“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, un-surveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
— Henry David Thoreau
“The tonic of Wildness,” I simply love that phrase. And for sure, Thoreau is correct — I for one can never have enough of nature. There is a place not far from us here in Franklin County that exudes the image portrayed in these words. It is a place that feels ever so mysterious and unfathomed. It’s a place that in many ways appears to be un-surveyed and indefinitely wild. Some of you will be keenly familiar with it, but I am more often astounded by the number of folks who have never experienced this spectacular getaway or even heard of it for that matter.
Over the years I have literally logged thousands of miles on an endless number of trails throughout the region and have seen and experienced many spectacular spots. This one has always held a special place on my list of favorites: Bottom Creek Preserve just outside Bent Mountain.
Probably wise at this point to clarify and qualify what it means to be a “favorite” destination of mine. Reason being, this particular location will not be for everyone. What I look for in a weekend excursion is not necessarily what others may desire. Simply put, I want seclusion and solitude. This idea of a “tonic of wildness” is vital for me. I enjoy places that with minimal imagination makes you feel as if you are the first and only person to have ever discovered it. As an example, during the past three visits that I made to Bottom Creek Gorge I never once saw another living, breathing human being — none. That’s my kind of destination.
Not that I don’t enjoy spectacular trails like McAfee, Tinker Cliffs, Mount Rogers and the like. But I prefer to visit them in the winter months when the human traffic is at a minimum. Otherwise, I get the same feeling hiking these trails that I would standing in line to get on the rollercoaster at some amusement park. So, if you have a similar desire for the solitude of wild places, then Bottom Creek will not disappoint.
For first timers, Bottom Creek Preserve can be found just 6 miles west of Bent Mountain off Va. 221. But don’t rush down these 6 country miles or you will miss enjoying one of the most scenic drives in the entire state. There will be only one understated sign at the entrance of the preserve that can be easily missed, so watch closely. There is also minimal parking; four, maybe five, cars will fit there at best.
The preserve is fewer than 1,700 acres of land and it borders Bottom Creek. When the water level is up, Bottom Creek hosts Class V kayakers to a challenging float over sections with names like The Kettles, Gravity Cavity, the Eye of the Needle, Gorilla North and my favorite: Crash Test Dummy.
Within the preserve is a network of three well-marked inter-connecting looped trails. Combining these would result in a 5-mile hike. There is so much to see and experience along these trails, it would require a good three hours to adequately enjoy it.
At the 1.5-mile mark there is a short side trail on the left that leads down to the creek at the bottom of this gorge. If the water level is good, hikers are in for a real treat. From this spot you can visualize just upstream the series of cascading waterfalls they call The Kettles. Have a camera with you!
At the 2.5-mile mark will be another side trail that takes you to the Malcom and Jimmie Black Overlook. Here you will be directly across the gorge from the second tallest waterfall in the state. Camp Creek cascades and freefalls more than 200 feet directly into Bottom Creek from the mountains above, creating a spectacular vista. Did I say have a camera with you?
At the 3.5-mile mark, hikers will begin to notice remnants of an old community that once flourished here. According to the preserve’s material, Bottom Creek Gorge was settled in the late 18th century reaching a peak population of around 20 families. Scattered about the gorge are old cabin dwellings, farmsteads, graveyards and stone dwellings built by Civil War deserters. Camera time again!
As far as natural attractions, I can’t make this article long enough to cover all that can be seen here — mixed hardwoods, rhododendron, pine, wildflowers and every kind of berry imaginable. Wildlife is plentiful, also. I seldom visit the preserve without catching photos of deer grazing the open meadow. If you care to bathe in the “tonic of wildness,” you need to add a visit to Bottom Creek Gorge to your must-see list. There is plenty of information online, including photos and video. Start with the Nature Conservancy’s site, www.nature.org and search for Bottom Creek Preserve.
Now, go get wild!