Monday, February 24, 2014

Wilburn Ridge to Mt. Rogers

Ponies grazing on the Grayson Highlands
8.6 miles round trip, 1340 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: $5 Virginia state park day use fee

There is no hike in Virginia like the hike to the summit of Mt. Rogers, the state's highest peak. Few hikes can match this hike's varied nature- yet the hike itself is doable for just about everyone. The terrain crossed en route is some of the Virginia's most unique. There are the rolling meadows of the Grayson Highlands and the wild ponies that graze there in the mist, the rocky outcrops with views of endless wilderness, and the wet and mossy rain forest at the highest point in our state. Every Virginian should see Mt. Rogers. While the summit of the peak is in Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, which is part of Jefferson National Forest, the easiest access point to the mountain and the site of some of Virginia's most beautiful meadows is Grayson Highlands State Park, surely the crown jewel of the Virginia State Park system.

The mountain is in the most remote corner of the state: it's nearly a seven-hour trip from Northern Virginia via I-81. I recommend accessing this hike by taking I-81 to Exit 45 at Marion, VA and driving VA Route 16 south to the junction with US 58. We turned right at US 58, heading west into some of the windiest Virginia roads I've encountered. Along the way, there's very little sign that you're anywhere out of the ordinary; the roads are mostly hemmed in by trees. However, after we turned into Grayson Highlands State Park and paid the admission fee and drove up two miles or so, we came to a gorgeous eastern view.

View from Grayson Highlands Park Road
We camped for the night and drove to the trailhead the next morning by taking the Park Road to Massie Gap and parking there. It was extremeley foggy when we began our hike on the Rhododendron Trail. Objects on the trail seemed to appear before us out of thin air. First we saw blueberry bushes and wineberries precipitate out of the mist; then, all of a sudden, grazing cattle began popping out on the trail before us to. We made our way gently around the long-horned bulls as we went uphill through the many bushes of rhododendron.

Bull on Wilburn Ridge
The trail soon merged with the Virginia Highlands Trail, which we followed a little further in the grassy meadows until we reached a junction with the Appalachian Trail. The AT was much narrower than the Highlands trail and was surrounded by tall grass; we turned left onto this trail and hiked for half a mile, passing a gate and leaving the boundaries of Grayson Highlands State Park and entering Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. The grassy meadows continued, but were sometimes sparsely populated with hemlock and fir skeletons.

Foggy forest on Wilburn Ridge
Under normal conditions, there would have been many wide, sweeping views; but on our way in, the hike was entirely fogged in, and visibility was only a hundred feet or less. When the AT intersected the Wilburn Ridge Trail, we decided to continue on the AT and leave the Wilburn Ridge trail and its ridgetop views for the return trip, in hopes that it would clear up. The AT hung on the lower east side of the ridge, passing through slightly more forested environs and at one point passing through a set of narrow rock crevices.

Narrow rock crevice on the AT
After passing through the rocky patch, the AT soon rejoined the Wilburn Ridge Trail and a little while afterwards, it came to the Pine Mountain Trail at Rhododendron Gap. Here, we made a left to stay on the AT, entering the Lewis Fork Wilderness. The next mile or so was a rehashing of the scenery on Wilburn Ridge, albeit with more trees. About 3.5 miles from the trailhead, we passed Thomas Knob Shelter, an AT shelter near the summit of Mt. Rogers.

Foggy grassland on the AT
Entering the Lewis Fork Wilderness, Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area
Finally, a little less than 4 miles into the foggy hike, we came to the spur trail that led to the summit of Mt. Rogers. We turned onto this trail, which led uphill through a little more meadowlands before entering a forest.

The forest was at first quite normal, except for the firs found only in the Southern Appalachians. However, as we walked further in, the forest seemed to get progressively greener. The forest floor was populated with more ferns; the trees themselves coated with more moss. We had stumbled into a temperate rain forest at the top of Virginia's highest peak.

Rain forest atop Mt. Rogers
For some people, the summit is anticlimactic. For us, it was wonderous: who could've imagined that the top of Virginia looked something like the Pacfic Northwest? The summit was deep in this forest, surrounded on all sides by spectacular greenery. Two rocks of similar height had USGS markers on them, marking the mountain's 5729-foot summit. The peak is named for William Barton Rogers, a remarkable Virginian who was the State Geologist, a professor at the University of Virginia, and the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The highest point in the state of Virginia
After lunch at the top, we began backtracking, passing Thomas Knob Shelter in the fog. Luckily, once we returned to Rhododendron Gap, the fog had began to lift. Climbing atop an outcrop near the gap, we had an amazing view of the highlands on Pine Mountain and the valley below. We could even see herds of ponies off in the distance.

View from Rhododendron Gap of Pine Mountain
Continuing onward back onto Wilburn Ridge, we started running into wild ponies. These very beautiful animals grazed near the trail; by eating the vegetation, they help keep the balds on Mt. Rogers from growing over. We saw many more herds of ponies on the rest of the hike; in total, we counted over 20 ponies.

The ponies of Mt. Rogers
As we had previously planned, we took the Wilburn Ridge trail on the way back. Unfortunately, fog had retaken the mountains when we summited the top of the ridge. We missed what many others advertise as spectacular views from this rocky promontory in the middle of the highlands.

The summit of Wilburn Ridge
However, the thick fog that was present when we were atop the ridge quickly evaporated once we reach its base. In a matter of minutes, the clouds disappeared and the rocky meadows of Wilburn Ridge were visible under blue skies. The views were tremendous: not only could we see Wilburn Ridge itself, but we could also see Haw Orchard Mountain and Big Pinnacle, which we had hiked the previous night, and our first view of the forested peak of Mt. Rogers itself. For the rest of the hike, we enjoyed the newly sunny weather, the views over the green balds, the ponies, and the many wineberries that grew along the trail.

The fog clears: Wilburn Ridge
View down the Grayson  Highlands
Mt. Rogers
The trail eventually led us back into the Grayson Highlands State Park and Massie Gap, where we had parked that morning. As we made the final descent out of the balds, passing cows and ponies, we had a beautiful view of the endless collection of fading blue ridges from Massie Gap.

View from Massie Gap
That night, the clouds cleared and the night sky opened up. There are no cities or other sources of light pollution near Mt. Rogers, so the night was a spectacular show of stars. Less than a month after this trip, I moved out of Virginia for the first time in my life; I'm glad that she shared this part of her beauty with me before I left.

The night sky at Grayson Highlands

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