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Far Southwest Virgina


Link to video http://youtu.be/5uqAVmJQ8jM

Far Southwest Virginia: One Of The Last Great Places On Earth

Nestled away in remote Appalachia is a little known place simply referred to as far southwest Virginia. It's a place where heavy morning fog rises slowly from sleepy valleys as the sun comes up. It's a place where fish laden rivers and streams run fast, cold, and clear. Birds chatter incessantly and colorful wildflowers bloom in the verdant mountains, forests, and fields. The famous Appalachian Trail meanders through here.

Perhaps the artist Vincent Van Gogh described it best when he said: "If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere." This is certainly true of far southwest Virginia, for nature abounds. In the 1990s The Nature Conservancy (TNC) labeled this region’s extraordinary ecological and biological diversity as one of the “last great places on Earth”. You may dream of exploring Africa, Asia, or the Amazon to find adventure or exotic plants and animals, but in far southwest Virginia all you need do is open your backdoor and step outside.

Here's why: Southwest of the Interstate 77 corridor, 12 Virginia counties embrace 5,500 square miles. Within this area are approx. one million acres of national forests, state forests, wildlife management areas, preserves, parks, protected lands, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Watersheds from the Clinch, Powell, and Holston Rivers rise to form the headwater drainages of the great Tennessee River system. These scenic rivers are clean, teaming with fish, and support the world’s largest concentration of freshwater mussels. About 12,000 years ago Native Americans arrived in far southwest Virginia. They certainly paddled up the Clinch, Powell, and Holston Rivers and followed ancient paths, called traces, made by Buffalo. Many of these Buffalo traces are under modern roads and highways in use today.

Three physiographic provinces occur in southwest Virginia: The Blue Ridge, containing the highest elevations in the Commonwealth, the Appalachian Plateau province, widely known for its reserves of coal and natural gas, and the rugged Valley and Ridge province, whose mountains and valleys were created by tectonic plate collisions and erosion.

Located in the western extremity of southwest Virginia, the southeastern portion of the Appalachian Plateau province possesses a rugged surface character. This hides its much less dramatic geological structure comprised of gently sloping sedimentary remnants of an ancient seabed that merge almost imperceptibly into the Great Plains. One transition point from the Appalachian Plateau province to the mountainous Valley and Ridge province occurs at historic Cumberland Gap at the extreme western tip of Virginia. Cumberland Gap is an area long used by Native Americans, by explorers and long-hunters in the 1600s, and by Daniel Boone in the mid-1700s during construction of Wilderness Road. The road served as a gateway to the West, and changed hands several times between Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War.

Mountains of the Valley and Ridge province formed between 450 and 350 million years ago during the mountain building process at the end of the Ordovician period when Earth's tectonic plates collided with tremendous force. Sixteen of Virginia’s seventeen peaks exceeding 4,500 ft. are found in far southwest Virginia. With steep sides and narrow ravines, these mountains contain the greatest concentration of mountain gorges and extreme whitewater creeks in Virginia, providing numerous and often spectacular waterfalls. Three mountainous areas of particular note include: Mount Rogers-Whitetop, the Clinch Mountain range, and the High Knob Landform.

Virginia's highest mountain, Mount Rogers, has a summit elevation of 5,729 ft. above sea level. Sometime during the pre-Cambrian eon, about 750 million years ago, volcanoes erupted here along the axis of what would later become the Appalachian Mountains. Remnants of these lava flows are found here in volcanic rock called rhyolite. The Mount Rogers area is also the only place in Virginia where geological evidence of glaciation is preserved. These ice ages happened prior to the presence of abundant life on Earth. Neighboring Whitetop Mountain, similar in appearance to Mt. Rogers, is the second highest peak in Virginia with an elevation of 5,520 ft, and has a cloud forest near its summit. Ecological islands in the sky, both mountains have plants and animals more commonly found much farther north, along with organisms that show speciation from isolation.

Clinch Mountain runs almost 150 miles in a generally northeast direction from Signal Point peak near Blaine, TN to Garden Mountain near Burke's Garden, VA. It separates the Clinch and Holston River basins, providing a geographic barrier with only two natural gaps in its entire length. The mountain provides a natural migration route for soaring birds during seasonal migrations. Because of the steep slopes of these mountains, the gaps controlled access to the sacred, yet contentious, Kanta-ke (Kentucky) hunting grounds to the north and west. Native Americans warred for centuries over hunting and fishing rights to these lands rich in game, fish, and edible plants.

At the core of far southwest Virginia is the imposing High Knob Landform, looming over the Powell River Valley. The erosional remnant of a an even more massive mountain, which at over 100 air miles in length and 10 air miles in width, is the most dominant feature of the 3,125 square mile Cumberland Overthrust Block. The wettest region in the state, the High Knob area receives an average of 60 to 70 inches of precipitation each year, impacting weather in all of southwestern Virginia.

