HIKING MOUNT ROGERS--VIRGINIA'S ROOFTOP
There’s a reason moving mountains is used metaphorically in description of a miracle. The mountains we know are Mother Nature’s most concrete creations, formed from the movement of tectonic plates and the very ground we walk on. They were born before us, and will persist long after our short lives are through. The best are untamable, rugged, dynamic in attitude—wild, as all the best places are.
Mount Rogers is Virginia’s tallest, and arguably wildest mountain. Located in the heart of the 200,000-acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (MRNRA), the once-active volcano steeps over Southwest Virginia at an elevation of 5,728 feet, and serves as the crown jewel of the vastly foreign (to Virginia) landscape of the Grayson Highlands.
The peak is most popularly accessed via a 4.6-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail (AT) and a spur trail through Grayson Highlands State Park, the MRNRA, and Lewis Fork Wilderness Area. Scenery along the way includes grassy balds, rock outcroppings, caves, thick rhododendron forests, wide-ranging mountain vistas, a hemlock- and spruce-dominated crest zone, and the wild ponies that lend the Highlands even more unique flavor.
It was a sunny, albeit slightly cold and windy, Saturday morning when the idea of surmounting the Old Dominion’s highest peak drifted into my mind. A relatively dry spring (thus far) was keeping the creeks running well below the seasonal average, keeping the need to go fishing at some kind of bay. The week prior had been consumed pouring over topographic maps, planning a five-day backpacking trip to West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness. Thus my West Virginia preparations, along with the raw tone of a crisp spring wind, inspired visions of jagged peaks that couldn’t be ignored. Not when they’re so close. I announced my plans, and three friends jumped on board.
To those tackling the Grayson Highlands for the first time during any season of the year, my advice is foremost to bring good, rugged shoes. Close behind is the warning to expect the high country to be twice as windy and 10 degrees colder than it is 3,500 feet lower in temperate Abingdon or Marion. When I forced open the door of the car in the Massie Gap parking area in Grayson Highlands State Park, I was pleased to find the predictable air of adventure pushing back.
To my friends, I announced the potential for a raw high country experience, shouting in contest with the wind, which was forecast to reach a maximum speed of 44 MPH. I found out later that gusts registered upwards of 60 MPH. The temperature sat firmly in the high 40s.
Zipping on an insulated wind-breaking layer, I shouldered my 55-liter pack, loaded thoughtfully with overnight gear and backpacking essentials (for conditioning), and took on a few water bottles and snacks from my pack-less friends.
Head into the wind, we began plodding northwest from the parking lot along the Rhododendron Trail.
A quarter mile into the hike, we crested an open saddle, vegetated with highbush blueberry bushes and the forms of about a dozen camera-wielding day-hikers. Grayson’s renowned wild ponies were the center of attention, as they grazed peacefully despite the attention. I snapped a few photos, and we moved on.
An even mile into the hike, there is a crossroads and a cattle gate. As we did, day-hikers should bear left to pick up the AT. It’s at this point that the road gets rugged. Following the white blazes northwest is an exercise in rock-hopping, as a single misstep can make for a painful end to an otherwise enjoyable hike.
For 1.9 miles, the trail maintains this character, leaving the state park behind and traveling over two notable passes, and offering several wide-stretching mountain vistas.
After 1.9 miles of the AT, the trail meets the boundary of the Lewis Fork Wilderness—one of four within the MRNRA. Here the trail takes a sharp left, and skirts the boundary of the more forested, coniferous wilderness area. The Lewis Fork of the Upper Fox flows north out of the ridge slope to the right.
In the next 1.2 miles, we encountered several more ponies at Thomas Knob, and enjoyed a windbreak in the form of spruce and hemlock trees that line the trail. Backpackers were plentiful, as fires are permitted within the wilderness area, and not in the state park.
After those 1.2 miles, the AT again takes a sharp left, and a spur trail proceeds straight to the peak of Mount Rogers. In a half mile, the trail leaves the open country behind, traded for thick, damp coniferous forest. It’s a remarkable sight, even in contrast to the wide open scenes further below.
At the end of the line, the ascent halts, and a rock ledge studded with a US Geological Survey cap marks Virginia’s highest point.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian