It's hard to find a more classic Appalachian view than the vista from Powell Valley Overlook. Rolling hills disappear to the horizon. A pastoral valley spreads out below. Brilliant colors paint the scene during fall months, while some mornings fill the valley with fog and give the perception from the overlook that you're riding on a sea of clouds. But what else can you see when you gaze out over the valley? Students at The University of Virginia's College at Wise have built this guide to provide an overview of Powell Valley's fascinating natural and human history. Continue scrolling down to learn more.

(Don't know where the overlook is? You can see its location and get directions from your current location here.)



Above map by Perhelion via Wikimedia Commons (Distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.5 License)




Around 300 million years ago, our most recent mountain-building event, the Alleghanian Orogeny, occurred as Africa collided with North America. The immense pressure from this continental collision caused the Appalachians to be uplifted once more, including here near the overlook. To the north of the overlook (to the right and behind you as you look out across the valley) lies the Appalachian Plateau, an area where those sedimentary rock layers from ancient seas were lifted up into a table-like landform with steeply sloping sides. The Plateau extends behind you well into Kentucky, south from the overlook to Alabama and northward from here to New York.

As you look out into the valley, you're seeing into the western edge of the Valley and Ridge Province. Here the result of that continental collision 300 million years ago was different. Forces in the Valley and Ridge caused rock layers to fold almost like an accordion, creating alternating bands of parallel, folded layers of rock. Some rocks, like sandstone, are somewhat resistant to erosion and stick out today as high ridgelines, while rocks like limestone erode and dissolve easily and form valleys, much like the one you see looking out over Powell Valley. If you were drive to the Tricities area from the overlook, in fact, you would notice a change in the landscape.  The constant presence of rugged mountains gives way to an alternating series of mostly flat valleys and tall, parallel ridges that runs down the center of the Appalachians across most of the mountain chain's length.

Standing at the Powell Valley Overlook, you're straddling two major provinces within Appalachia: the Valley and Ridge and the Appalachian Plateau. The Appalachian region as a whole is divided into three provinces, including the rugged Appalachian Plateau, the Valley and Ridge, and the towering Blue Ridge to our east. The map above, in fact, shows all three of these provinces running in different colors from the plateau in the west to the Blue Ridge in the east. 

Where did these provinces come from? The answer lies in a series of mountain-building events, called "orogenies" by geologists, that have occurred throughout the mountains' history. In fact, the Appalachians are ancient mountains that have been built up and eroded away multiple times! During several of these past events, the area surrounding the overlook was part of a vast inland sea and surrounding coastal swamps (see the image at left). Streams flowing into these waterbodies carried sediments that accumulated in layer after layer over millions of years and eventually became the sandstone, limestone, and coal that are common across our region. These ancient seas, in fact, are why it's possible to find so many fossils in rocks in our region.



Even though Powell Valley is part of the larger Appalachian region, you can tell from the overlook that this isn't your typical valley. The mountainsides are much steeper than usual here, and large cliffs line the rim of the valley. What gives? The answer requires a little more geology. Here in the Appalachian Plateau and Valley and Ridge, the folding of rocks some 300 million years ago happened generally in two ways: the creation of upward-folded layers of rock (called anticlines) and downward-folded layers of rock (called synclines). These are both pictured below. 



It would make sense that anticlines would correspond to mountains and synclines would correspond to valleys, and you can probably see why just due to the shapes of each type of fold above. However, the reverse is often true here in our mountains, where the upward fold of an anticline can become a deep, steep-sided valley. Powell Valley, in fact, is one of the most striking examples of this phenomenon - called a breached anticline - anywhere in the U.S.

How can this happen? Millions of years ago, the rock here did form a mountain, but erosion eventually began to cause lower layers of limestone rock - which actually dissolves in the presence of water - to erode away. This ease of erosion allowed the heart of the mountain to be exposed, leaving more resistant rocks like sandstone around the valley's rim (see the images below). Much of the cliffs that you can see on the steep valley's sides, in fact, are made of limestone, as is the valley floor itself. This erosion is still happening today, as can been seen in a recent landslide that occurred above the golf course in the valley and large boulders in the dry stream beds on the side of U.S. 23. Caves, sinkholes, and sinking streams also pockmark the valley floor and its limestone cliffsides in an eroded landscape called "karst". The longest cave system in Virginia, the Omega Cave System, is actually found in the valley, stretching underground for some 30 miles. When you look into Powell Valley, then, you're looking into an ancient mountain's inner heart.





