Reaching Virginia’s Tallest Peak: Mount Rogers on the Appalachian Trail

The hike along the Appalachian Trail from Grayson Highlands State Park to Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia, is pretty spectacular for day hikers or backpackers.

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
March 3rd, 2014
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The first time I tried to reach the summit of Mount Rogers with my family I was just ten years old. Every summer for the next six years we would get a little further, but as a family we never reached that tree-shrouded summit that was always within sight. I was 29 years old the first time I ever reached the summit of the highest peak in Virginia. Here’s how you can do it for yourself.

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[tocitem order=01 header=”Starting at Grayson Highlands State Park”]

[tocitem order=02 header=”Massie Gap Trail”]

[tocitem order=03 header=”Appalachian Trail”]

[tocitem order=04 header=”Mount Rogers Spur Trail”]

[tocitem order=05 header=”Camping”]

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[tocheader]Starting at Grayson Highlands State Park[/tocheader]

Mount Rogers has one aspect that places it in a small portion of highest peaks in the country: it’s only accessible by foot. The Appalachian Trail is the only hiking option to reach the highest peak in Virginia and Grayson Highlands State Park is the best place to park for that hike.

The park is a 30-minute drive from I-81 and about an hour from I-77 along curvy, beautiful, two-lane roads. The easiest route is Exit 35 in Chilhowie onto Whitetop Mountain Road. It’s the most direct route and the quickest to drive, especially if you are driving a camper or RV. The most scenic route is Exit 19 in Abingdon along Highway 58 through the small town of Damascus, also known as Trail Town USA for the Appalachian Trail.

What makes this state park such a great place to hike to Mount Rogers, besides the fact it’s an amazing park in the first place, is the Overnight Backpackers Lot. If you plan to spend the night out on the Appalachian Trail, as I have done several times, this parking lot is a great and secure place to leave your car. The store in the campground is also a great place to grab some gear, snacks, and drinks before or after your adventure.

The view from the Massie Gap Trail during the peak of fall colors.

[tocheader]Massie Gap Trail[/tocheader]

Each summer for six years my dad would park the family vehicle at the Massie Gap Parking Lot. It’s a great place for a day hike to the highest point in Virginia. A short walk across an open field to a simple gate and the adventure begins.

The Massie Gap Trail is just 0.5-miles from the fence to the top of a small hill. It’s not much of a climb, especially now that the trail has been shifted to zig-zag up the hill rather than climb straight up as it did when I was a kid. That was a long first half hour when you’re a teenager with your first trail pack chocked full of enough gear to survive a month on a trail.

At the top of the hill the Massie Gap Trail connects with the Appalachian Trail. To the right the AT crosses over a ridge before heading north toward the Friendship Shelter, also known as the Taj Mahal. But to reach Mount Rogers you’ll want to go left and begin the journey my family attempted so many times before.

The knobs of Wilburn Ridge are very distinctive.

[tocheader]Appalachian Trail[/tocheader]

From this point it is 3.1 miles to the Mount Rogers Spur Trail. Initially it’s an easy walk along flat terrain while still inside Grayson Highlands State Park. After about ½
mile the AT passes through a rustic fence designed to keep the infamous wild ponies outside the park boundaries. After passing through the fence you are no longer inside the park.

This is as far as my family made it during our first outing. My dad had the foresight to bring water, but only a couple of bottles. That shortage combined with the fact my brother was just 5 years old at the time meant the first one mile hike of this journey was enough. We headed back to the car and it would be another year before we tried this again.

On the other side of the fence the AT begins the greatest ascent of the entire journey as the trail climbs up Wilburn Ridge. It’s not a particularly steep ascent but during the first quarter mile your feet will never touch dirt as you climb over small boulders, large rocks, and pebbles. It’s not all that difficult if you are wearing proper footwear.

After ascending the first of three knobs on Wilburn Ridge the trail flattens out. This is where you are most likely to begin spotting wild ponies grazing in the open fields. The ponies are kept here to help maintain the balds of the ridge and have become an icon of the Appalachian Trail.

The second knob of Wilburn Ridge has a large flat rock that made a perfect spot for a family picnic. This is how far my family made it our second year. My mom had brought a knapsack filled with water, bananas, crackers, and items for making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We sat on the rock for a good while, watching the nearby wild ponies, before calling it and heading back to the car.

After the third knob of Wilburn Ridge the AT descends into a lush forest. This is where I passed a sight I have never forgotten, a place that would come back to me years later. It’s a gorgeous hike through the forest until the AT comes out the other side onto a bald ridge. The trail passes through another rustic fence and the way to the Thomas Knob Shelter.

The Thomas Knob Shelter is one of the better ones along the Appalachian Trail; it has three solid sides, a loft area above, enough room for over a dozen hikers, a picnic table, and a nearby privy. I have no idea how long the picnic table has been there, or if its even the original, but that was the spot for a family picnic the last time my family attempted this hike. Mount Rogers is a deceptive mountain for being the tallest in the state with its gentle curved dome and no definitive peak. This made it difficult to pinpoint the first few times we had attempted this hike but believe me: it’s always in view.

I was 16 years old now. I had used what little I had for an allowance to buy a frameless day pack, a few aluminum water bottles, rope and a machete (because what teenage boy doesn’t want a machete in his bag?), and stuffed all that along with a change of clothes and a towel into my bag. I was a happy hiker that day with my family but ultimately frustrated that we would not reach the summit of Mount Rogers.

