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

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Gentry Falls, Rogers Ridge, and Glenn Bald

The Gentry Creek Trail is one of the lesser known gems in the Tri-State area where Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina all meet. When combined with Rogers Ridge and Glenn Bald, it makes a great, little known hike of 14+ miles with lots of creekside walking, wildflowers in the right season, a great little two-tiered waterfall, and great views from a near 5,000' peak.

Though I've now done this hike several times, the one time I tried it with Tommy, we came in the Winter. The creek was frozen over and we gingerly walked across the ice at every one of the many crossings enroute to the waterfall, hoping not to fall through. It started snowing, and we decided against going up on Rogers Ridge that time. We were back for unfinished business today.

One of many crossings of Gentry Creek.
Gentry Creek was running pretty full, and some of the many unbridged crossings that came in fast succession were a bit challenging to keep dry feet on, but for the most part, we somehow managed to do so. Well, at least Tommy and I did. Tonka got wet , but being a dog, she didn't seem to mind. I think there were 23 crossings of Gentry Creek in all, plus a couple of smaller tributaries!

Along with the beauty of the stream, we were also treated to the sight of lots of Dutchman's breeches and erect trilliums in bloom. Then, after about three miles, we finally reached the reward of Gentry Falls. This two-tiered beauty is always a nice sight, although getting a good picture showing just how neat it is proves difficult. It is impossible to get both falls in without a lot of foreground clutter and the crazy tilt of the rock strata always makes the picture look crooked even though it isn't. At any rate, there are two vertical plunges here. Both are around 20 feet high and separated by about 50 feet of horizontal stream. Actually, with the creek as full as it was today, the lower falls spill over the cliff's edge as two parallel cataracts of whitewater. This may be the first time I’ve seen more than a trickle coming off the left side, and it was quite pretty.

Dutchmen's breeches
The route for getting past the falls is fun too, especially the ledge/ramp that climbs above the upper falls. It is not obvious, but one has to cross the creek again right below the lower falls, then follow the base of the cliffs steeply uphill for maybe 50 yards, until reaching a notch in the clifftop that can be stepped up into. This leads back down to the creek between the two falls. The rock is sloping here, moss-covered, and very slick, so care is in order if you go down to the water's edge. It would only take one wrong step to end up going over the lower falls, and it would most certainly leave a mark. There is a great view of the upper falls from this hidden  enclave though. By going uphill to the right, along the base of the cliffs at the upper falls, one comes to a narrow ledge that traverses up and back to the top of the falls, allowing them to be passed - but this is another spot you wouldn’t want to fall.

Upper Gentry Falls
Above the falls, the trail is less obvious, and apparently less travelled. But after about a mile, and several more creek crossings, it finally veers to the left and climbs away from Gentry Creek and up to the crest of Rogers Ridge. The trail there is an old woods road, and at least one section of it climbs quite steeply along the spine of the ridge, eventually coming out in open meadows with a view of the final destination still a mile ahead ahead. That destination is the 4,980’ summit of Glenn Bald, the highest point on the Stone Mountain/Pond Mountain massif. Before getting there, we climbed to the top of Rogers Ridge, only 100’ lower, and with views nearly as good, though somewhat lacking to the north. We didn’t bother going to the outcrops on nearby Catface Ridge, but there are some views there that add to what can’t be seen from Rogers Ridge. However, as good as the views are from here, there is little, if anything, that can’t be seen from the higher summit of Glenn Bald. This high peak just barely misses being another Southern Fiver, with it and nearby Pond Mountain being the only two peaks between Mount Rogers/Whitetop and the Amphibolite Range of North Carolina that are even close.
Whitetop and Mount Rogers from the top of 4,980' Glenn Bald

Until recently, Glenn Bald’s top was private property, but it has now been bought by the State of North Carolina, and is public land. There is still a house on top, once very nice, but now badly vandalized by idiots. I have been told that one potential use for the house may be as some sort of outdoor education center. Today though, it was very windy and cold up here at nearly 5,000’, so the house made a great place to get out of the wind and eat lunch, all the while looking out the upstairs window at Mount Rogers and Whitetop. Back outside, the open top provides about a 270° panorama around the horizon, sweeping from Pond Mountain in the southeast, to Mount Rogers and Whitetop, the Iron Mountains, the distant crest of Clinch Mountain’s many peaks, then swinging southwest to include the Bald Mountains, the Roan Highlands, Grandfather Mountain, and several peaks in the Amphibolites, the most obvious being The Peak, Elk Knob, and Snake Mountain.

