The Whitetop Hike: Route 601 to Buzzard Rocks

The three-mile section of the Appalachian Trail from Route 601 to the top of Whitetop Mountain rewards hikers in all seasons.  In the late fall and winter, vistas open through the canopy on the mountainside, and the generally clearer skies provide better long-range views.   

Hawthorn Berries Contrast Against an Azure Sky on Whitetop
 
This is a staple hike for our family; it’s distance is just about right as a challenging, yet quite doable hike for children.  (It’s also a great training hike.)  In late November, my son Isaac and I did this out-and-back hike up to Buzzard Rocks, the name of the rocky outcroppings at the base of the bald on Whitetop.  The majority of this hike is in the deep forest, but in the last 1/4 you leave the larger hardwoods behind, go through some smaller scrub-like trees, and eventually come up onto the large Whitetop bald that is visible from most high points in Abingdon.
 
The view from the top of Whitetop is one of the best in Virginia.  Here is the classic mountaintop shot from our hike:
Vista from Whitetop
 
During the summer, this hike can be the quintessential AT walk through a “tunnel of trees” until you reach the very top.  In winter, however, you can look up and down the mountain at the various boulders and formations, and you can peer deep into the forest.  In the photo below, the leafless canopy affords a view of the top part of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.  During summer you can’t see this until you get to the balds:
 
Grandfather Mountain View from the Appalachian Trail Between Route 601 and Buzzard Rocks
 
Here, you can see the treeline giving way to the balds as my son and dog climb the trail.  Note also that there was snow on the trail.  It is invariably significantly colder up on the balds than below, usually to the tune of about 20° if there is any wind.  It is almost as if you break out into the jet stream.
 
Emerging from the Trees Below
We were treated to a large, migrating flock of goldfinches when we arrived at the bald.   
Migrating Flock of Goldfinches on Tall Hawthorn Bushes

The large Hawthorn bushes with their clumps of red berries reminded us that fall was almost over, and the Christmas season fast approaching.  Soon similar berries would adorn mantles and wreaths as holiday decorations in people’s homes far below. 

Outcroppings near Buzzard Rocks
  
Hawthorn Bush with Berries Screens View of Iron Mountain and Clinch Mountain
 
The big-ticket item—the main reason to do this hike—is the fabulous view from the top of Whitetop.  The Whitetop bald is one of the largest individual balds in the Appalachian Mountains. 
 
Looking into North Carolina
 
The vistas are superb from the bald.  In the accompanying article, I have put together a panoramic photograph showing how expansive the view is.  The photos in this article do not capture how open it is on top of the mountain.
 
High Altitude Cirrus Clouds Give Way to Long Stratocumulous Cloud on the Horizon
 
The winds picked up while we were at the summit; I estimated they were in excess of 30 or 35 mph.  The ambient air temperature felt like it dropped about 30° from when we were below treeline.  We only had on t-shirts, and we began shivering.  Fortunately, I had come prepared:  Out came the down jackets, the hats and the gloves.
 
Isaac Thiessen in the Puffy Jacket
 
It was extremely windy; note in the photo below how the wind has inflated my pants:
 
Eric Thiessen in the Puffy Vest

The Whitetop hike is not only a fabulous hike; it’s relatively close to home.  Coming from Abingdon, you never leave Washington County (except perhaps while on the trail at the summit).  At about 23 miles from Abingdon to trailhead, the Route 601-Buzzard Rocks hike is the closest access point to Whitetop and Mount Rogers from Abingdon.

 
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