Several years ago, I wrote an article about Virginia’s Most Spectacular Hike. While I acknowledge that a superlative description like that is subjective, I still stand by that description these years later. In Tennessee, I believe the most spectacular hike is probably the section of the Appalachian Trail up on the balds near Roan Mountain, sometimes called the “Balds of Roan,” even though the main balds–Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Bald–are all to the north of Roan Mountain proper.
On May 2, 2015, we drove from Abingdon to Carver’s Gap and hiked the AT, which runs across the crest of the first two balds with a short side trail to the top of Grassy Bald. The temperature was around 60° and mostly sunny, with relatively clear skies. The mountains above 4000′ were still mostly devoid of foliage. By late May, the hills will be verdant with hues of green, and by mid-June, the famous rhododendron gardens on Roan Mountain will be in full bloom. This time of year—late April and early May—the AT is full of thru-hikers, those who are attempting to complete the entire AT on the traditional south to north route.
This section of the trail is relatively easily accessed from the Tri-Cities via Route 19 and Tennessee State Highway 143, which climbs to Carver’s Gap at 5512′, where there is a parking area next to the trail. Because of the easy access and great views, this section of the AT is highly traveled and is busy on most nice weekends.
Grassy Ridge Bald is the highest of the balds. It requires a short, moderate climb off a side trail to reach the top. The round-trip hike from Carver’s Gap to the Grassy Bald area and back is approximately 5½ miles.
The top of the bald is roughly the size of a couple of football fields, with 360° views depending on where you walk. There were some overnight campers on the mountain the day we were there. The views on a clear night are probably phenomenal, although there is most surely some light pollution from Johnson City and Bristol on the western side.
The two above photos show the immense views of the Black Mountains and surrounding peaks in North Carolina. This is one of the best views in the South. On the other hand, the views to the west aren’t too shabby, either. Below is a view looking southwest, where the smaller mountains create layered views that are so appealing and distinctly Appalachian.
Looking to the northwest, there are views as far as the Cumberland Mountains in Kentucky. The photo below shows the view more directly north, into Virginia. The larger massif on the right side of the photo is Whitetop, Mount Rogers, and possibly Pond Mountain in North Carolina.
We were not able to stay until sunset, but came off the mountain just as the so-called Golden Hour was approaching. The shadows grew and the colors softened as sunset approached.
This hike is not only accessible by car, but is also moderate in nature. While there is some climbing, the fact that you start at 5500′ means most the climbing has already been done in your vehicle. So the hike is also more accessible to individuals who are fit but not extreme hikers.
Because of the accessibility and great views, this hike is one of the most popular in region. If you are here on a weekend, be prepared to have company. Sometimes finding a parking spot is a challenge, too. Those minor considerations notwithstanding, this is a truly spectacular hike that will take you into territory that is unusual for the South. These are the largest contiguous balds in the Appalachian Mountains, and the above-treeline views are extraordinary.
Having hiked in the Smokies and most of the other better known spots in Tennessee, it’s my opinion that the balds here make up the most spectacular hike in the Volunteer State.
On Saturday, December 22, 2012 we went on a winter backpacking trip that was extremely cold but rewarded us with incredible conditions for photography: massive hoarfrost, remnants from a snowstorm, and true alpenglow lighting—a rare combination anywhere, but especially in the South.
As the evening sun set, the entire sky in the east (the direction opposite from the sun) began to glow pink with a purplish band at the horizon. The rime-encrusted trees and brush, which had their own bluish-white hue, looked otherworldly. The side of the mountain basked in the alpenglow. In the course of my life I have seen this phenomenon on occasion in the Rockies and in the Alps, but never so pronounced in our region as it was this evening.
For a comparison with the same phenomenon on the Matterhorn in Switzerland, see this photo. While the orange light from a sunset is itself beautiful, true alpenglow—when the entire sky is lit with light seemingly emanating from behind or even within the mountains, in the opposite direction from the sun—is amazing.
Looking towards where the sun was setting revealed another interesting effect—purple mountains with an orange sky.