The complex landscape surrounding Powell Valley lends itself to incredibly diverse collections of wildlife. This diversity is perhaps best seen in our region's plants. In fact, far too many plants live in our region to be able to list them all here! A great example, though, can be found in our mixed mesophytic forests. Meaning "middle plant," a mesophytic forest is neither too dry nor too wet and can be found on moist, sheltered coves and slopes like those found around Powell Valley. Trees like oaks, birches, maples, and beeches are all found in these forests, along with hemlock and rhododendron, especially near streams. Incredible wildflowers can be found on the forest floor in spring and fall, with piney patches of forest on dry, thinner soils near cliffs and rock outcrops.

These forests and their surrounding hillsides all give life to streams and rivers. Here at the overlook, you're looking out across the headwaters of the Powell River, which flows for 120 miles before joining the Clinch River at Norris Lake in eastern Tennessee. Through a series of rivers flowing to our south, this same water eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico by way of the mighty Mississippi River.

Along with the nearby Clinch River, the headwaters of the Powell River have not been dammed. Since damming raises water levels, slows the flow of water, and changes water quality, this changes the types of wildlife that can live in the area. The upper sections of the Powell River around the valley therefore still foster a highly diverse amount of aquatic life - some of the highest diversity in North America! This diversity includes a staggering number of fish and freshwater mussels. Much like oysters and clams, these mussels serve as food sources for many species of fish, reptiles, and mammals. In addition, they siphon water and filter out small particles of sediment, algae, and bacteria - actually improving water quality.

In addition to aquatic life, more than 20 species of salamanders hide under rocks and logs in our forests, with some species, like the Green Salamander, adapted to live in crevices on the steep sides of cliffs and bluffs. Hidden away underground are organisms, called "trogloxenes" by biologists, that use caves like those found in limestone on the valley floor as part of their life cycle. These include our region's multiple bat species and a number of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Deeper still into those caves are troglobites, or animals that never leave the cave at all. These include some fish, salamanders, crayfish, and other invertebrates. Restricted to the deepest and darkest parts of caves, many of these organisms are blind and have no skin pigment - the result of having absolutely no light in these parts of the cave. They also obtain most of their food from materials washed in from aboveground, since there is no sunlight here to fuel plant growth. This corner of southwest Virginia is home to a number of incredibly rare cave organisms, including the Lee County Cave Isopod, a small invertebrate found in only a handful of caves south of Powell Valley.




Powell Valley and its surrounding ridges are part of the Cumberland Mountains, a portion of the Appalachian Plateau named for Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, running north to West Virginia and south to Tennessee. Powell Valley is part of one of these ridges - Stone or Cumberland Mountain - which runs from High Knob above and east of the valley some 100 miles into Tennessee, passing the famous Cumberland Gap.


These mountains have played major roles in the human history of Appalachia.  For years, these mountains served as a barrier between the east and the west because no route could be found for westward expansion. However, in 1775, Daniel Boone and others traveled through the Cumberland Gap in modern-day Lee County some 70 miles to the southwest, which led to the expansion of the Wilderness Road into the interior of the continent. This changed North America - and the world - forever.


The Cumberlands also played a key role in the Civil War. South of Powell Valley near Cumberland Gap, Union and Confederate troops jockeyed for position around the gap as a strategic point for communication and the movement of both troops and supplies. Cumberland Gap was controlled by both armies multiple times throughout the Civil War.


Much of the region north of Powell Valley has also been mined for coal, another resource that dramatically changed the face of the region. Coal is commonly found in beds in the Appalachian Basin, an area that extends from New York down through Georgia and Alabama. While the area is well above sea level today, that hasn’t always been the case. 300 million years ago, much of this area was covered in a shallow sea. Over time, the remains of plants living in these areas were buried deep underground, where heat and pressure slowly transformed the plant material into the coal we have today. 


With the coal industry declining due to a host of factors, southwest Virginia is changing once again. Communities like those found around Powell Valley are attempting to diversify their economies, and tourism assets like the overlook play a key role in those efforts. See the last section below for some info on other things you can see and do around Powell Valley and this corner of the Cumberlands.   

While you're in the area, make sure to do more than just enjoy the view of Powell Valley from the overlook. A couple of miles up US-23 near Norton lies High Knob, a 4,200-foot peak in the Jefferson National Forest that contains recreation opportunities including hiking, mountain biking, fishing, camping, and more. High Knob is also one of the wettest and snowiest places in Virginia, thanks to steep slopes like those around Powell Valley enhancing precipitation as storms move in from the south and west. A lookout tower on the very top of the mountain grants an amazing view of Norton, Wise, and portions of four other states.


While you're here, also be sure to check out the array of cultural and historical attractions in the area, including old-time Appalachian music performances and the Southwest Virginia Museum - a Virginia State Park. Info on these attractions and more can be found at the City of Norton and MySWVA websites.