Our return route was to simply stay on the Rogers Ridge trail, parallelling the route we had followed up Gentry Creek, but several hundred feet higher until reaching the south end of the ridge, where the trail then descends back to the valley for one final crossing of the creek and the end of another great day in the Southern mountains.

Rogers Ridge (left) and Clinch Mountain (horizon) from Glenn Bald.
Heading back down the open crest of Rogers Ridge. Gentry Creek lies in the valley to the left.

Gentry Falls-Rogers Ridge-Glenn Bald Loop. To view a larger map click here
Note: There seems to be a problem with the default map view I have selected not working. Please select the map you prefer from the drop-down menu in the upper right corner of the map.

Hike Stats: 14.3 miles, 2,800' cumulative elevation gain 

Pictures from this hike

Pictures from other hikes to Gentry Falls, Rogers Ridge, and Glen Bald
October 2011
March 2011
April 2008

gpx, kmz, and topos
Appalachian Treks blog
Blue Ridge NC Guide
Sherpa Guides page
Johnson County Trails Association

View Larger Map

Gentry Falls - Rogers Ridge Trailhead Coordinates:

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

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Middle Knob And The Great Channels - Maze In The Sky

I knew about the existence of one of the neatest places in Virginia for a long time before I was able to actually go there, despite the fact the trailhead was only an hour away. The Great Channels are a maze-like system of 20-40 feet deep interconnected crevices between huge sandstone blocks on top of the Clinch Mountain peak of Middle Knob. They have somewhat of the feel, on a small scale, of a cross between a Utah slot canyon and a cave. The moss on the walls, and the way the light filters down between the rock walls, sometimes coloring them red, adds a distinct enchantment to this small but rather unique area.

I first learned about this wonderful place sometime after the Nature Conservancy bought the five thousand acre tract containing it in 2004. Even then, with TNC wanting to preserve its pristine nature, it was not open to the public until 2008, when they sold it to the State of Virginia. Information on the best way to get to the Channels was sketchy at first, and required for some exploratory hiking on my part to get to them from the one public access point in Poor Valley - and it required a 10 mile hike with 2,600 feet of elevation gain. I wasn’t even sure of just exactly where they were even located on Middle Knob.

I've now been up there several times since that first visit, and it has become yet another favorite place of mine, well worth far more effort to get to - but the last few hikes have been much easier since the opening of a second trailhead on Route 80 at Hayters Gap, on the crest of Clinch Mountain at 3,017 feet. That’s the way +Leanne and I went today. It only requires a six-and-a-half mile hike with 1,200 feet of elevation gain from here, a small price to pay for such a big reward. The new, easy route starts out on a gated right-of-way that crosses private property for the first mile or so, but then enters into Channels State Forest for the rest of the way to the top of 4,208’ high Middle Knob.  The hike follows an old jeep road, presumably once used as the means of access to the still standing firetower on top of Middle Knob.

Beartown Mountain and Corn Valley from Middle Knob.
We were a little too early for Spring wildflowers this time, so the hike up was rather uneventful until we reached the top. But there is plenty to enjoy once there. First, we clambered up onto the large rock that forms the true summit and ate lunch in the sunshine and pleasant breeze of this perfect spring day, all while enjoying the great view of mighty Beartown Mountain just a few miles to the east. This hulking mountain is Virginia’s sixth highest at 4,689’ above sea level, and its large, balsam-capped plateau is, depending on the route used, one of the more difficult peaks in Virginia to get to, or arguably even in the Eastern US for that matter. It took me three tries to first reach the top, which I have now been to four times. Obviously, it has its rewards...