As we continued to take pictures until almost all of the light was gone, we were reminded that part of the reason for the great conditions was the cold. And it was getting colder by the minute. Operating the cameras and standing still, the chill began to invade us. Toes and fingers burned. As the last good light disappeared, we continued onward to make camp somewhere near the top of the mountain.
Our planned out-and-back route was straightforward: A one-day hike from the Elk Garden area of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area up to the highest parts of the southern side of Mount Rogers near the famous Thomas Knob shelter; an overnight in the shelter or at a tent site somewhere in the vicinity; and a return back via the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. These trails roughly parallel the Grayson County-Smyth County line for about five miles along the mountain ridge.
As we approached the mountain, you could clearly see the delineation where the frost began to accent the freshly fallen snow. While you could see the snow between the trees on the bottom half of the mountain, on the top half of the mountain everything—literally every single thing—was covered with brilliant white frost.
Donning my 44-pound backpack full of winter camping gear and camera equipment, I crossed the road and started up the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. The hike started through trees, which glistened overhead. The skies were bright to the west, where the sun was already dropping, but were a dark cobalt blue in other directions.
The frost coated everything. Tree branches were twice or more their size due to the hoarfrost.
Once up in the balds, you could see great distances. The mountains to the south had snow but little frost; to the north across the valley, Clinch Mountain had frost on its largest southern-exposed face, known as the Bear Town area.
The contrast between blue and white was dramatic.
Hiking in this winter wonderland, you could easily imagine yourself in another part of the United States, or another part of the world, hiking in the Arctic or in true Alpine conditions.
The Frasier firs and other trees at the highest elevations looked almost fake with their limbs and branches so heavily laden with frost.
The moon rose dramatically in the East, signalling that this was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.
The entire hike, as awesome as it was, was merely the opening act for the light show we were about to watch.
As we rounded the first bend that allowed us a view to the eastern horizon, the whole mountain became aglow in amazing colors.
The photos we took do not adequately show the overwhelming color of the scene. The periphery as well as the main view to the east were bursting with palettes of pink and purple. In the photo below, I used my camera’s panorama feature to show a 180 degree view.
The entire episode of amazing light lasted less than one-half hour. Even the fading light was beautiful, as captured below.
The sunlight disappeared, and the moonlight began to illuminate the mountain. It was not a full moon, but it was sufficient such that you could walk without a headlamp once your eyes adjusted.
The light show over, we set out to make our camp. The temperature seemed to plummet by the minute. The winds, which were not insignificant while we were obsessed with photography, seemed to increase in strength and become more ominous. It was definitely getting colder.
There would be a price to pay to for the incredible optic conditions: suffering through a brutal night of cold and wind.
The Pain Factor
The next day, when we returned to our vehicle, an older gentleman walked into the parking lot from the other direction–coming down off of Whitetop Mountain. A large white beard, accompanied by a red union shirt, made the man appear as a slim Santa Clause coming from the snowy woods to inspect his winter kingdom. The man was none other than Damascus Dave, a well-known and experienced thru-hiker and outfitter in the region.
He greeted us. “Isn’t it beautiful? That hoarfrost, or rime ice, or whatever you want to call it—it’s whiter than snow.” Then he asked, “Did y’all overnight up there?”
We told him we had, and we began discussing the wind gusts and how cold it got last night. We talked about gear for a while, and how while we were prepared, it was still extremely cold.
“Well, it was pretty cold last night,” he said. “And, I reckon you can’t camp up there in this kind of weather and not experience some pain. No getting around it. That’s just part of it.”
As I stood there in the parking lot, tired but satisfied, I realized that he spoke the truth.
When it comes to hardcore winter camping, especially if you are seeking exposed ridgetops, vistas, and the coldest weather with the most snow, there will be some pain. Not insufferable pain. Certainly not the Beck Weathers’ level of pain. Not nearly the level of pain a depicted in Cold, the movie about climbing Gasherbrum II, a 26,000′ mountain, in the middle of winter. But there is unquestionably some serious discomfort—some pain—involved. It’s truly a case of “no pain, no gain.”
