Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cold Mountain

View north from Cold Mountain: Rocky, Maintop Mountains and the Priest
5.8 miles loop, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Free. Gravel road to trailhead is bumpy.

The grassy meadows atop Cold Mountain deliver fantastic views and make the peak one of the most unique in the Blue Ridge around Charlottesville. The mountain exhibits a bald-like characteristic similar to the balds found in North Carolina and further south, although the meadows at Cold Mountain require slightly more maintenance. This hike loops around the south slope of the mountain before climbing up to the grassy summit with its sweeping views of 4000-foot Blue Ridge peaks. Confusingly, the peak is marked as both Cole Mountain and Cold Mountain on maps; the USGS refers to the mountain as Cole Mountain, but since most hikers in Virginia know this bald peak as Cold Mountain, I'll use that name here as well. Along with nearby hike to Mount Pleasant, this hike provides some of the best views in this part of the Blue Ridge.

I did this hike with a good friend on a summery May day, when the air was humid and felt like August. After picking up some Bodo's for lunch, we headed south out of Charlottesville on US 29 past Lovingston to Amherst, where we exited onto US 29 Business and drove into the town; we then turned right at the traffic circle where 29 Business intersected US 60 to take US 60 west. From here, US 60 wound through the Amherst countryside at the foot of Mt. Pleasant until climbing slowly into the Blue Ridge. We eventually turned off the very windy road at Coffeytown Road (Route 634) and drove up that up to an intersection with Wiggins Spring Road, where we took the right fork onto Wiggins Spring, following the signs for the Mt. Pleasant Scenic Area. Wiggins Springs Road eventually turned into a gravel road, getting progressively bumpier as it climbed uphill towards Hog Camp Gap. We parked in the parking area to the left of the road at Hog Camp Gap, where Wiggins Spring Road intersects the Appalachian Trail.

From Hog Camp Gap, we continued to follow Wiggins Spring Road on foot for 0.2 miles past the gap to the trailhead for the Old Hotel Trail, which starts as an overgrown former road heading to the right from Wiggins Spring Road. The turnoff for the Old Hotel Trail comes just before the turnoff for car parking for the Mt. Pleasant hike. The wide, grassy trail begins by paralleling the gravel road to the Mt. Pleasant parking area, with cars parked at the Henry Lanum Trailhead in sight. We then followed the Old Hotel Trail to the right and began a gradual descent.

Old Hotel Trail
After a mile or so from the trailhead, we wandered through a widening mountain slope: first, the woods thinned and the brush thickened, then, views of the peak of Mt. Pleasant started emerging. As we continued along, the grassy trail began to climb, soon entering a broad clearing. The trail followed the bottom of the clearing; there were few views, as most of the cleared land lay uphill of the trail. However, the wide grassy clearing, dotted with trees with fresh foliage, was still a very pretty sight without any wide views. We hiked through the clearing and eventually began another short climb that ended at a flat ridgetop where the spacing between trees was quite wide and there was a large possible campsite with a fire ring. The trail out of this wide campsite area was not immediately obvious, but, looking for the blue blazes, we eventually found the trail and followed it onward.

Clearing along the Old Hotel Trail
Passing the campsite, the trail began to follow the south side of Cold Mountain. At first, the trail was fairly level, but after a while it began a fairly steady descent on the wooded mountainside. The trail passed alternately through drier areas with mountain laurel and wetter areas where ferns coated the forest floor, before descending even further into a small stream valley. The downhill ended as the trail neared the stream and we soon found ourselves on a gentle ascent near the stream, crossing it and then passing Cow Camp Shelter. Many May wildflowers were blooming either along or near the trail during this stretch; we passed lots of phlox and saw lots of mountain laurel that were on the cusp of blooming.

Cow Camp Shelter
Phlox along the trail
Up to this point, we had the hike entirely to ourselves; but as we began the steady ascent up from Cow Camp Shelter to the AT, we began running into a few thru-hikers headed to the hut. The trail made a switchback as it climbed up from the shelter towards Cow Camp Gap, passing through beautiful swaths of wildflowers along the trail.

