Friday, February 21, 2014

Big Pinnacle

Looking south from Big Pinnacle
0.8 miles round trip, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy

I cannot think of another hike in Virginia that gives such a great reward for so little effort. A short 10-minute hike brings you to the top of this rocky peak, where there are vast, expansive views of meadows on mountaintops and layer after layer of forested blue ridges in three states. This hike is far removed from most of the other hikes covered on this blog- Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area were a six hour drive from Fredericksburg, a seven hour drive if you're coming from DC. However, anyone who misses this corner of the state misses some of the most stunning scenery that Virginia has to offer.

Mount Rogers is the highest peak in Virginia, at over a mile high; Haw Orchard Mountain, at 5089 feet, is the third highest, and Big Pinnacle is the lower summit of Haw Orchard Mountain. It is accessible by a short but fairly steep uphill hike from Massie's Gap.

I did this hike on the first evening of a three-day camping trip in Grayson Highlands State Park with a high-school friend from Fredericksburg. I will not bother to offer full directions to the park; however, once you are in the park, the trailhead is fairly easy to find. We followed the main park road along the slope of Haw Orchard Mountain until the road came to the open meadows of Massie Gap, with many parking spots on the right of the road. We parked here to begin our hike.

The trail started across the road, at the far end of the parking area. The Big Pinnacle Trail wound into the forest and immediately began a steady ascent. I was quickly struck by how different the vegetation here seemed from the vegetation further north in the Blue Ridge. In Shenandoah National Park, you find decidious forests not unlike the forests you might find in any forest park in Northern Virginia; but in the highest mountains of Virginia, the Southern Appalachian forests are the a mix of deciduous and coniferous, with hemlock and higher-elevation spruce and fir along the trail. The forest was also quite wet- giving it a lush, almost temperate-rain-forest-like feel.

Lush forest on the short uphill
It is a very short 0.4 miles from the trailhead to the junction with the Twin Pinnacles Trail near the top of the ridgeline. At this intersection, we turned right and took the trail leading to the summit of Big Pinnacle. The trail quickly emerged atop the craggy, northwest-facing summit.

The view was jaw-dropping. From this nearly mile-high vantage point, the Appalachians spread, ridge after ridge, to the south. To the west, we could see the grassy meadows of Wilburn Ridge, leading towards the forested summit of Mt. Rogers. Wild ponies dotted the meadows, munching in the late evening. Huge mountains loomed far to the south, in either Tennessee or North Carolina- mountains that I don't yet know the names to. The view to the east was blocked by the higher (but flatter) peak of Little Pinnacle, the actual summit of Haw Orchard Mountain.

Appalachian Mountains
Looking north from Big Pinnacle
View west onto Grayson Highlands
This is an extremely remote corner of Virginia. With the exception of a few farms, no towns or villages were visible. After we descended the peak, returned to our campground, and ate dinner, we found ourselves under an incredible blanket of a thousand stars. Temperatures at night were quite cold- unexpected, considering Fredericksburg temperatures had been hovering near 90 degrees. Grayson Highlands may not be an area on most Virginians' radar. But this is a special place; and every Virginian should camp here to see the endless array of mountains and stars at least once.

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