We weren’t cold while hiking. (In fact, while climbing it’s pretty easy to actually overheat.) We moderated our hike so that our pace kept us warm but didn’t cause us to overheat. But when we stopped, the whipping wind would quickly steal body heat. We had to put on our down jackets when we stopped. (You don’t want to overdress, risking sweating too much and the dreaded “wetting out” inside your jacket, but you have to dress sufficiently to keep warm.) It’s a balancing act to maintain warmth in these conditions. Preparation, proper clothing, and layering is key.
However, regardless of your dressing properly, setting up camp when it is really cold can be difficult. The cold seeps through your gloves, burning and then numbing your digits, making it increasingly difficult for you to manipulate them. For example, holding aluminum tent poles firmly while setting up a tent just saps the heat from your hands. Simple tasks require greater concentration and mental focus when it’s freezing and your hands are numb. Standing around while doing these kinds of tasks causes your feet to get cold, too.
By the time we had set up our tent, the water in our one-liter water bottles had almost completely frozen. The sandwich I brought for dinner had frozen. And the gas canister that would allow us to warm up some water for coffee and oatmeal was not functional.
That night, I slept in my 15 degree-rated sleeping bag on a sleeping pad, with polar fleece pants, two undershirts, a fleece jacket, wearing a down jacket, a hat, and gloves. My feet were covered with wool socks and insulated slippers. And yet, my feet and hands were still cold. My friend, who brought his 0 degree-rated “Never Summer” down sleeping bag, fared no better. Let’s just say, it was very cold.
We warmed our water by placing it in our sleeping bags, along with a host of other gear that was generally uncomfortable to have there: batteries from my camera; my headlamp; additional food; the gas canister; and various other items.
The wind was blowing interminably, with gusts that seemed Everest-like. In putting up our tent, we staked through the first inch of frozen ground down into the soft earth, and used some additional rocks to keep if from moving. Nonetheless, the tent flapped incessantly through the night, and the intermittent gusts seemed to have enough force to blow us off the mountain.
Despite the good weather window reported on the news and on the Internet the previous day, the temperatures plunged and the wind whipped with increasing intensity through the night. Using the heat inside our sleeping bags, we were able to thaw the iced-through water bottles.
Little did we know that although the weather was predicted to improve at the lower elevations, the recorded temperature (single digits) and wind chill (below zero) was the coldest in December 2012, and wind gusts were recorded at 65 miles per hour at the Grayson Highlands State Park Weather Station, almost 1500 vertical feet below where we were camping on the exposed ridge at over 5400′.
If we had not been adequately prepared that evening, an uncomfortable night could have been much worse. Instead, we awoke the next morning, broke camp, and went back to the Thomas Knob shelter to brew some coffee to warm up before the hike back to the trailhead. As expected, as we hiked back down the mountain, it got warmer and the winds subsided.
By the time we returned to the parking lot, it was comfortable enough wearing just our fleece sweaters to stand around and chat with Dave regarding harrowing experiences he had heard about in this area. (Many folks have actually been in some real danger up on the mountain). While not uniquely cold, the weather we had experienced was extreme, especially for this region. For us part-time adventurers, you might even call the weather conditions epic.
The evening sunlight, true alpenglow, and whole experience made this a fitting winter solstice backpacking trip, a perfect prelude for Christmas and the New Year. The suffering part? Yes, it was definitely worth it. Meaningful achievement, even something as relatively inconsequential as a winter overnighter, requires some striving and involves a little or more discomfort. It’s in part the difficulty that makes it rewarding. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, and the solitude sought after in these kinds of trips would not exist.
And for the record, yes, I actually did carry with me and wear insulated slippers.
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. (To be precise, it was finished on August 14, 1937.) The trail is 2,180 miles long, has over 250 three-sided “shelters,” and links innumerable other trails through 14 states.
For three-quarters of a century people from all over the United States–indeed, from all over the world–have been trekking up and down the Appalachian Trail, or A.T., as most folks in the know refer to it. In commemoration of this milestone, this weekend I hiked a section of the A.T. between Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.
