On top of the Old Dominion
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
Carrie Lachneit of Grand Rapids, Mich., gets the grand view of Grayson Highlands State Park from atop Big Pinnacle. Grayson Highlands State Park and nearby Mount Rogers National Recreation Area are known for the open meadows with big views at a mile of altitude.
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
Several free-range ponies, two in the foreground, graze near Wilburn Ridge.
- Location: The Mount Rogers National Recreation areas consists of 120,000 acres sprawled in a narrow, 50-mile-long zone from the Virginia-North Carolina line near Damascus to north of Galax. Adjacent to the recreation area is 5,000-acre Grayson Highlands State Park, which provides the best access for the average hiker to Mount Rogers itself. (A 4-mile moderate hike, 8 miles round trip.) It's a little more than 2 hours south of Roanoke.
- Length: You name it! Anything from a few steps out of the car to hundreds of miles. Segments of the long-distance Appalachian and Virginia Creeper trails make for good extended hikes.
- Elevation: Ranges from around 2,500 feet to the high point, Mount Rogers, at 5,729.
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): of 4. My first '4' goes to this one-of-a-kind landscape that looks like absolutely nothing else in the whole Commonwealth of Virginia. I've been three times in two years and I'm awed every time. It's so otherworldly for the Eastern U.S. Lots and lots of stunning open views in a true high altitude environment. I haven't been there at the right time, but I'm told the rhododendron blossom explosion in late spring/early summer is a sight to behold.
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): of 3: here are more than 400 miles of trails with many levels of difficulty, but most trails will involve some climbing. Even many of the easier trails are at a mile or more of elevation, and the thin air is noticeable to anyone coming up from lower terrain (which, in this case, means anywhere in the rest of Virginia). Other dangers: Increased UV radiation at higher altitude (i.e. sunburn), gusty upper-elevation winds and sudden weather changes that can bring a hypothermia threat in mid-summer and frostbite danger within minutes on even a mild winter day.
- For more information: Grayson Highland State Park or Mount Rogers NRA Headquarters, Marion Va., (540) 783-5196
Virginia, that is.
Not only do Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands State Park provide the highest landscape in the Old Dominion, they also evoke that wild west feel of prairie-like open grassland and mesa-like craggy outcroppings.
Adding the final touch to the John Wayne scene are the free-range ponies grazing alongside the trails, though I would hesitate to call them "wild," as park literature often does. Most of the horses don't seem a bit concerned when hikers (or even dogs) come within a few feet of them. (WARNING: They've been known to kick and bite hikers who try to feed them. The park forbids feeding them, though this has obviously been violated many times.)
Author Willa Cather, a native Virginian, once wrote that New Mexico's sky was so vast, it wasn't merely the roof of the earth -- the earth was only the floor of the sky. You certainly get that feeling on a clear day at Mount Rogers, too.
Beyond the meadows strewn with boulders and stubby brush, a world of wavy mountains and rolling hills opens up in all directions under a vast blue canopy.
Mount Rogers is the state's high point, some 5,729 feet higher than where sea touches shore at Virginia Beach. To appreciate how high it is, imagine taking a plane off from the top of the mountain and heading in a straight line due west, maintaining the same altitude. You wouldn't crash into anything until Colorado. Head east, and you wouldn't crash into anything until Morocco.
Though it's the tallest, Mount Rogers doesn't exactly stand out like a Virginia version of Fuji or Kilimanjaro. Rogers is a slightly higher mound in a group of like-sized ridges, including White Top Mountain and Wilburn Ridge.
And unlike its immediate neighbors, Mount Rogers is not bald on top, but instead sports a thick head of spruce and fir trees. And I mean thick. Resembling a temperate rain forest, the thick stand of trees turns a sunny day into chilly twilight and often hides pockets of snow well into the warm months.
The state's high point is marked by a stone pile in the midst of this dank forest, with absolutely no view in any direction. It's ironic that there are stunning views everywhere around except at the highest point, but you should go just to say you've been there.
There's no way I can detail all the 400-plus miles of trail in the recreation area, primarily because I've only hiked about 20 miles of them. I have made a rather strenuous hike up from Grindstone Campground (on Route 603 west of Troutdale) on the Mount Rogers trail, a climb of 2,000 feet, looping back on different trails for a 13-mile round trip. That was a gorgeous but exhausting dayhike.
The simplest way to see the grandeur is to go to Grayson Highlands State Park, off route 58 east of Abingdon and Damascus.
A large trailhead at Massey Gap offers access to the Rhododendron Trail over Wilburn Ridge, which leads toward Mount Rogers 4 miles away (the high point is a half-mile off the Appalachian Trail).
Wilburn Ridge is a rock-studded mound poking up out of the balds, providing a sweeping view over this out-of-place landscape. It's less than 2 miles to Wilburn Ridge, and well before you get there, you're already amid the ponies.
Across the road from the Massey Gap trailhead, it's only 1/2 mile through a mostly forested path to Big Pinnacle, a stately rock formation that will give you a wonderful vista over the open terrain of Wilburn Ridge across the way.
When I hiked up to Big Pinnacle, the shadow of the mountain hid a thick and treacherous layer of snow and ice -- even though it has been a warm, dry winter most everywhere else in the eastern U.S. and it was nearly 60 degrees on the early March day I hiked it.
Visitors to Mount Rogers should remember that whatever the weather is like in the rest of Virginia, it's likely worse a mile up in the sky. A rain down below can be ice or snow up high; if the air is still in the valley, it may be whipping the ponies' manes with 50 mph gusts in Grayson Highlands.
Snow has been observed on Mount Rogers as late as May and as early as September, and it can be cold and damp in mid-summer. Even a sunny, perfect day is more dangerous at this elevation -- there's less atmosphere between you and the sun, and that means more ultraviolet rays that can cause sunburn or, worse, skin cancer. So remember the extra layers, the rain coat and the sunblock!
Like I said, I can only give you a taste of this sumptuous hiking delicacy near our state's southern border. But if you go, you'll want to return for a second helping.