This summer, while hiking with my parents in the Colorado Rockies, we made plans to meet with their friends Nancy and Gates in the fall to hike Mount Rogers.
Mount Rogers is the highest point in Virginia at 5,729 feet and is part of the greater Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The summit itself is on a broad, forested, hilltop and lacks the grandeur of some of the Colorado peaks, but the trails in the area offer plenty of scenic miles and a variety of conditions. In addition to the landscape, Mount Rogers is also known for its wild ponies, which roam free within much of the national forestland.
I’ve been to this area a few times before, but never all of the way to the top. Being most familiar with the area among the group, I was tasked with creating our route. I choose a combination of several interconnected trails and included a short, off-trail section to connect two parallel routes allowing us a return track different from the way we came. The overall course would start from the Grayson Highlands State Park and be about 10 miles with just over 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
Our group paused for a pre-hike picture. From left to right we have Carol, Nancy, Gates, me (Scott), and Keith.
If you’re wondering about all of the blaze orange, Nancy and Gates read on the state park website that some trails were closed within the park as hunters culled the deer population. I had failed to clarify that we were only starting in the state park and would quickly be exiting it for the national forest.
Nancy told me that they had stopped at Wal-Mart to pick up orange shirts and vests. I wasn’t surprised when Gates donned a safety vest, but was taken a little off guard when Nancy was wearing a bright orange jack-o-lantern shirt over her jacket. Apparently it was on clearance being just after Halloween.
Exiting the state park, we come into sight of Wilburn Ridge. The Wilburn Ridge Trail breaks off of the Appalachian Trail (AT) to travel the ridgeline before rejoining the AT which takes a lower but parallel route.
The Wilburn Ridge Trail requires a bit more scrambling then the AT, but gives you spectacular view of the Western mountains as its reward.
Reconnected with the AT, we continue North as the trail cuts through a rock crevasse created between two large boulders.
As we gain in altitude, we begin to have a birds eye view of the surrounding Blue Ridge.
Now on top and following the ridgeline of Pine Mountain, we head West along the AT.
We stop for lunch at the Thomas Knob shelter before taking the Mount Rogers Spur to the top.
After a hearty lunch, we resume our trek as rain starts to fall. Close to the top and undeterred, we continue on.
The cold rain now turns to sleet. This is actually preferable as the sleet just bounces off instead of soaking our clothing.
It also has the added bonus of blanketing the ground with a thin coat of white. I know it’s only November, but I can’t help thinking of Christmas.
As we approach the top, something unexpected happens. Very suddenly, within only about 10 or 20 feet of trail, the landscape changes dramatically. The open, sandy grassland and periodic conifers give way to an old growth forest with moss covered trees and deep, rich soil.
The woods had a surreal, almost eerie calm about them as if this were an enchanted place with a life all its own. The photos don’t do it justice but it was dramatic enough that we all stopped and stood there in awe.
As we continued through the woods, the gentle climb ceased and we found ourselves on the flat, broad top of the highest point in Virginia. On a tree we noticed an American flag affixed with yellow flagging tape. Below it was the USGS marker indicating the official summit. A celebratory family photo ensued.
Following the spur trail back down to the AT, we continue West rather than going back the way we came. I have a strong personal preference for new trails whenever possible and, while planning this trip, realized that the AT closely paralleled the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail for a few miles just West of the Mount Rogers Spur.
Proceeding down the AT, we come across a small but curious group of the area’s famous ponies.
One seems to have a strong suspicion that Gates keeps his food in his left pocket.
Another seems to oddly mistake Nancy’s hiking pole for a snack.
Saying goodbye to the ponies, we continue on the AT until our bearing changes from Southwest to West. This is our indicator that the horse trail is in close proximity. Finding an area of relative clearing, we go off trail for a few hundred feet until we come to the trail which will take us back.
The horse trail connects with the Crest Trail and then the Rhododendron Gap Trail.
The Rhododendron Gap Trail runs South on the Western side of Wilburn Ridge, paralleling our original course.
Approaching the ridge, we are stopped by a persistently curious and photogenic pony.
As we reconnected with the AT for the journey home, we started to lose the light. Fortunately, between my training with wilderness search and rescue and Keith and Nancy’s history leading hikes in Colorado we were well prepared with extra lights and warm clothing.
As the sun set and headlamps were donned, we returned to the cars a little cold, a little tired, but very happy.