Founded by a small group of hikers, particularly one forester named Benton Mckaye, who envisioned an East Coast “super trail”, the Appalachian Trail Conference started work on the A.T. in the 1920s. By 1930 the trail began to take form as small groups of volunteers worked up and down the mountains of the East. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, this was not a government project but the accomplishment of private, local clubs who mapped and routed sections of the trail, negotiated with private landowners and governmental agencies, and did the physical labor to build it in their respective areas.
To this day, although the A.T. is now owned by the governnment, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the many volunteer organizations are critical to the maintenance of the trail.
After World War II, volunteers renewed development of the A.T. In 1948, Earl V. Shaffer, an Army veteran who served in the Pacific Theater, completed the first “thru hike,” or continuous hike of the entire A.T., reportedly in order to “walk off” the stress of the war. In the years since, the A.T. has become a cultural phenomenon in addition to being an outdoor experience. Every year hundreds of individuals from all walks of life attempt to thru hike or section hike part of the A.T., seeking solace, self-exploration, or temporary escape from urbanity on the trail.
In 1968, the United States Congress passed the National Trails System Act, and the A.T. was the first completed national trail designated a National Scenic Trail. This added the A.T. to the system of national parks. The A.T. links two national parks (the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah National Park), and includes Abingdon Outdoors’ own Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. While the A.T. has always crossed the MRNA, the trail used to traverse the Iron Mountains to the north of Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain. It was re-routed over Mount Rogers and Whitetop due to scenic beauty of these highest mountains in Virginia. The old shelters on Iron Mountain are still maintained as part of the Iron Mountain Trail.
Most folks—like myself—have no intention (at least no immediate intention) of hiking the entire length of the A.T. Most folks hike part of the trail in a day, or at most over the course of a weekend or for a week or two. The trail is also frequently utilized by the Boy Scouts and by church and civic groups for hiking and camping trips.
The trail is designed not to be easy: It randomly meanders and seldom takes the easiest path from point “A” to point “B”. At points it certainly appears as if the A.T.’s designers purposely placed obstacles such as rocks and roots in the way. This keeps the trail challenging.
The A.T. is different things for different people: A place for solitude and meditation; a place for a communal outdoor experience; a training ground for other pursuits; a naturalist’s place to study flora and fauna. Perhaps Benton MacKaye best answered the question, “What’s the ultimate purpose of the Appalachian Trail?”
He said, “To walk. To see. And to see what you see.”
High up on Pine Mountain in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is an area known as the Scales. This June we drove and hiked up to this area.
Basically, it’s nothing more than a grassy, fenced in area used by campers and horse riders. On the other hand, the Scales have been for many, many years the eastern gateway to the high country of Mount Rogers, where ranchers brought their cattle to graze in the summer and then sell during earlier in the 1900s. Livestock was weighed up here (thus the name “Scales”) before the animals trekked back down off the mountain and lost weight (and brought their owners less money when sold).
The Scales are located above 5000′. The Appalachian Trail crosses right above this area. The most direct route from below is Route 613, which is a rugged, rock strewn forest road that requires a high clearance vehicle.
The road eventually crosses a cattle guard. Shortly thereafter the forest opens up to show Pine Mountain and some good views to the north of the valley and ridge mountains in Virginia.
The skies always seem to be a deeper color of blue up here on the mountain.
The photo below shows the numerous mountains visible to the north from the area near the Scales.
Check out these photographs of falcons and falconry from a new Northern Virginian blog on photography. Falconry, the ancient sport of taking quarry with raptors, is not widely practiced in the United States, although there is a Virginia Falconers Association.
If you investigate a little bit you will learn there is normally an “apprenticeship” whereby an aspiring falconer will work with a more senior bird handler to learn how to trap, manage and train a falcon. The apprenticeship may take years. Falconers must obtain U.S. Fish and Wildlife Permits in order to trap and keep these birds.
Having a falcon return to you and land on your arm would be exhilarating—presuming, of course, that you were wearing a protective gauntlet (otherwise your exhilaration would be tempered by extreme pain as the raptor’s talons clamped down on your forearm).
These photos reminded me of a backpacking trip a friend and I took several years ago wherein we accidentally came upon several wild raptors that flew extremely close to us. It was a bit unnerving to have birds of prey buzz so closely by. A few minutes later we would realize why the birds were flying so close to us.
