Friday, April 26, 2013

Traversing The Mount Rogers High Country

Wow, I can’t believe how far behind I’ve allowed myself to get on this blog. I’ve got a sizeable backlog of hikes to catch up on, but at least the heat and rain have sapped my motivation lately and caused the list to stall, rather than keep growing. On the other hand, the hot weather of Summer makes this entry even more timely, because it is a place to escape the worst of the heat.

Since starting this blog, it was only a matter of time until I had a chance to get back up into the Mount Rogers High Country. Though it is incredibly difficult to pick one place over all others, this is quite possibly my favorite area in all of the Southern Appalachians. That is really saying a lot! There are many reasons for that, but for the most part I can narrow it down to a few key things. It was one of the first really awesome places I went when I first started hiking, which helped get me hooked. The windswept open grassy balds, huge rock outcrops, and stands of dark and damp boreal forest are incredibly scenic. The latter is directly related to the 5,500’ plus elevations here, far higher and cooler  than anything else in Virginia, and gives the whole area a distinct climate with wild weather that decidedly subalpine, and much like what one encounters in the mountains of the Northeast, often cold, windy, and concealed in the clouds. I wasn’t there, but snow, sleet, and freezing rain all occurred on June 30, 1979! It is another world, quite unlike anywhere else in the state, and I have seen it referred to in print as “a little piece of Montana set on the rooftop of Virginia”, or something along those lines. I don’t know specifically what part of the Big Sky state they had in mind, but I can say from personal experience that if it was possible to set Wilburn Ridge down in the western foothills of the Wind River Range, near the town of Pinedale in Wyoming, it would blend right in. A dense network of trails and abundant, dramatic views are yet another draw for me. Then there are the “wild” ponies, awesome rhododendron displays in June, acres of blueberries in August, frequent and impressive snowfalls and rime accumulations in Winter. Being close to home and readily accessible doesn’t hurt either. All taken together, even though the “High Country” here is certainly not the most dramatic area I have ever been, it is probably more responsible than any other single place for having nourished my love of the mountains, and will always be a special place for me, no matter where I may find myself. Suffice it to say, one blog post is not going to do it justice.

Haw Orchard Mountain (left), Wilburn Ridge, and Mount Rogers (right) seen from Stone Mountain.
The area that I generally refer to as the “High Country” may be a little different from what is “officially” designated as such, but, in my mind, it is all of the terrain above 4,000’ in elevation on the massif that forms Mount Rogers and Whitetop. It does not include any of the terrain above that elevation on the nearby Iron Mountains, which are also part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, but have little else in common to my way of thinking. Narrowing things down even more, a smaller area on the high, open ridges of Stone Mountain, Pine Mountain, Brier Ridge, and Wilburn Ridge that is near or above 5,000 feet is generally referred to as the Crest Zone, and is one of the main attractions to the whole area. This makes up the bulk of the scenic “Big Sky” terrain that these highlands are famous for. Ironically, for the most part, it is not natural. It was heavily logged and subsequently burned in the early 1900’s, and the harsh climate and poor, rocky soil made recovery a slow process. At some stage along the way, it became the scenic wonderland it is now, and the Forest Service acquired it and decided to try and maintain these open qualities with management practices such as controlled burning and grazing. It works for me!

On this particular hike, I met up with my friends +David Socky , +Stephanie Petri , and +Brian Williams . Stephanie had never been here before, so I came up with the idea of a nice, long shuttle hike that would hit most, though not all, of the highlights. I casually suggested that we start at the lower trailhead, hoping no one would think too much about it, and we dropped off one vehicle at the 4,460’ gap of Elk Garden, the high pass between Mount Rogers and Whitetop. Then we dropped down to the 3,600’ trailhead for the Lewis Fork and Cliffside trails. I also sort of neglected to mention that the Cliffside Trail, which we would be going up, is probably the steepest trail for any considerable distance in the High Country, but this also makes it the shortest approach to the Crest Zone from the north, getting one into open country in only about 2 ½ miles. It gets more interesting just shy of the two mile mark, when it steepens considerably, then quickly enters the lower edge of the boreal spruce-fir forest that is one of the defining features of High Country.

Looking up at the higher crags on Wilburn Ridge.

Typical scenery on Wilburn Ridge.
Today was a great day to be up there, a mid-Spring beauty of a day neither too hot or too cold, but just right. It was sunny and clear,  with a cool breeze and decent visibility up on the high ridges. After we topped out at the upper end of the Cliffside Trail, we headed away from Mount Rogers, something Brian dryly pointed out numerous times over the next few miles as we got farther and farther away from it, as it was one of our destinations for the hike. We were out in the open with awesome views of craggy Wilburn Ridge as we followed the Crest Trail to Scales. This was once the site of an old weighing station, now gone, for the cattle that once grazed in the High Country when it was privately owned, and is now a major intersection of trails up here. We joined the Appalachian Trail here and continued through the meadows atop Stone Mountain, where the views of Wilburn Ridge are, if anything, even more austere and impressive - but still not the best. Along this leg of the hike, the rugged little summit of Big Pinnacle on Haw Orchard Mountain is also seen from one of its better perspectives. This is also one of the more exposed areas in the Winter, with little shelter from the wind for a mile or more.