Flowers along the trail to Cow Camp Gap

After a fairly steady ascent, we came to Cow Camp Gap and the intersection with the AT, about 3.4 miles from the trailhead at Hog Camp Gap. From here, a trail sign pointing north indicated that it was about 2.5 miles back to Hog Camp Gap along the AT. We took the AT north and immediately began climbing along the southwestern ridge of Cold Mountain. The trail made some switchbacks as it headed up; at the ends of two of these switchbacks, there were rock outcrops with views west into the Shenandoah Valley towards Buena Vista and Lexington.

View west from outcrop on AT

From the outcrops, the trail continued climbing, straightening out on the ridge as it reached the summit bald. After entering the first stretch of meadows, we finished the hike's uphill portion and came to a rock that marked the summit of Cole Mountain, with a USGS marker. We stopped here for lunch; unfortunately, we found the summit to be heavily fly-infested, which made enjoying the view and our lunch a little more difficult than we would've liked. The view was quite impressive into Shenandoah Valley. Even though the haze was a bit strong, obscuring our views of House Mountain and the mountains across the Valley, we could see many of the peaks west of us in the Blue Ridge.

View west from the summit of Cold Mountain
After eating lunch, we continued onward, following the trail through the mountaintop meadows. The meadows here are reminiscent of the Southern Appalachian Balds, though they are not quite the same. Both of these types of mountain grasslands form where it is too warm for an alpine zone. However, many balds in the higher Southern Appalachians can stay bald without extreme maintenance; they are bald because years of forestry, overuse, and erosion has stripped off all soil, leaving mountaintops that support very little tree life. Cold Mountain's meadows, on the other hand, are mowed to maintain their appearence (as is Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park).

After making a short drop from the summit, we came to the broad meadows on the saddle between the main summit and a lower northeastern summit. From the start of these meadows, there was a stunning view to the north encompassing some of the great peaks of the Blue Ridge: Rocky Mountain, Maintop Mountain, the Priest, Pompey Mountain, and Mt. Pleasant. Mt. Pleasant and its rocky slopes were particularly dominating. Together, this group of peaks forms one of the greatest aggregation of 4000-foot peaks in the Blue Ridge: all of the prior listed peaks, along with Cold Mountain itself and Elk Pond Mountain, exceed 4000 feet in height. Rocky Mountain is nominally the highest of the set, though disappointingly it is perhaps the least spectacular of the summits. However, its summit is barely 10 feet taller than the Priest and 13 feet taller than both Mt. Pleasant and Maintop Mountain.

View north
Hiking further along, we were treated to more views of Mt. Pleasant. As we headed up the other side of the saddle, we looked to the south into the Piedmont and saw Tobacco Row Mountain rising over the farms of the foothills.

Mt. Pleasant from Cold Mountain
Finally, the trail passed out of the grassland and back into the forest. On the descent, we passed by a final clearing before finishing the roughly mile stretch through forest, switchbacking down through the early spring woods.


  1. What a wonderful blog. informative and helpful. Do you permit using your 'views with description of mountains' to be used provided credit is given? You can find my blog on Thank you. Andreas

    1. Hi Andreas- thanks for visiting the blog! You're welcome to use the labelled view, just attribute it to Hiking Shenandoah and link to the blog.

    2. I certainly will due the linking. Thank you so much for the permission. The article when published will be listed on the blog of I am glad I found your blog. It is inspirational.

  2. Great article and spectacular views! Are there any areas on Cole Mountain for primitive tent camping that have that great of a view? Do they allow a firepit? I will be traveling near Roanoke this October and this would be an amazing opportunity!

    1. Hi Jessica- thanks for visiting! Unfortunately camping and fires are not allowed on the summit bald of Cold Mountain; there's a good campsite on the Old Hotel Trail with a fire ring but there are no views from that spot.