frank Kilgore. All users visit at their own risk and should not deviate from the trails, try to pet, feed, or catch wildlife, or remove any plant. The Frenchman might take offense.

For more information about the eight miles of trails, boat launch site, and fishing opportunities at or near Sugar Hill, visit the preserve’s website at www.sugarhillclinch.com.