While the most spectacular hike in Virginia is, in my opinion, the ascent of Wilburn Ridge (as described in one of my previous articles), perhaps the best “bang for the buck” hike in Southwest Virginia is the short hike known as Twin Pinnacles. This is a 1.6 mile hike in Grayson Highlands State Park. On September 25, 2011 after visiting the Grayson Highlands Festival my family did this little hike.
The trail begins right behind the Visitor Center. The trail is a loop that takes you out to two pinnacles, or rock outcroppings, that have great views of the surrounding mountains. The first pinnacle can be reached in less than 300 yards from the trailhead. The pinnacles afford 300 degree views. The view in the above photograph is looking south towards the North Carolina/Tennessee state line. The view below is toward the north. The rounded, frasier fir-covered hump at the top of the photo is Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia.
Notice anything unusual in the photo above? My son Isaac noticed the hawk on one of the outcroppings. I have circled it below. You can click on the photo below to enlarge it and see the bird a bit closer. After a few minutes, it flew away, taking advantage of the thermals that rise up the mountainside.
Large Hawk at the Pinnacles
Looking back towards the north, you can also make out Wilburn Ridge as it rises from Massie Gap and climbs towards Mount Rogers. In the photo below, it is the rocky ridge on the right side of the photo’
On the second part of the trail, which involves some up-and-down climbing through some forest, we came across a resident in the middle of the trail who would not move. Eventually, I had to get a long stick and move it out of the path. The snake was almost three feet in length. It was an eastern gartner snake, although I had not seen one this large before. My daughter was not scared of it, and it seems to have been the most memorable part of the hike for her!
Gartner Snake on the Pinnacles Trail
After the hike, on the way down the mountain in our vehicle we saw a whole group of gobblers crossing the road. Seeing wildlife like this in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area is not unusual.
Overall, this was another nice day in the mountains. The Twin Pinnacles Trail is a bit short in and of itself to justify a long trip to Grayson Highlands State Park. It is, however, a perfect complement to a picnic or a nice side trip while visiting. It is also a really good family hike: Just the right distance for younger children or those looking for a less strenuous, shorter hike with great views.
It is 3:30 AM. We are parked on a rural hilltop next to a gas station that closed for the night five hours ago.
The gas station is several miles outside the little town of Bakersville, North Carolina. We’re less than 10 miles from the Tennessee state line. Dozens of other passenger vans are lined up on the hill next to us, here, in a place that can only be described as the middle of nowhere.
Wincing, I slowly extend my right leg in order to begin to exit the cramped van. My teammates and I have just traveled 100+ miles over winding, mostly secondary mountain roads in North Carolina since leaving Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia at 10:30 AM yesterday morning. At least one of us has run every single mile of this journey. And we’re only a little over half way to our destination.
After 15 miles of hard running yesterday and no sleep this night, my legs are sore and my eyes are bleary. This is the third time I’m doing this running drill.
I don my headlamp and a reflective vest with blinky lights in that cool, slightly foggy air so typical of the wee morning hours in Southern Appalachia. I gingerly walk over to the “exchange zone,” an area consisting of orange cones with race officials carrying clip boards and stop watches. I inform them of my race number, 314, and the race number of our team captain, Jasen, who is currently on the course and who will shortly hand off to me the large, blue wristband stamped “BLUE RIDGE RELAY” that we are carrying by foot to Asheville.
Many of our competitors are wandering around the same area, several like me trying to loosen up their knotted muscles before the exchange. Some of my own teammates are awake, too, perhaps ingesting a nutrition bar or banana or drinking water to get much needed calories or fluids. (“Ingesting” is a better description than eating, for there is little pleasure in forcing the food down at this hour after the latest gut-wrenching ride). Others on the team are in the van trying to get at least a few moments of uncomfortable shut-eye before their next run.
Those of us who are awake peer into the blackness where the road disappears. We are waiting. After a while, a few headlamps and blinky lights begin to appear at the base of the hill. Human shapes emerge slowly as we begin to recognize the runners who approach.
“DIRTBAGGERS!, DIRTBAGGERS!,” one of the runners exclaims. It’s Jasen. He is letting us know he’s coming and for me to get ready to start the next leg. Lumbering up the long hill, panting hard, he hands me the wristband. I turn back to salute his effort, but he’s yelling at me and pointing down the road. “GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!”