We were hiking the Appalachian Trail in the Bald Mountains, up on the North Carolina-Tennessee border about 10 miles north of Sams Gap. As we rounded some large boulders, we accidentally came upon the Big Bald Banding Station. There were some individuals near the summit of Big Bald Mountain collecting data, and there were birds of prey that were either nesting or returning to the area. There were also some large bird cages, and, if I recall correctly, we observed several birds being released.
The sheer randomness of our coming upon these guys and watching the magnificent birds was pretty neat. In fact, we were so surprised that neither of us remembered to take our cameras and photograph the birds. We probably could have gotten some shots like those in the article highlighted above. The birds we saw were not trained, but were wild and free and were probably just passing through, stopping briefly on their way south for the winter.
Big Bald Mountain, at 5516′, is one the higher points on the AT (and the highest between the Roan balds to the north and the Smokies to the south). The hike on the AT from Spivey Gap (Route 19W, aka Spivey Mountain Road) to Big Bald Mountain is a steep, rugged hike. The Bald Mountains are a natural bird migration throughway, and both large birds and smaller species cross the mountain during the seasons.
One of the gems of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is Fox Creek. Nestled between the south side of Iron Mountain and the north side of Mount Rogers, Fox Creek flows east through about 5 miles of National Forest before entering private property down the mountainside.
Lower Fox Creek
The lower section of the creek that lies within the national forest flows through a miniature gorge. Large boulders and timbers create numerous beautiful pools of water. Fox Creek Falls, a fan-type cascading waterfall, is a much photographed feature. The photo below shows Fox Creek Falls from a side angle, a less traditional view. (Click on any of the photos in this article to enlarge them.)
The two trips we took to Fox Creek in October revealed remarkable foilage on the moss-covered boulders. Although past their peak vibrancy, the leaves created a tapestry of color that I needed to capture with the camera.
The first day we arrived in the middle of the afternoon. The sunlight was too harsh for good photography, so we came back the next day in the later afternoon. The boulders in the creek are quite large; in the photo below, you can see my son Isaac playing on one of them.
Upper Fox Creek
The upper part of Fox Creek is formed when Lewis Fork Branch joins the Fox Creek headwater. At this point, the creek becomes a full fledged, albeit small, trout stream. A modest, high elevation valley forms between Mount Rogers and Iron Mountain. The National Recreation Area has a large, split rail fence that runs along Virginia Route 603 for several miles.
Along this section of road is the trailhead for the Mount Rogers Trail, Grindstone Campground, a parking lot for the Appalachian Trail, the Fairwood Horse Camping Area, and the entrance to the unimproved road that goes up to the Scales area of Pine Mountain.
Fox Creek in this area is a small, swiftly moving creek with a gentle gradient remiscent of a Midwestern trout stream or an Eastern chalk stream as much as typical freestone stream. However, the flow of the creek is variable as it is dependent on runoff from Mount Rogers.
The views up and down the valley are Western-like. In fact, much of the Mount Rogers area reminds many people, including me, of the West. It’s like a little slice of the West dropped into Southwest Virginia.
The large meadows along upper Fox Creek provide many starting points for short hikes. There are also numerous places to begin longer hikes up Mount Rogers or Iron Mountain.
Driving south along I-81 in Wythe County, you cannot help but notice that there is one aesthetically appealing mountain on your left that notably rises from the valley floor much closer to the interstate than the surrounding mountains. This is Glade Mountain.
The mountain becomes visible to the south of the interstate just past Rural Retreat (Exit 60). Glade Mountain parallels the interstate for almost 10 miles, receding only as you approach Atkins (Exit 50).
Glade Mountain is part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and lies entirely in the Jefferson National Forest. It is distinctive in that it is separated from the main part of the recreation area, yet is one of the largest mountains in terms of mass within the area. Despite its proximity to I-81, it is seldom visited other than by local Wythe and Smyth County residents and Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. Thru-hikers get their first view of Virginia’s valley and ridge mountains when they cross the mountain. Glade Mountain affords views of Big Walker Mountain, Clinch Mountain, and even part of East River Mountain (the West Virginia state line) to the north.