Then we headed back into the woods for a while, dropping down to the tannin-stained headwaters of Wilson Creek, already a decent sized little trout stream at an elevation higher than all but a small handful of Virginia’s highest peaks. Near here we encountered one of the trademark bands of the “wild” ponies that roam the mountains here and help to maintain its open character. There were a couple of young foals with their mothers and Stephanie had an acute case of “cuteness overload”, one of several that occurred over the course of the hike.

Stragglers along the trail.

The trail then begins its climb to the highlight of the hike, making its way through one of the best blueberry picking areas here along the way - though it was months too early for that tasty reward. That happens in August, not April. Soon after crossing Quebec Branch the trail comes out in the open once again, just shy of 5,000 feet above sea level and begins what I consider to be the finest 2 ½ miles of hiking in Virginia, as well as a strong contender for that distinction in the entire Southeast as far as I’m concerned. Others are free to disagree, but I don’t think any would be disappointed if they are here on a good day. This is now mostly open, park-like terrain with huge, rugged outcrops of pink granite (actually rhyolite), and just enough heath and small stands of red spruce and fraser fir to give it a sub-alpine appearance. The trail weaves between the outcrops at this point, but there is ample opportunity to scramble up any of them just for fun, as we did. The summit of this “little piece of Montana” looms another 500 feet above and looks very much unlike typical Southern Appalachian terrain. Even the magnificent Roan Highlands and the similar high country of the Shining Rock Wilderness lack the massive rock outcroppings found here. It is strikingly scenic, and the views only get better as you climb higher on the ridge. Soon, we were beginning to look over the top of 5,100’ Haw Orchard Mountain, the lowest of Virginia’s three ranked  5,000 foot peaks, and see the rugged peaks of North Carolina’s Amphibolite Mountains in the distance, including Three Top, The Peak, Elk Knob, and Snake Mountain among others, with Grandfather Mountain and the Roans visible even farther away. A little higher up, today, as I almost  always do, we left the AT to stay on the rougher Wilburn Ridge Trail. This more spectacular route stays right on the crest of the ridge and goes directly over the next two rocky caps, and is the crème de la crème of the trek. Upon reaching the next rocky cap at about 5,300’ there is a sublime view of Mount Rogers and Brier Ridge, with Whitetop rising up in the distance, while close at hand the apex of the ridge reaches higher still in stark, rocky magnificence. There is a bit of mild scrambling on the trail, but opportunities abound for much more if you like that sort of thing. I do, and we did indulge in making the hike harder (a.k.a. more fun) than is necessary. If the weather is good, as it was today, there is no finer place to take a break and just enjoy some of the best scenery in the state.

C'mon little fella. Photo by Dave Socky
We continued on to the next equally high summit, which is the highest point on Pine Mountain and where Wilburn Ridge ties in to it, the view open to the north to reveal a long swath of Clinch Mountain beyond the closer Iron Mountains and across the Great Valley. This spot also looks down on Rhododendron Gap, the place to visit in early June when the entire area is shades of pink and purple with a floral display of its namesake flowers second only perhaps to the famed Rhododendron Gardens on Roan Mountain. There is another fun scramble route down from here that I have only seen one or two other groups doing before, but is easier than it looks. Naturally, we went that way and dropped down into the gap, which really isn’t much of a gap in the normal sense of the word, though the area immediately to the southwest would qualify as such. This is another major intersection of trails, with at least five ways to go, and can be confusing on a cloudbound day - especially if you have never been here. But it is a wonderful spot to be lost, surrounded by meadows, rhododendron, awesome outcrops, boreal forest, and possibly some wild ponies. Had we turned right at the top of Cliffside, we could have been here hours earlier. I took evil delight in mentioning this, but only jokingly, because had we done so, we would have missed much, including Wilburn Ridge.

High on Wilburn Ridge, looking at Whitetop rising up beyond the meadows of Brier Ridge.

Fun on Wilburn Ridge.

Scrambling and happy! Photo by Dave Socky

Brian and Stephanie atop Wilburn Ridge. photo by Dave Socky

Brian and Stephanie at Rhododendron Gap.