So motivated, I run off into the darkness, continuing the race. Within a few minutes, I am once again all alone. It’s just me and another long stretch of asphalt, though I can only clearly see about thirty feet ahead by the illumination of my headlamp. Although running alone, I’m not lonely. That’s near impossible when your legs are windmilling downhill and your heart rate is pushing past your aerobic threshold.
The Dirtbaggers’ passenger van whizzes by, leapfrogging me to the next exchange zone. My teammates in the van hoot and holler and shout encouragement as they roll past. I acknowledge them with a raised right arm. Geez, I can’t let these guys down by cracking on this leg of the race.
My first, foremost thought at this ungodly hour is that I must get to the next exchange zone as quickly as possible and hand the wristband to Aaron, who will carry it through Bakersville and another stretch of darkness until the next teammates—Keith, Sean, Scott, Mike, Cam, Bruce, Jim and Byrum—do the same thing as we travel the remaining miles of our meandering route (and then three of us will run yet a fourth time to reach the finish line in Asheville).
My second, intermittent thought is, “What the hell am I doing here?”
My third thought—organically evolving from the second, contemplating the totality of this event—causes an almost imperceptible sideways head nod of virtual disbelief and a slight grin: “This is so totally and utterly insane, it’s awesome!”
Then there’s no further deliberative thought. There is only movement. Movement, and the will to keep pushing through this run.
The Blue Ridge Relay, or BRR, is a 208 mile running relay race that traverses back and forth across the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a cumulative elevation gain of 27,000 vertical feet. It’s arguably the toughest relay road race in the nation. The tagline for the race is “Consider All Others a Warm Up.”
BRR has 27,000 vertical feet of climbing. That’s like climbing Mount Everest more than twice (remember Everest climbers start at 17,000 feet). No, it’s not a truly analogous comparison, but it gives you an idea of the vertical climbing in this monster race.
On September 9th and 10th, 2011, our team, named “The Dirtbaggers,” ran the 208 miles in just under 27 hours at a 7:47 minute per mile average pace. We came in 20th place out of the 120 teams that started the race (several teams DNF’d). Amazingly, the winning team, the Asheville Running Collective, ran 208 miles in a little over 20 hours with a scorching 5:53 minute per mile average pace.
36 Individual Races
The BRR is one of the oldest road relay races in the Eastern United States. The concept of super long relay races goes back a couple decades or so, with several of the first ones out West, most notably the Hood to Coast 200 mile relay race in Oregon. They have picked up much greater interest in the last decade on the heels of the big running boom the United States is currently experiencing (marathon running is up 37% percent since 2000; this year was the first year that even those runners who qualified for the Boston Marathon had to be chosen by a lottery in order to get a place on the starting line). While most runners still consider ultra-running and other mega running events like the Blue Ridge Relay as extreme, these kinds of races are enjoying a concomitant growth and increased interest for those looking for the next challenge after the marathon.
The relay has 36 sections, each of which is between 3 and 11 miles in length. Starting at Grayson Highlands State Park at over 5000’ elevation in Virginia, the race includes some of the most scenic and highest mountains in North Carolina, including a climb up the ramparts of iconic Grandfather Mountain (5900’) and around Mount Mitchell (6600’), the highest mountain in the East. Several legs are on or adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Generally, the race bounces between 1500’ and 4000’ vertical feet practically every three or four legs. The map of the entire course shows it generally travels south. The race officials generated topographical maps (which do not do the course justice and don’t show all of the hills) for each of the 36 legs. I ran legs 2, 13, 24, and the brutal, penultimate 35 (containing a 7-11% gradient climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway).
Each leg is rated easy, moderate, hard, very hard, or “mountain goat hard.” As we ran this race, we realized, however, that easy, moderate, and hard are relative terms.
Even the so-called easy runs usually had hills that, in their own right, would be called hard by anyone other than the organizer of a 208-mile race in the mountains. The longest leg was 10 mile all-uphill run on Route 220 that essentially paralleled the Blue Ridge Parkway as it climbed the bottom half of Grandfather Mountain.
There were two mountain goat legs, each of which had climbs that exceeded 13% gradient in places. There were also long, unrelenting downhill runs that would punish the hamstrings and knees. One all-downhill run was nine miles in length!
A Group Effort
I love individual races; they provide their own reward. There’s no hiding in an individual race. You wholly own the result, for better or worse. The Blue Ridge Relay was not necessarily a “better” race than a solo race, but it was definitely different.
