Mount Rogers NRA
4-mile backpack to base camp, various day hike options
No. of days: 2-4+
A fierce gust threatened to free us from our perch ascending Wilburn Ridge. We’d stopped momentarily to secure our hats, to prepare for the scramble ahead, to take in a view that spilled a good 50 miles south and west revealing ridgeline after fading ridgeline. It reminded me of any number of hikes I’d taken in my native Colorado, most recently of a September trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Yet it wasn’t the Gore Range or the Never Summer Mountains that I was taking in: It was the Southern Appalachians of western Virginia, northwest North Carolina and the northeast tip of Tennessee.
Wilburn Ridge, which parallels the Appalachian Trail for a spell, is, the bedrock of the Mount Rogers area, the high point of Virginia. The federal Mount Rogers National Recreation Area covers about 20,000 acres, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s adjoining Grayson Highlands State Park chips in another 4,822. The resulting 25,000 acres of protected land is a curious marriage of Rocky Mountains and Scottish moors. It’s a marriage that makes for one of the most popular hiking and backpacking destinations in the Southeast.
That said, expect company no matter when you visit. You might think winter would thin the crowds. It does, to a degree. But to the ardent backpacker there are few greater draws than a winter trip to Mount Rogers. Snow is likely, the threat of real weather to test one’s skills and equipment even more so. Mount Rogers in winter is no place for the novice anyway. At 5,729 feet, the Mount Rogers massif is the highest point in Virginia and has a way of dictating, in often unpredictable ways, the local weather. A day that dawns with brilliant blue skies could end in whiteout conditions. Further, because of the area’s Western-style exposure, trails are largely blazed on rocks, some of which disappear under just an inch or two of snow. This is not a place where you want to get lost.
During peak season — that would be spring, summer and fall — Mount Rogers is surprisingly adept at handling the backcountry crowds. My recommended trip (see Trip Details) shows why. Starting from the overnight parking lot in Grayson Highlands State Park (a relatively secure place to park, worth the $2-$3 fee) take the 0.8-mile spur up to the Appalachian Trail and — boom! — right before you reach the AT you’ve already hit a primo camp site. There’s no water but the view out your tent door is endless.
After 2 miles, when the AT has crossed paths with Rhododendrop Gap Trail for the second time, you’ll begin encountering spots suitable for one or two tents. This goes on for another 1.5 miles, until you reach Rhododendron Gap, which is where you’ll encounter the actual campsites that will serve as base camp for your Mount Rogers adventure. Over the next quarter mile, dozens of campsites are nestled in a cozy forest dominated by spruce. It’s a convenient base camp, too, because there’s a spring located just below the intersection of the Crest and Rhododendron Gap trails.
Day trip options extend in all directions. Head west along the AT to Mount Rogers (no views; the peak is forested) and Whitetop Mountain, Virginia’s second highest peak. Northeast along the Pine Mountain Trail takes you to Mount Rogers more moorish region. North along the Lewis Fork Trail takes you along the mountain’s more heavily forest north flank and into the Lewis Fork Wilderness. South along the Crest Trail, Virginia Highlands Horse Trail and back up Wilburn Ridge exposes you to Mount Rogers’ trademark exposure.
A minimum four days of worthwhile day hiking from base camp, more if you have the time.
For a larger, interactiver version of this map, go here
No. 46 Mount Rogers National Recreation Area
Trailhead: From I-77 in North Carolina take Exit 83/US 21 north. Go 31 miles to Twin Oaks and veer left on US 221; after less than a mile, go right on NC 93. After 11 miles, turn left on US 58 in Virginia. After 13.3 miles, go right on SR 362, the entrance to Grayson Highlands State Park. Go another 3.3 miles to the overnight parking for backpackers, marked, on the right.
Distance: 4.5-mile backpack to base camp; various day hike options from there.
No. of days recommended: 3-4.
Loop / out-and-back: Out-and-back.
Campsite locations: Base camp for this trip is at Rhododendron Gap, 4.5 miles from the trailhead (N36 39.369 W81 31.482). If you get a late start, there’s a good campsite 0.8 miles in, on the AT Spur near the intersection with the Appalachian Trail (N36 38.591 W81 30.043). Campsites are plentiful at Rhododendron Gap and elsewhere in the Mount Rogers area.
Map: Mount Rogers National Recreation Area: Jefferson National Forest, National Geographic Trails Illustrated, 1:75,000, 50-foot contour interval.
Fee? If you park in the overnight parking lot in Grayson Highlands State Park, there is a $2 daily fee during the week, $3 weekends and holidays (payable at the Contact Station at the park entrance). Advantage: this lot is more secure than a roadside lot outside the park. If you want to avoid the fee, continue on US 58 7.5 miles past the turn into Grayson Highlands and go right on SR 600. Go 2.9 miles to the Elk Garden parking lot. Take the AT north for 4.9 miles to Rhododendron Gap.
Water (with GPS coordinates): Mount Rogers has several springs at higher elevations. Another reason Rhododendron Gap is a popular base camp is the location of a spring 0.1 mile south of the intersection of the Crest Trail and Rhododendron Gap Trail (N36 39.231 W81 31.425). Use it as your source for cooking and filling bottles/hydration bladders for day hikes.
Trip highlights: The views from Mount Rogers NRA/Grayson Highlands are unparalleled in this part of the country, in part because of the elevation (Mount Rogers, at 5,729 feet, is the highest point in Virginia), in part because of aggressive logging in the early 1900s and wildfires that stripped the area of its once dense forests. Today, livestock and a herd of wild ponies keep the region trimmed. Another highlight: rocky ridges, including Wilburn Ridge near Rhododendron Gap, offer great scrambling opportunities.
Special considerations: The weather here is some of the most mercurial you’ll encounter backpacking. Winters can be brutally cold with deep snow, summers bring afternoon thunderstorms that are especially concerning given the area’s elevation and exposure. Even spring and fall can see overnight temperatures dip down to 15 degrees. It’s especially important to check the weather when preparing for a trip to Mount Rogers, and equally important to pack for just about any weather condition. A good source is the weather page provided by the Friends of Grayson Highlands State Park.
Night hike in? Yes. The Grayson Highlands State Park gate is open until 10 p.m., and there’s a good campsite 0.8-miles from the trailhead (see “Campsite locations” above). If you go in from Elk Garden, there’s a campsite, trail right, just over a mile from the trailhead (N36 39.389 W81 34.260).
Solo? Yes. The popularity of the area means you’re likely never far from help. Again, though, if you’re traveling solo be especially vigilant about the weather.
Family friendly? Yes. The hike to base camp is mellow (gradual elevation gain of about 300 feet) with lots to see along the way.
Bailout options? No. But because base camp is only 4.5 miles in and the terrain is mild, it’s a relatively quick escape.
Seasons: Spring, summer, fall. Winter is an option for experienced backpackers, though be advised that because of the exposure, many of the trails at higher elevations are blazed on rocks, rocks that can be easily covered by a few inches of snow, let alone a foot or more.
Solitude rating: Mount Rogers is a very popular destination. If you’re looking for some quiet time, best look elsewhere.
Nearest outfitter: It may not be the nearest outfitter, but the 26-mile drive west on US 58 to Mt. Rogers Outfitters in Damascus is well worth it. If you need it, it’s hard to imagine they don’t have it.
Hunting allowed? Yes. Consult the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for specifics.
More info: 540-265-5100, Mount Rogers home page.