Chief Benge Trail
Chief Benge Trail: This 19.6 mile trail allows hikers to spend multiple days exploring high elevation forests full of rare plants and animals. You will be walking in the footsteps of a notorious Native American warrior --- Chief Bob Benge --- who raided European settlements in southwest Virginia in the late 1700's, killing forty to fifty settlers who had encroached on Native American lands.
Most hikers plan to leave one vehicle at the Hanging Rock (or Little Stony Falls) trailhead and begin their adventure at the High Knob trailhead. This way, they are walking downhill for the majority of their journey. The High Knob trailhead was once home to a fire tower from which visitors could see five states. Although the tower fell victim to an arsonist in 2007, construction is underway to rebuild the structure and expected to re-open to the public by spring of 2014. Until then, the views from the top of High Knob are still riveting --- at 4,162 feet, the peak is one of the highest in southwest Virginia. The lookout is accessed by walking straight up the hill from the parking area. Then walk back down to the parking area and look for the beginning of the Chief Benge Scout Trail on your left as you face the peak.
The first leg of the trail, from the peak to High Knob Lake, is relatively steep --- but not so hard when you're heading downhill! Keep your eyes open for plants and animals usually found in New England. The golden, peeling bark of the Yellow Birch is one indicator that you are walking through a northern hardwood forest while four species of thrush sing in the canopy above your head.
About a mile later, the trail spits you out onto a paved blacktop road --- the entrance to the High Knob Lake recreation area. You can either cross the road and pick up the trail again for a short jaunt beside a swamp where the avid botanist will pick out Grass of Parnassus, or you can turn right down the blacktop and follow the road to the parking area. Either way, once you reach the parking area you should follow the signs through a picnic area to the lake.
High Knob Lake is a perfect place to stop for a short swim before continuing through northern hardwood forest. A loop around the lake gives hikers two options --- follow the left side to stick to the official Chief Benge Scout Trail or go right instead for the wilder path.
After you leave High Knob Lake behind, the trail becomes more wild and rocky (and much less traveled) as it drops down past Mountain Fork and Edith Gap to Bark Camp Lake. The trail crosses Mountain Fork creek multiple times, but the agile hiker can usually keep dry feet. Lush moss-covered logs and dense groves of rhododendron line the hollow while Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Blue, and Black-throated Green Warblers serenade your walk.
You may begin to see other hikers again as you reach the western end of Bark Camp Lake. The trail splits into two paths to follow both sides of the shore --- stay right for peace and tranquility, or head left to reach the campground and day use area where you can take a shower and pitch your tent near a jovial campground host.
Below Bark Camp Lake, you have left the northern hardwood forest behind and have entered central Appalachia's unique cove hardwood forest. This forest is the remnant of a vast tract of deciduous trees which spanned the entire northern hemisphere 60 million years ago. Glaciations in the last couple of million years caused the extinction of the Arcto-Tertiary forest everywhere except a little pocket in eastern Asia and one in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina. Our remnant of the Arcto-Tertiary forest gives this region a higher diversity than anywhere else in the continental United States. The avid botanist will be intrigued to find plants like Tulip-tree which have no relatives anywhere else in the world --- except eastern Asia.
The Little Stony Falls trailhead is the official end of the Chief Benge Scout Trail, but nearly everyone will hike an extra half mile to see the falls themselves. A bridge across the 24 foot high waterfall lets you stand atop rushing water, watching it plunge into the deep pool below. It's hard to resist continuing down the gorge for another three miles to the Hanging Rock trailhead.