The beauty of the relay race concept is that while only one member of the team is racing against the clock at a time, there is a collective team effort that in some ways elevates the event beyond an event of comparable or greater individual effort such as a solo marathon. At the same time, because the BRR is a mountainous course, no leg is exactly like any other leg in length or topography, and direct comparisons between the runners is difficult. Each team member just has to run the best they can on their unique segments of the course.
Running for a team puts a different sort of pressure on you; for me, this different motivation was refreshing. The camaraderie and fellowship of doing the relay together with my teammates was more “fun” than a purely individual race. Obviously, how much “fun” a race like this is depends on who your teammates are—you need to think about with whom you want to spend a sleep-deprived night in a van in the mountains when you put together your crew. Although every single one us had not been on a team with every other one of us before this race, most of us had a connection to several others on the team. We were fortunate, too, in that the guys on the team were cool, got along, and jelled well.
The Blue Ridge Relay is as much about the non-running aspects as the runs themselves. The whole thing was a great experience that is very different than an ordinary race. On top of this, not knowing exactly what to expect (none of us had done the BRR before) and the grand scale of the race made it a true adventure.
A Logistical Nightmare
The race organizers did a good job putting this race together. When I first learned about this race, it seemed to me to be a logistical nightmare. In addition to organizing a start and a finish as in a traditional race, there were 35 “exchange zones,” or finish lines to the individual legs and staging areas for the teams who were starting the next legs. The various exchange zones were post offices, volunteer fire rescue stations, church parking lots, the Penland School of Crafts, and the odd gas station.
Since a lot of these were in very rural areas and were used in the middle of the night, there obviously was a lot of planning done before the race. In addition, there was a lot of local support from the communities through which we ran, including police support (most notably when a red Trans Am type vehicle zoomed through one of the late-night exchange zones and had to be chased down by a local police officer). Literally 100s of portable toilets were at the exchange zones throughout the race. The courses for the most part were well-marked, with signage at almost all of the turns.
A Laid-Back Race
While there definitely was some nervous energy at the beginning, this race was informal from the get-go. Most of the passenger vans were decorated in some fashion or, like ours, at least had some race-related graffiti written on the windows. For example, before the 10:30 start of our wave of runners, one of the teams huddled its members together and loudly, publically proclaimed that it was time for “The Prayer.” I was not sure what to expect. The team then opened their passenger van to reveal a jacked up speaker system, and blasted the audio of the Prayer from Talladega Nights for everyone. Some of the runners were dressed up in costumes for the intial leg of the race.
As far as any nutrition, the teams were pretty much on their own. You had to bring all of your own water, food, etc. that your team would need. There were very few places during most of the race where you could re-supply; in addition, since the race is through the night, most of the few stores that were on the course were closed when we passed them.
The finish line was at Battery Park in Asheville. While the location was good, there was no significant designated area for racers or their friends or family after the race. This may have been because the teams necessarily come into town in waves throughout the day.
There was not as much “swag” as I expected for such a large race (actually, there was none); the finish line reward was a refrigerator magnet (not a medal, trophy, or anything to memorialize actually finishing the race); there was no congregating area or water or food at the finish. You just sort of went through the finishing chute, got your magnet, and were told you did a good job. The thought may be that finishing in Asheville, you have tons of eating and drinking options within a couple of blocks from the finish line. In any event, these are minor criticisms to what was an overall fantastic experience.
After the race and after some rest, our team went out for refreshments at Asheville’s local watering hole, Barley’s Tap Room (while aging a little bit, it’s ambiance still equals that of the Barley’s in Knoxville, see my story about that one here). The winning team, the Asheville Running Collective, was there, too. One of their members came over and talked to us about the race. He had run the Hood to Coast relay previously, and he told us that BRR blows it away in terms of vertical climbing and overall difficulty.
Finishing the Blue Ridge Relay was a tour de force for our team. If you have a group of 6 to 12 individuals who want to punish themselves and have fun doing so, this is a great race. Bring your A-game, though, and save some for the middle. Because at 3:30 AM, this race is a beast.
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.
This interesting aerial photograph, taken during the day on May 5, 2011, shows a thin band of snow on the crest of Iron Mountain in the foreground and two wider bands of snow on Mount Rogers on the left and on Whitetop Mountain on the right. On Wednesday, May 4, 2011, the temperature dropped precipitously across Southwest Virginia in the evening. It rained in Abingdon during the night but as the photo shows it snowed with just a tad of accumulation in the higher elevations.