Another enchanting mile-and-a-quarter took us over Thomas Knob and past the A-frame Appalachian Trail shelter that makes for such a great place to spend the night, or just get out of the weather for a while. Just beyond here, we took the ½ mile spur trail that leads to the 5,729’ apex of Virginia, that being Mount Rogers. Not a bad place for Stephanie to claim her very first state highpoint! While there are no views from here, and I do sometimes lament that, the top of what was once known as Balsam Mountain, or Big Balsam Mountain, is still a delightful place, almost neon green with moss and ferns, the former covering almost everything and the latter filling in all the niches, while the smell of Christmas trees permeates the air. This is Virginia’s biggest sky island of boreal forest, and one of the biggest in the Southern Appalachians. It’s also one of the few such places that the balsam wooly aphid hasn’t nearly decimated the lovely little Fraser Firs, as is the case on the heights of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Black Mountains.

Trout Lily
Atop 5,729' Mount Rogers, the very tiptop of Virginia.

The scenic hits don’t end here though. After returning to the AT, there is more easy walking through this Canadian type forest to the delightful grassy saddle on Brier Ridge and its spectacular views of Whitetop, which is Virginia’s number two mountain, and an exceptional hike in its own right - as is this saddle itself if one wanted a shorter hike with a big payoff.

We took the Virginia Highlands Trail from here to Deep Gap, then rejoined the AT there, now back down in the hardwoods and only a couple miles from the end. But there was another treat just ahead. As we started traversing along Elk Garden Ridge, we soon entered the beginning of a long stretch of trail that was bordered on both sides by one of the better displays of trout lilies I have ever seen. As far as the eye could see through the woods, the forest floor was speckled yellow with the drooping blooms of these beautiful little flowers. Then one last open view north and south from the grassy knoll overlooking Elk Garden and we were finally done with one of the finest long walks to be found in these mountains I call home.

Photo by Dave Socky

The route of our traverse. To see a larger map click here.
Note: There seems to be a problem with the default map view I have selected not showing properly. Please select the map you prefer from the drop-down menu in the upper right hand corner of the map.

Hike stats: 18 mile shuttle hike, 3,750' cumulative elevation gain

Map showing most, though not all, of the trail system on the Mount Rogers massif. The color coding shows all of the terrain above 4,000 feet and 5,000 feet. To see a larger version of this map click here. If you zoom out far enough, this map displays ALL of the terrain in the Lower 48 U.S. states that is between 4,000-4,999', 5,000-5,999', 6,000=6,700', and then all of the terrain out West that is higher than 6,700', and therefore higher than anything in the Eastern U.S.

Pictures from this hike.

Pictures from other hikes in the Mount Rogers High Country (There are no duplicate entries, these are all different hikes)
November 2012
August 2012
July 2012
May 2012
May 2012
May 2012
January 2012
December 2011
December 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
February 2011
January 2011
January 2011
September 2010
September 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
January 2010
November 2009
September 2009
August 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
June 2009
May 2009
February 2009
September 2008
August 2008
June 2008
April 2008
January 2008
November 2007
August 2007
August 2007
June 2007

gpx, kmz, topos for this hike
gpx, kmz, topos - Master Files for majority of trail system
USFS Mount Rogers NRA page
Grayson Highlands State Park site
Friends of Grayson Highlands
Hiking Upward post
Mid-Atlantic Hikes Grayson Highlands Circuit
Mid-Atlantic Hikes Grayson Highlands 2
Mid-Atlantic Hikes Mount Rogers Backpack
Mid-Atlantic Hikes Little Wilson Creek Wilderness

View Larger Map

Cliffside Trailhead coordinates:
36.69217°, 81.51954°

Elk Garden Trailhead coordinates:
36.64627°, 81.58332°

Scan QR code to navigate to trailheads with Google Maps on your smartphone

Cliffside Trailhead

Elk Garden Trailhead


  1. Great trip report Rick...made me feel like I was there....oh wait, I was there. My feet were screaming by the end of the day but well worth it ! Amazing hike in amazing country. Recommendations: GO DO IT !

  2. Rick -
    If you could sell cars the way you sell mountains, you'd be a rich man, indeed!
    Mountaintop fires from long ago denuded several sub-alpine peaks in the Northeast, too, such as Cardigan and Monadnock in New Hampshire. But the Mount Rogers High Country most resembles the incredibly scenic Jay Range in the Adirondacks. Have you hit that yet?
    Trailheads for your Virginia hikes at 4460' and 3600'? I can dig that.
    As usual, your words carry the day: "cuteness overload"..."but it is a wonderful spot to be lost."
    Keep up the good work!
    John Thompson

  3. Thanks John! I have not yet hit the Jay Range, nor will Peter, Dave, and I have time this Fall - bit it is very high on my list of places to visit in the Dacks, and has been for some time.

  4. Great trip report Rick. This was the second time I'd done this traverse, but it was still as great as it was the first time. What made this trip even better was that we did 18 miles that day, after which Stephanie and I did an 18 hour survey trip in Gap cave the very next day. Can you spell 'exhaustion'?

    1. Thanks Dave! Maybe our next great traverse will be the Triple Crown in a day. You might not want an equivalent caving trip the next day after that one!