Most out-of-the-area hikers pass up Glade Mountain for other more written about and better known mountains further down the interstate. This leaves Glade Mountain to those of us who appreciate its solitude. I have hiked this mountain on several Saturday afternoons, and the only other hikers I have ever met on the mountain are a handful of thru-hikers in spring and early summer on their way north. I also once met a single thru-hiker on his way south in the fall.
The AT crosses Glade Mountain on a north-south axis. The base of the trail leaves the Settlers Museum of Southwest Virginia in Groseclose, and after about ½ mile through the forest heads up the mountain in a due south direction. Once climbing the mountain, the trail parallels a very small creek (about 1-2 feet in width). In June the mountain laurel on the north side of the mountain bloom profusely.
The northern section of the trail (the side closest to the Settlers Museum) has huge rhododendron thickets and mountain laurel thickets. At some points you travel through a tunnel of rhododendron that barely allows room for a backpack.
The trail travels uphill for about 3 or 4 miles, crossing Forest Road 86 (identified on some maps as Forest Road 644). The trail continues south and higher up the mountain to the Louise Chatfield Shelter, a fairly nice shelter on the mountainside close to a year-round creek.
The trail then continues for another approximately 1 ½ to 2 miles to the top of the mountain. There are a few places on the trail where the trees open up enough for a brief view of the valley and to the north. The views are much better in winter, when the canopy does not obscure the view. Towards the summit there are expanses of ferns over four feet in height under the trees. There is no designated spot or clearing that identifies the location of the summit.
The trail then descends the south side of the mountain until it crosses Forest Road 86 again, eventually crossing Route 16 approximately 4 miles further.
Forest Road 86 forms a band around the entire mountain about ½ way up from the base. Forest Road 86 is open to mountain bikes (and even off-road vehicles), and can be combined with the AT to form a large loop run (approximately 12 miles).
Access to the trailhead of this mountain is easy. Simply take Exit 54 off of I-81 and follow the signs to the Settlers Museum. The trailhead is about 6 miles from the interstate. More detailed directions are here:
From I-81 South (follow signs to the Museum):
1. At bottom of exit ramp at Exit 54 on I-81, turn left
2. Continue about 0.1 mile to Rt 11
3. Turn left on Rt 11, travel 1.3 miles to Rt 679
4. Turn right on Rt 679, travel 0.8 mile to Rocky Hollow Road
5. Turn right on Rocky Hollow Road, continue 1.2 miles to Museum
This is the Appalachian Trail footbridge that crosses Straight Branch Creek near Damascus, Virginia. This photograph was taken on Saturday, July 9, 2011. If you click on the photo and enlarge it, you can see the white blaze on the anchor tree on left of the footbridge in the background. In order to obtain this composition, I waded into the center of the creek and set up a tripod. I slowed the shutter speed slightly in order to capture the movement of the water in the foreground.
In eastern Tazewell County lies Burkes Garden, an isolated, circular mountain valley nicknamed “God’s Thumbprint.” The people who have lived here for generations apparently have known for a long time they own one of the most idyllic mountain valleys in the South. In fact, at one time agents of George Vanderbilt inquired about building his gilded age mountain estate here. The local population refused to sell out, and he instead built his house, The Biltmore, at another location outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
Burkes Garden is the location of a scenic half-marathon called “The Varmint.” Saturday, June 11, 2011, was the 18th consecutive running of The Varmint. The race is named after a peculiarly large coyote that was killing sheep in the valley in 1952. As the story goes, this varmint was difficult to catch or kill, so a professional big game hunter was called in to get the beast. They eventually did get it. The coyote itself can be viewed at nearby Crab Orchard Museum.
Prior to this year I had run this 13.1 mile race a couple of times, so I was curious to go back and see how the race had changed. To get to Burkes Garden, you have to drive over a mountain that separates the valley from the rest of Tazewell County. The road, named Burkes Garden Road (Route 663), is about 2.5 miles in length from the base to the top and climbs considerably; I would estimate somewhat less than 1000 vertical feet. Coming down into Burkes Garden at 7:30 AM, there was a fog which completely engulfed the valley.