Southwest Virginia also has large areas of karst topography, famous for having many caves and sinkhole systems. More than 2,500 caves are currently documented, but many more are yet to be discovered. The longest cave system in Virginia (tied for 15th longest in the US and tied for 61st longest in the world) is the almost 29 mile long Omega Cave System near Big Stone Gap in Wise Co. It has a vertical depth of 1,263 feet, making it the deepest cave east of the Rockies and north of Mexico in North America.

These geologic, topographic, and climactic features provide conditions in far southwest Virginia to support a unique blend of northern and southern forests. These conditions are ideally suited for tremendous ecological and biological diversity, along with the origin, development, and support for populations of rare species. As a result, there are more than 400 species of rare and endangered plants and animals found here, and certainly more to be found. The variety of organisms living in these diverse habitats is simply astounding.

Until decimated by logging and then blight in the early 1900s, the American Chestnut tree at one time comprised as much as 25% of the region's forests. Today roughly 1,900 species of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants are documented in far southwest Virginia, including approx. 130 species of trees, 76 species of fern and fern allies, almost 40 species of orchid, and 2 dozen violet species. Some of our many imperiled plants include Running Glade Clover, Virginia Round-Leaf Birch, Round-Leaf Sundew, Canby's Mountain Lover, Glade Spurge, and Alabama Grape Fern, to name only a few.

In the Clinch, Holston, and Powell Rivers about 18 species of rare and endangered fish are found, including the Paddlefish, and threatened aquatic creatures such as the Spiny River Snail and Eastern Hellbender Salamander (3rd largest salamander in the world). Further, there are roughly 55 threatened freshwater crustaceans including crayfish, isopods, and amphipods. These rivers also support the world's greatest concentration of freshwater mussels, of which 26 of the remaining 45 species are globally rare, including 13 listed as federally imperiled.

Reptiles and amphibians found in southwestern Virginia include approximately 9 frog, 4 toad, 17 snake, 3 lizard, 11 turtle, and 35 salamander species. In one 2,000 acre plot on Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, 20 species of salamanders are known, the largest concentration of salamander species in an area that size on Earth. All 16 species of Virginia's bats are protected and there are more than 50 unique, rare, and endangered cave organisms such as the Unthanks Cave Snail, Lee Co. Cave Isopod, and Southwestern Virginia Cave Isopod.

A birding hotspot, southwest Virginia is located in the midst of the migratory flyway. Each year during September thousands of Broad-Winged Hawks and other raptors are meticulously counted from a fire tower above the town of Mendota as they migrate south. Southwest Virginia is one of the few places in the east where both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles can be seen. Also in September, friends and birders from around the country gather at a home near Grundy to observe and photograph upwards of 70 avian species inclusive of 30 species of migrating fall warblers. Six different woodpeckers, including Pileated and Red-Headed woodpeckers, several species of vireos, wrens, cuckoos, tanagers, and many more are recorded from this area. In all, perhaps 175 species of terrestrial birds, not including waterfowl, occur here, and several of these are listed as threatened.

Terrestrial invertebrates are some of the most uncelebrated creatures found in far southwest Virginia. These include insects, centipedes, millipedes, and spiders. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries estimates Virginia has between 18,000 and 20,000 of these invertebrates with approximately 150 listed as endangered or threatened. Examples of rare and uncommon invertebrates found in extreme southwest Virginia include the Hayhurst's Scallopwing, Northern Metalmark, Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail, Diana's Fritillary, Gemmed Satyr, and Juniper Hairstreak butterflies; dragonflies such as the Cherokee Clubtail; and the Big Cedar Creek Millipede.

A crucial, often overlooked, aspect of southwest Virginia's forests are fungi, perhaps more than 600 species. Ninety percent of the living stuff, called biomass, in a forest floor is fungal. Bacteria, insects and their larvae, algae, and other things comprise the remaining ten percent. Aside from being the best decomposers, fungi have a symbiotic relationship with trees. Trees are highly dependent upon thousands of miles of mycorrhizal fungal threads associated with their roots that tap into distant nutrient and water sources for healthy growth and survival. In return, trees provide fungi with sugars needed to produce fruit bodies.

Considering that much of our flora and fauna is still to be discovered, this area is truly a natural laboratory. So, if you love nature, far southwest Virginia is one of the last great places on Earth for both scientist and artist. Here, beauty is everywhere; just open your backdoor and step out.


Breaks Interstate Park
:: Breaks Interstate Park ::
Bristol Area
:: Bristol Area ::
Buchanan County
:: Buchanan County ::
Clinch Mountain & Environs
:: Clinch Mountain & Environs ::
Dickinson County
:: Dickinson County ::
Grayson County
:: Grayson County ::
Lee County
:: Lee County ::
Miscellanous Places
:: Miscellanous Places ::