Virginia's two highest peaks in the distance.
The next attraction is the retired, but still standing firetower. It is in desperate need of refurbishing to be safe, and hopefully that will eventually happen, rather than it being dismantled - a fate that has befallen far, far too many of these magical houses in the sky. I can’t recommend climbing the tower, as the lower flight of stairs has been removed, and the rest look none too safe. That said though, I must admit that I couldn’t resist the urge to carefully make my way up above the trees to take in the jaw-dropping 360° panorama that it allows. On a clear day, the number of peaks in view is staggering. Besides the aforementioned Beartown Mountain and other peaks on the crest of Clinch Mountain, there are also notable prospects of Big A Mountain, River Mountain, House and Barn Mountain, numerous peaks in the rugged Amphibolite Range of North Carolina, as well as distant Grandfather Mountain and the Roan Highlands. The eye is also drawn towards the broad balsam-capped domes of Mount Rogers and Whitetop, towering over a thousand feet higher than anything else in the Old Dominion. After studying the horizon for a suitable period of time, I then looked down onto the top of the Great Channels only a hundred yards from the tower, their hidden passages not readily apparent from this perspective, but still beckoning for exploration.

Looking down on the Great Channels
Following the short path from the base of the tower to the edge of the rocks, we turned right and downhill along their eastern edge, following the obvious route into their depths. While there are other similar outcrops spread over a larger area up here, this best, most interesting section covers probably little more than a half acre. The first corridor opens into a 50 yard long passage between forty foot high walls that vary from maybe 6-12 feet wide. But they aren’t necessarily straight up and down. In places, they curve and interlock one way or another, at times blocking the sky from view, and obviously are part of the same rock that long ago split in half and separated. Moving down the corridor, there are intersecting passages laid out like intersecting narrow alleys between buildings. Some are only a foot or two wide, and a few are too small for a person to enter, but most are of an easy size to walk through. Nearing the perimeters, the blocks become lower, and the passages lead back out into the forest, but there are enough passages to explore to occupy an hour, especially on a first visit. They may even seem a bit confusing at first, but it doesn’t take long to figure out where to go and how to get back. And it doesn’t take long after the visit to want to come back again to this enchanting maze in the sky.

The base of the tower gives some idea of how the nearby Great Channels look from above, except they are much deeper.

Despite the limited area the cover, the Great Channels have a slot-canyonesque feel to them.

The crevice is about 30'-40' deep.

Route to Middle Knob from Hayters Gap. To see a larger map click here.

Hike Stats: 6.5 miles out-and-back, 1,200' elevation gain

Pictures from this hike

Pictures from other hikes to Middle Knob and the Great Channels
August 2012
October 2011
July 2011
April 2011
November 2010
May 2009
July 2008
May 2008

gpx files and topo maps
Virginia DCR page for The Channels Natural Area Preserve
Channels State Forest brochure and trail map (opens as pdf)
Virginia Dept. of Forestry page for Channels State Forest
TEHCC page for The Channels Natural Area Preserve Guide to The Brumley Mountain Trail article about Brumley Mountain Trail

View Larger Map
Hayters Gap trailhead coordinates:

Google Map for trailhead

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

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Chestnut Ridge - Lonely Mountain Meadows

It’s hard to believe that such a nice spot on the Appalachian Trail as Chestnut Ridge is so lonely - not that I mind though. I kind of like it that way. I’ve been up there well over 60 times now, yes 60, but outside the peak of thru-hiker traffic I’ve rarely seen more than one or two people up there, and often-times no one else at all.

Besides comparatively little publicity, part of the reason for this lack of people is undoubtedly that it is relatively remote. The trailheads from the north (actually east) are on the rim of Burkes Garden, which isn’t exactly convenient from most of the main roads in the region. And one of the roads in to the Poor Valley trailhead on the south side has a hint of a third world feel to it, thanks a narrow dirt road with hairpin turns on a steep mountainside, with no guard rails and little room to pass another vehicle. For a while, a section of it had even slid away a few years ago, and that only added to the feeling. Even now, I’m always glad to get that section behind me. But this is also my favorite place to start the hike from, as I did today.

