Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA), the second largest WMA in Virginia, is also the state’s most biologically diverse. The steep rise from the valley floor at 1,600 feet to the highest peak of 4,700 feet is the primary reason for the diversity. At lower elevations, southern hardwoods—trees more typical of north Georgia—prevail, along with related bird and animal life. These trees include white oak, American beech, sweet gum, black gum, sourwood, and various hickories. At higher elevations, look for the peeling, pale-yellow bark of abundant yellow birch. Also, there’s Eastern hemlock, sugar maple (which turns bright red in fall), American beech, pitch pine, table mountain pine, Virginia pine, and northern red oak. Four counties—Washington, Russell, Tazewell, and Smyth—lay claim to parts of the WMA’s 25,477 acres. The entrance road on Short Mountain along Big Tumbling Creek lies at the northern tip of Washington County. Big Tumbling Creek, two smaller creeks, and Laurel Bed Lake are popular with area anglers for good reason. During a fee-fishing season, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) stocks them daily (except Sunday) with hatchery-raised trout. Fishing permits are on sale at the concession stand on the entrance road. Fisherman cast nightcrawlers, mealworms, flies, or spinners for trout along these canopied streambanks, where icy water cascades over ledges and forms clear pools. Big Tumbling Creek is a tempting place to pull over on a warm spring afternoon and introduce a youngster to the pleasures of wading a cold stream in pursuit of the colorful rainbow trout.
Northeast of the entrance road, in Russell County, Clinch Mountain has a butterfly-shaped plateau called Beartown Mountain. At 4,700 feet, Beartown is the WMA’s highest point, rising more thanGasoline motors are not allowed, but a big-muscled bass boat would be an overstatement on quiet Laurel Bed Lake anyway. There are two launch ramps for putting in canoes, kayaks, or john boats for a quiet paddle along the shoreline. Visitors may have to throw a branch out of the trail or climb over a fallen tree now and then to hike the narrow footpaths of the rugged mountain country. Old logging roads and a narrow gauge railroad bed also provide good access to hunters, hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. Hikes may lead visitors into the backcountry of Tazewell or Smyth counties. By their very nature, WMAs are more primitive than state parks, but they offer a fine place to see a variety of habitats and wildlife. A topo map and compass are helpful guides in this undeveloped country.
Black bear, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, gray squirrel, cottontail rabbit, ruffed grouse, groundhog, raccoon, waterfowl, and nongame species as well, benefit from the state’s management activities at Clinch Mountain. These management activities include mowing and burning over 500 acres of clearings and trails; planting shrubs to provide edge cover; thinning thick growths of trees and shrubs to allow food-producing types such as oak, apple, thorn apple, and walnut to grow; planting strips of native warm-season grasses; and regenerating forests through firewood cuttings and saw timber harvest. Beavers have cut trees in many places, damming creeks and opening the forest canopy to increased sunlight. The creation of ponds and wetlands has attracted aquatic wildlife such as waterfowl, muskrats, frogs, turtles, water snakes, and the animals that prey on them. Rushes, sedges, and shrubby growth have replaced the hardwoods. Fifty wood duck nesting boxes are maintained by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Plans include an ambitious bluebird box program and the refurbishing of tree swallow houses along Laurel Bed Lake. The tree swallow (Iridoprocne bicolor) has an unusual habit that resembles play. The agile bird with blue-green back, forked tail, and white underparts seems to enjoy carrying a feather into the air, dropping it, and diving to catch it as it falls. The great blue heron and solitary sandpiper fish the shallows. Pied-billed grebes, black ducks, and buffleheads may stop to restock the larder on their fall migrations.
- Directions: From the junction of VA 107 and VA 91 in Saltville, in northwestern Smyth County, go south on VA 91 .25 mile. Turn right (north) on VA 634. Go about 1 mile and bear left on VA 613 and continue 3.5 miles. Go right on VA 747 and follow this road into the WMA.
- Activities: Fishing, boating, hunting, archery, hiking, camping, horseback riding, mountain biking.
- Facilities: Trout-stocked streams and the 300-acre lake, two boat ramps, archery targets, and access roads and rough trails for hiking and horseback riding. For camping, 22 open sites with tables, grills, hand water pump, and pit toilets. Seasonal snack bar.
- Dates: Foot travel, open year-round. Main access gate closed to vehicular traffic annually, second Sat. in Sept.—first Sat. in Apr. Fee fishing first Sat. in Apr.—Sept. Hunting seasons vary annually and according to species, but most occur in fall. Check VDGIF for dates. Camping permitted year-round (up to 14 consecutive days). Only backcountry camping permitted during hunting season.
- Fees: Admission is free; a fee is charged for trout fishing (during fee period, state license required during the nonfree period) and camping.
- Closest town: Saltville, 7 miles southeast.
- For more information: WMA workstation (early and late in day), phone (540) 944-3434. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Region III Office, Route 1, Box 107, Marion, VA 24354. Phone (540) 782-9051. Or, VDGIF Headquarters, 4010 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23230. Phone (804) 367-1000.