As I approached the race, I was surprised by how many people were there. There were well over 300 people. The Varmint Half-Marathon is run in conjunction with a 5K road race, so some of the people who were there were obviously there for the 5K. Nonetheless, the half-marathon has grown a lot since 2002 and 2004 when I last participated. This year there were groups of runners from Virginia Tech University and West Virginia as well as the more expected contingent of runners from Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee with the State of Franklin Track Club.
The half-marathon is essentially a tour of Burkes Garden. The race is staged and the start/finish line is at a school in the community. Racers travel in a counter-clockwise fashion around the valley. This is one of the more scenic races in the region. You have to appreciate the scenery, because this is a tough and very hilly course. The first six miles are constant hills. Your legs will get pounded. Thereafter the hills continue, but they are less pronounced. The last three miles of the race is one long, slow climb with one small out-and-back detour back to the finish line.
After I ran The Varmint this Saturday I retraced the race route and took some photos of the course. These are presented in the order a runner would see these views during the race. Click on any of the photos in this gallery to enlarge and read a description of them.
The roads are very lightly traveled in Burkes Garden. This would make for a great afternoon family or casual mountain bike ride, or a challenging road bike route if combined with the climb over 663 from Tazewell.
Route 663 actually continues southeast all the way through Burkes Garden and travels up over Brushy Mountain, where it eventually intersects with the Appalachian Trail at the peak of the mountain, then continues down the other side via switchbacks to connect with Route 42 in Bland County. Leaving Burkes Garden Route 663 however turns to gravel and is essentially an unimproved forest road. This could be another mountain bike option as well.
Burkes Garden is one of those increasingly rare places where the beauty of the countryside is simple and still pure. There are no restaurants and no stores in Burkes Garden. There are also no neon or electric signs, no flashy or tacky homes, and no unnecessary distubances to the pastoral countryside. It’s easy on the eyes. It’s just a great place to sit back and relax—especially after 13.1 miles.
The ascent up Wilburn Ridge is the most spectacular hike in Virginia. I usually avoid superlatives in describing the outdoors, because descriptions such as “most spectacular” are of course necessarily subjective. However, in many years of hiking across the Commonwealth, this route remains my personal favorite. If you are reasonably fit and only do one hike in Southwest Virginia, this should be it.
This hike is one for all seasons: Spring, summer, fall and winter each bring a different hiking perspective. Because of the elevation, the winters can be harsh up here, and summer comes later than it does to the valleys. In the middle of June, the balds boast the largest open rhododendron thickets in Virginia. In the fall, the trees burst forth with color. The peak brilliance of fall foliage occurs several weeks earlier here than in the rest of the region—usually the last week of September or first week of October.
These photos were taken on a day hike on Memorial Day Weekend in 2011. Some the trees were still in the early leafing out stage that has long past the rest of the Virginia. This provided an interesting contrast between the lighter greens of early foliage and the darker colors of the Fraser firs that are spread across the higher elevations.
The following photo taken of hikers ascending Wilburn Ridge shows the grand views from practically the outset of this hike. Click on this photo to enlarge it and appreciate the expansive views into North Carolina along Wilburn Ridge.
Most of Wilburn Ridge is above treeline in “balds,” huge sections of the mountain where there are only grass, underbrush, and rocky outcroppings. This is more like hiking in the Western mountain ranges than anywhere else in the Southeastern United States.
Wilburn Ridge is a ridge climb that is the southern rampart of Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia at 5700′ above sea level. The highest point on the ridge itself is approximately 5500′. The rock outcroppings rise like embattled parapets on a castle as you ascend the ridge. From the northern part of this ridge the Appalachian Trail continues west across additional balds towards the true peak of Mount Rogers, and there is a short spur trail that ascends the final 200′ to the summit. The actual summit of Mount Rogers is forested and has no view.
The trails surrounding Mount Rogers provide views in all directions. There are some outcroppings that provide literal 360 degree views. The further you ascend on this route, the better the views become. In the midsection of the ridge, the views to the southwest show the Appalachian Range that separates North Carolina and Tennessee.