The trail starts off steep, eases up, steepens again, then moderates for the first 2 ½ miles to the ridgeline. This is a woods walk and is the price of admission to the great hiking above. Right before that second steep section is also one of my pet peeves about Appalachian Trail reroutes. There was a spot here where the level trail then climbed uphill at a modest grade to gain maybe 10 feet in elevation over a distance of perhaps 35 yards, before dropping off 6 feet of that gain over about 20 yards. It was a minor bump by any standard and insignificant compared to the steep section immediately ahead. But a 100 yard long section of brand new trail was built to sidehill around this tiny bump to end up at the same spot, saving a mere 6 feet of climbing. In the big scheme of things, it probably didn’t cost much, but there was labor and money for this while other trails go unmaintained or abandoned. I follow the new trail on the way down, but never on the way up, not that it makes any difference to anyone but me.

Once the crest of Chestnut Ridge is gained, the trail immediately comes out into a small meadow, and two more miles of easy strolling follow. The views are limited here, but hint at what lies ahead. After briefly re-entering the woods, the trail comes out in the open again near a small pond. As the trail climbs, there are good views to the south and west near here, but the best is still ahead. The trail goes into the woods once again, then emerges into a long, beautiful meadow with magnificent views, and the trail traverses its entire length. The scenery is great all the way through this clearing, but my favorite spot is about 300 yards before it enters the woods again, atop a small rise I like to refer to as “The Grassy Knoll”. The panorama here is more or less a 270° arc not counting the remainder of the still rising ridgeline, which, of course limits the view in that direction. To the south is the long ridgeline of Walker Mountain, with Glade Mountain, the Iron Mountains, and the Mount Rogers High Country beyond. More to the southeast, Sand Mountain is visible, which lets me know where home is. Southwest and west are Brushy Mountain, other high peaks on Clinch Mountain, and the cliffbound crest of Morris Knob. Finally, to the north, and much closer, is the spruce-capped top of Garden Mountain, a.k.a. Balsam Beartown. After the high peaks on the Mount Rogers massif, this 4,710’ peak is the sixth highest ranked summit in the state. Getting to it can be difficult if you don’t know the best approaches, but also an adventure with a high elevation bog and some great views nearby.

Looking south towards Mount Rogers and Whitetop, looming over a thousand feet higher than anything else in Virginia.

Peaks on Clinch and Knob Mountains.
The AT shelter atop Chestnut Knob
The high elevation bowl of Burkes Garden.
The long upper meadow on Chestnut Ridge.

I usually hate to leave this spot for the top, but always go there anyway because it has its own rewards. After another ¾ mile in the woods, the trail pops out in the open again and quickly reaches the top of the 4,409’ former lookout site. Unfortunately, the tower is long gone, but the lookout’s cabin still remains and has been converted to an Appalachian Trail shelter. If it’s cold and windy, or raining, the four walls and roof are always welcome. There are some views south and southwest here, though not as expansive as those from the Grassy Knoll. But there is one view here that the knoll does not have, and that is into the tremendous bowl of Burkes Garden. This 4 mile by 8 mile cove is called “God’s Thumbprint” and from above, or on a map, looks like a huge caldera or crater, though in actuality, it is not. Completely surrounded by Garden Mountain, and lying anywhere from 600 - 1,600 feet below it, its surprisingly flat floor is one of the highest inhabited valleys in Virginia, all of it above 3,000 feet in elevation. Were it not for the one small break in Garden Mountain that allows Burkes Garden Creek to drain out, it would not be a valley at all, but a huge lake. It is a curious place, to be sure. On this visit, the view of the Garden was actually something of a surprise. In the 20+ years I’ve been coming here, the viewpoint has slowly grown up with small trees and severely limited the view. But since my last visit, the Forest Service or PATH club that maintains this section of the AT has reopened the vista considerably. While it still isn’t a wide-open view, it should be good for several more years, especially in the brown months. Despite my disapproval of some reroutes, I am always grateful when something like this gets done. Keeping the views from these mountain meadows open keeps them special - though it may not continue to keep them lonely forever.

Route to Chestnut Knob from Poor Valley. To view a larger map click here.

Hike Stats: 9 miles, 2,000' elevation gain

Pictures from this hike 

Pictures from other hikes to Chestnut Ridge:
October 2011
April 2011
August 2009
May 2009
August 2008
October 2007
July 2007


gpx files and topo maps 
Happy Trails article about Chestnut Ridge 
Blue Ridge Outdoors article mentioning Chestnut Ridge page for Chestnut Knob 

View Larger Map
Poor Valley trailhead coordinates:

Google map for trailhead

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