For me I think it was more about bragging rights with my friends. After all everyone else would come back to high school at the end of the summer and brag about the sports camp they attended or luxurious vacation to Florida or spending a weekend in New York City. What did I want to brag about? Hiking to the highest point in the state. That’s what mattered to me. But I was never able to make that claim.

Not knowing how much further to the summit my dad decided to turn us around. It would be the last time my parents, brother, and sister ever stood at that spot. Life got busy, they eventually moved to North Carolina, and none of them ever visited Grayson Highlands State Park or attempted to summit Mount Rogers again.

The geological summit of Mount Rogers on a boulder.

[tocheader]Mount Rogers Spur Trail[/tocheader]

The beginning 0.5-mile Mount Rogers Spur Trail is almost within sight of the Thomas Knob Shelter. The Appalachian Trail takes a turn to skirt around the base of the dome mountain while the spur trail leads straight up. It’s a 200′ ascent along the spur trail that passes through a stunning fir forest. Trees covered in moss and a floor littered with ferns messes with your head and tries to convince you this is not Southwest Virginia but rather some park in the New England states. The cool, damp air is a welcome respite from the harsh summer sun and you’ll enjoy every minute of the climb.

In 2009 that pesky thing that all of us has to do at least once came around: a high school reunion. It was the first time in 10 years I had returned to Marion, seen my childhood home, or been this close to the Appalachian Trail. I decided I needed to spend some time on the AT and then the thought crossed my mind: I wanted to summit Mount Rogers.

I bought a new internal frame backpack, the wrong tent and sleeping bag, and stuffed it full of five times more gear than I actually needed. The bag was seriously overweight and I didn’t have the proper shoes but I was determined to make it to Mount Rogers and spend a few days enjoying it.

Fortunately I left my bag with most of my gear at the shelter. That’s one of the things I love about the Appalachian Trail: most people will never touch your stuff. I took only a simple 35mm camera and a water bottle with me as I hiked along the Mount Rogers Spur Trail, finishing what my family had started 19 years ago. 

For all the effort over the years from my family and the work I had achieved in the last few hours to reach the summit I could not have been more disappointed to reach the top. Unlike the views from Mount Mitchell or Clingman’s Dome, the summit of Mount Rogers offers no view whatsoever. The top is forested in thick pine trees and strewn with boulders. If you look hard enough you’ll find a USGS medallion marking the geological top of the mountain. That’s all, folks.

On my way back down from the summit I realized I had accomplished something my family started 18 years ago. I had reached the highest point in Virginia at Mount Rogers. I was backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. I was having fun. The view from the top but be entirely lackluster but just the fact I had done it was enough for me. I returned to my backpack, completely untouched, at the Thomas Knob Shelter and wondered what to do next.

Oh that was easy. Mount Rogers may be the highest point in Virginia, but did you know the second highest point is just a few miles away and you can drive straight to the top?

The Thomas Knob Shelter is one of the better ones on the AT. Not pictured: the privy that is a real treat in the wilderness.

[tocheader]Camping[/tocheader]

It’s only an 8-mile roundtrip hike from the Massie Gap Parking Lot to Mount Rogers. It’s a long day hike, especially for those not accustomed to covering large distances, but still possible with just a single day trip. However I cannot recommend it enough that you should bring a tent and spend at least one night out there.

I spent three nights on my first trip, camping at a different spot each night. One thing to love about the Appalachian Trail is that you can camp almost anywhere you can pitch a tent. All you really need is a water source and there are two on this hike.

The Thomas Knob Shelter is a great place to spend a night. The shelter itself is pretty rock solid; I should know since I rode out a severe thunderstorm in the shelter once. A pretty good water source is located behind the shelter down the incline a few hundred feet. A rustic fence has been placed around the mountain spring to keep the wild ponies away and the water clean.

My first time hiking through the forest on the way to Mount Rogers I was just 16 years old. I remembered seeing something off to the side and a thought lodged in my head that I have never forgotten: what a gorgeous campsite. Over the years various people have taken fallen trees and converted them into benches, gathered rocks to create fire rings, and carved out little campsites nestled in the forest.

When I returned to this area years later I decided to camp in one of those spots for the night. I arrived early, set up my tent at a site near the edge, and strung up my hammock between two random trees (there are plenty of trees). As I swayed gently in the hammock I thought to myself it was nice to have the place to myself. That’s when the church group arrived. Dozens of teens setting up dozens of tents, darting back and forth, a constant murmur of conversation to rival that of a shopping mall. It was a slightly irritating break in the silence of nature but I couldn’t really complain: at least these kids were outside.

A nearby water source makes these campsites a perfect place to spend a night. It’s a longer hike than the one at the shelter but still only about twenty minutes roundtrip. Again the water source is surrounded by a rustic fence to protect the mountain spring.

The third option for camping along this section is a large campsite near the edge of Grayson Highlands State Park. Hikers are not allowed to camp inside the park boundaries unless staying at the campground, so this is the last spot to pitch a tent for the next few miles on the Appalachian Trail. The campsite is large enough for several tents and only a mile away from the parking lot, but there is no water source. I didn’t have my oatmeal the next morning.

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