Highroad Guide to the Virginia Mountains
By Deane and Garvey Winegar
The Powell River Valley spreads 30 miles across Virginia's southwestern corner. Defined by Cumberland and Stone mountains to the west, and Wallen Ridge and Powell Mountain to the east, the valley narrows as it stretches 60 miles northeast from the Tennessee border of Scott County into southern and western Wise County.
The Powell River, which helped carve the Powell River Valley, takes a leisurely trip through some of the most remote and rugged mountain country in Virginia. Beginning modestly at an altitude of 3,500 feet in the Plateau sandstone of western Wise County, the river gains strength and authority as it passes the coal towns of Norton and Appalachia. Then it churns through the pass it has carved between Stone and Little Stone mountains at Big Stone Gap [Fig. 12]. The Powell enters the Valley and Ridge province to make its own contribution to picturesque Powell Valley.
The shoving and jostling of land masses 250 to 300 million years ago created a curious fold at the northeastern end of Powell Valley that almost shut it off from the rest of the world. Framed by Little Stone Mountain on the northwest, Powell Mountain on the southeast, and Wallen Ridge to the south, the pastoral valley has an arrowhead shape, pointed toward Norton. So striking is the view, an overlook was created on the northbound side of US 23, 4 miles south of Norton.
At Big Stone Gap, the South Fork of the Powell River, emptying Big Cherry Reservoir from atop Powell Mountain, joins forces with the Powell River proper. The larger river squeezes between Stone Mountain and Wallen Ridge to enter Lee County and heads for the Tennessee line in the southwestern corner of Virginia, eventually to join the Tennessee River. Opportunities for recreation on public land lie in the navigable part of the Powell River and in the mountains that frame the valley (see Appalachian Plateau). Also, a new natural area in Lee County is helping to protect a critical watershed.
Between Norton and Appalachia, look for signs along US 23 and Alternate 58 indicating where the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has stocked trout. The trout fishing signs are white, and are posted to trees beside stocked streams and lakes in the mountains. A mining-related fish kill in 1996 drastically reduced fish populations in the North Fork of the Powell, which drains Stone Mountain and the Plateau area north of Pennington Gap. The game department will resume stocking when water quality is restored.
Below Big Stone Gap, the river becomes wide and slow enough for canoeing and kayaking. Anglers wade, fish from the bank, and put boats in at road crossings during the early spring spawning runs of the native sauger and walleye. Once this season is over, they revert to smallmouth bass, rock bass (redeye), and channel and flathead catfish. Most of the Powell is considered public waters, especially below Big Stone Gap, but public canoe and boat ramps do not exist.
A bridge crossing a river where a canoe or small boat can be slid into the water is a public access, and anglers and floaters do launch and take out at crossings such as US 58, Alternate 58, and VA 421, as well as several secondary roads. Above Big Stone Gap, wading is the preferred method of fishing. Below the city, on the 90-mile trip to the Tennessee state line, the Powell is well suited to floating. A good topo map may be necessary to locate launch sites.
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