In the farthest southwest fingers of the Jefferson National Forest is a slice of Virginia that is too often overlooked. Trails climb through the forests and spill into a wide-open high-elevation frontier, strewn with giant boulders and pierced by rugged, rocky crags. Harsh winds carve through the moraines and sweep through the fields. Wild ponies roam the bald peaks and ridgelines. Bears lumber through the rhododendron thickets and feed on the huckleberry bushes. This is the high country of Mount Rogers.
With over 400 miles of trails, 120,000 acres of mountain terrain, and three designated wilderness areas, the highlands of the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area are about as wild as it gets and are fairly accessible thanks to miles of primitive singletrack trails, old logging roads, railroad grades, and horse trails. The A.T. also cuts through this area, passing within a half mile of the trail to Mount Rogers’ 5,729-foot peak, the highest point in Virginia. Here are three unforgettable backcountry experiences in the high country.
A Day in the High Country
Head into Grayson Highlands State Park from the south and park at Massie Gap. From there, follow the Appalachian Spur Trail. At the top, hang a left and the A.T. will deposit you right into Wilburn Ridge. Head up in late summer and you can pick blueberries and huckleberries ‘til you puke. You’ll see wild ponies grazing the grassy mountain plains, scramble through boulders and rocky trails, and catch sunsets and 360-degree views.
Two Days of Little Wilson
Make camp at Grayson Highlands State Park and head into the upland hardwood forests of Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. The Big Wilson Creek trail will take you in and you can branch off and do plenty of exploring, but before you’re done, grab your fly rod and take joy in the solitude of the Little Wilson Creek Trail along the creek bed and make a fishing day out of it. Catch yourself some of the beautiful brook trout that swim the waters of cold, bubbling waters and call it a day with a fire back at camp.
Three Days on the Trail
Two and a half miles west of Troutdale, park at Fairwood and catch the A.T. This will take you through the gorgeous lower elevation rhododendron jungles and uphill towards the Old Orchard Shelter. Continue climbing and the A.T. will suddenly open up into the stunning highlands, where you can hike to an old fenced-in pony weigh station known as The Scales. Wild pony herds keep the area trimmed. Continue heading towards the Wise Shelter. This area is scattered with places to camp near the woods of Big Wilson Creek, where you are protected from the sometimes-brutal winds of high-elevation campsites. You’ll have access to water and beautiful starry skies to gaze upon.
The next day follow the A.T. towards Wilburn Ridge and through to Rhododendron Gap. You’ll scramble over rocks and boulders, up and down the ridgelines, and boulder the rocky faces of Rhododendron Gap peaking at 5,525 feet. You’ll want your camera here as you gaze out over the moors of Mount Rogers. There are plenty of great campsites around Rhododendron Gap. Set up camp under the spruce trees and save time for a side-trip in the morning before closing the loop. Mount Rogers is home to rare Southern Applachian red spruce and Fraser fir, and its summit lays just a half-mile west from the A.T. Close out your trip by following the Pine Mountain Trail to the A.T. and back down towards the Old Orchard Shelter and Fairwood.