The fragrances of fraser fir and red spruce are wonderful smells which many associate with the festive times of the holidays. If you’re an avid hiker, though, it is a scent which evokes memories of walks in the high country atop the highest peaks of the Appalachians.
Whether it be long treks across breezy meadows or a short walk through a damp forest, devoid of sunshine and sound alike, these are some of our favorite places to hike. The evergreens, beech, and mountain ash create an environment more akin to the northern reaches of Maine than our own forests in the lowlands of the Tennessee Valley.
Mount Rogers is one of these islands in the sky. Sitting at 5,729 feet, it is the highest point in the entire state of Virginia and also the highest point north of the Roan Highlands until you reach New England. The magical landscape surrounding the broad mountain peak consists of primeval evergreen forest, rocky outcrops, and open fields known as balds which stretch for miles in almost every direction. Hiking trails abound, as much of the area is protected as part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands State Park. Portions of the mountain slopes are granted further protected as official wilderness areas.
In addition to its fame as the highest area in the state, Mount Rogers is also widely known for the herds of wild ponies which roam its open woods and rocky fields. Originally introduced in 1975 to ward off the return of the forest to the historic balds, the ponies have thrived and are now an iconic part of the area’s culture.
We have visited Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in the past when we biked the Virginia Creeper Trail. While that rightly is one of the top destinations within the park, we had yet to explore the park’s roads or four hundred miles of hiking trails. Two weeks ago, on a brilliant sunshiny morning, we decided to set Mount Rogers itself in our sights.
Reaching the summit requires a hike along a portion of the Appalachian Trail, and although the famous footpath comes very close to the top, hikers must take a short spur trail to reach the top. Two different routes are available for hikers to choose from, both with a length of approximately four miles one way. One may choose to approach from the west after parking on Virginia Highway 600 near Whitetop, or they can enter the recreation area via Grayson Highlands State Park. If it is your first time scaling the mountain, we recommend the second option. The state park is a wonderful destination in its own right and has a visitor center with an abundance of information about the area. The A.T. in this area also passes directly through pony territory.
Enter the state park via Virginia 362, just off U.S. Highway 58 east of Whitetop. Be advised that the park does charge a small entrance fee of $7 for out-of-state visitors and $5 for Virginia residents. If you want to check out the visitor center, drive to the end of the park road. Otherwise, park at the Massie Gap Parking Area and head north across the open field towards the fenced area. A gate will allow you to pass through, and head uphill on the Rhododendron Trail. This is a moderate climb along a newly-renovated trail that intersects with the Appalachian Trail in only 0.5 mile. Turn left (southbound) on the A.T. at this point and follow it another 0.5 mile to the border with the national recreation area.
It was in this open meadow that we encountered our first small group of ponies. A mother and her small colt were standing right off the trail where a small crowd had gathered. About six other ponies grazed nearby. There are several important things the parks want visitors to be aware of regarding the ponies. Despite their friendliness, they are in fact wild and have been known to kick and bite park guests. It is against park policy to pet or feed them, although this happens all the time. If they approach you, be alert and ready to move away if needed. They may nudge you or nibble on your clothing, but soon enough they will realize you have no food and move on. We had several individuals nuzzle and rub against us as we crossed through the meadows that day.
Once you’ve taken pony pictures to your heart’s content, pass though another gate to exit the state park. The trail soon changes and starts climbing a little more steeply. Up ahead you can see the rocky peaks of Wilburn Ridge, the mountain which connects Mount Rogers with the peaks within the state park. Over the 0.9 miles, the Appalachian Trail will skirt to the right of these peaks, offering some amazing views of the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond. If you want to challenge yourself, the Wilburn Ridge Trail offers an extremely steep and rocky climb up and over both pinnacles before reconnecting with the A.T. after 0.7 mile. The views are well worth the effort, but we recommend returning via this route so you can save energy for the climb up Mount Rogers. If you take the A.T. route, a very interesting portion passes through a short tunnel and cave at the base of one of the rocky peaks.
You will pass through several intersections and a couple more pony-filled meadows before reaching the border of Lewis Fork Wilderness. Soon you will see the dark, forested peak of Mount Rogers itself. A short downhill jaunt soon leads to the intersection with Mount Rogers Spur Trail. The fields soon give way to a brooding timberland where everything is covered with moss. 0.5 mile from the split you will reach the top. Lying within the wilderness area, there isn’t much to see other then the hundreds of trees and an official U.S. Geological Survey marker. Enjoy the eerie silence of this ancient forest and then return the way you came.