At the northern end (the highest end) of Wilburn Ridge, you can view almost 100 miles of the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. Clicking to enlarge the photo below, you can see Grandfather Mountain in the foreground on the left side (about 1/4 from the left side). It has a unique “U” shape in the middle of it. The mountains in the middle include Sugar Mountain in North Carolina, while the largest mountains on the center-right hand side of the photo include Roan Mountain that divides North Carolina and Tennessee.
At the northern end of Wilburn Ridge, you can look west back down towards the valley and ridge section of Virginia. In the photo below, you can see where the Appalachian Trail, Crest Trail, and Pine Mountain Trail intersect. Click to enlarge this photo and you can see the horses and riders on the trail. Iron Mountain is the long straight mountain behind them that runs along the top of the picture. In the very upper left of the photo is the valley back towards Abingdon. While not visible in this photo, Abingdon is less than 30 miles as the crow flies from this viewpoint.
To the north, Wilburn Ridge overlooks Pine Mountain. As shown below, Pine Mountain appears as a semi-circular mountain that has huge bald sections but is also partially forested. Pine Mountain has tremendous views itself looking back up to Wilburn Ridge and towards the southern mountains in North Carolina. The Appalachian Trail traverses the entire ridge of Pine Mountain. The Crest Trail can be seen on the left of the photo below. Click to enlarge it for a more detailed view.
The Wilburn Ridge Trail is part of the Appalachian Trail. The quickest way to access the trail is to enter Grayson Highlands State Park and drive to the Massie Gap parking area. A short 1/2 mile spur trail leaves the parking lot and rapidly ascends to meet the Appalachian Trail and Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. This photo shows the view looking up Wilburn Ridge at the beginning of the hike once on the Appalachian Trail.
The views begin immediately climbing the trail. The photo below was taken along the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail less than 1 mile from the parking lot in Grayson Highlands State Park. If you click on it and enlarge it, the horse trail is clearly visible to the left-center of the photo, while the AT is just above it in the center of the photo. These two trails parallel one another during the first 1.5 miles up Wilburn Ridge, until reaching the gate that separates Grayson Highlands State Park from Mount Rogers Wilderness.
The trail alternates between a series of rocky step climbing and traverses across fields. Here is one of the fields showing rock outcroppings both near and far:
The following shows typical trail conditions while descending back down towards the parking lot:
Wilburn Ridge and the surrounding area are known not only for the views, but also for the herds of feral ponies that live in Grayson Highlands State Park and in the high country or “crest zone” of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. This is one of only two areas in Virginia where wild ponies roam (the other is almost 400 miles away on Assateaugue Island National Seashore). The ponies here endure tremendous temperature changes from the heat of summer to the winters at 5000′.
The ponies graze across the high country throughout the summer, preserving the character of the balds. In the winter they migrate to lowers areas of the park. The ponies can be seen on the trails that crisscross the balds:
The photo below shows ponies along Wilburn Ridge. The mountain in the distance is Whitetop.
The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association, a private organization, assists managing these animals. In the spring some of the female ponies give birth, and in the fall the ponies are rounded up, and a certain number of them are auctioned off during the Grayson Highlands Festival.
The ponies are awesome to observe as you are hiking up the ridge. While completely wild, they are not afraid of the hikers and usually continue grazing. I have even experienced them waking up backpackers by grazing close to tents in the early morning hours. Here is a mother with her young:
Here is another young pony up close:
So there you have it: The combination of views, miles of balds which provide above-treeline hiking conditions, wild ponies, and rugged country make this the most spectacular hike in Virginia.
From Abingdon, drive east to Damascus on Route 58. Stay on Route 58 through Damascus. Route 58 itself is a beautiful drive as it parallels Whitetop Laurel Creek. You will continue on Route 58 east until you enter Grayson County; when you reach the community of Whitetop you have about 20 minutes left until you will reach the entrance to Grayson Highlands State Park.
There is a $3 entrance fee to drive into the park. The drive to the Massie Gap parking lot is another 3 miles or so.
The best map for hiking in the high country that is currently published is the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Mount Rogers Map 786, available at the outdoor stores in Abingdon, Bristol, and Damascus.