I had only been on the Appalachian Trail for about thirty minutes and I’d already come across a field of wild ponies, viewed a breathtaking panorama from the top of a rocky outcropping, and I could see the tallest mountain in Virginia nearby. This is exactly why Grayson Highlands State Park is one of the best places to access the Appalachian Trail. And exactly why I do it at least once every year.
Grayson Highlands State Park is my favorite state park in Virginia. It’s located in a secluded, beautiful part of Southwest Virginia. The park has plenty to offer visitors and features several really nice hiking trails. But the only trail you want to focus on right now is the Massie Gap Trail.
One of the reasons Grayson Highlands is a great place to access the Appalachian Trail is the Overnight Backpackers Lot. This simple gravel parking lot is reserved solely for overnight backpackers on the Appalachian Trail. Once the gates close at the end of the day you can rest assured your vehicle is a safe location for a night or two while you sleep under the stars.
From here it’s just a few minutes’ hike to the Massie Gap Trail. This trail begins with a relatively steep climb to the top of a hill where it connects with the AT. Turn right and you’ll be northbound heading toward Marion, turn left and you’ll be southbound heading toward Damascus. The more scenic route from here is southbound and with a gentle twenty minute hike you leave the state park behind.
Wilburn Ridge and the Rhododendron Trail
As soon as you cross the boundary of the state park through a rustic gate designed to keep the wildlife, and infamous wild ponies, out of the park you’ll see a nice campsite. This is the first place backpackers can camp after leaving the park, or the last place before reentering at the end of the trip. It’s a great place to spend the last night since there is no water here.
The AT begins to ascend Wilburn Ridge. The ridge is a series of three knobs and takes about an hour to cross. Hikers cross over the first and last knobs, but the center knob has a spur trail leading to a spectacular view at the top. Large grassy fields between each knob is usually occupied by a few roaming wild ponies. Any of these would make decent overnight stops but keep in mind there is no water here, either.
The initial climb up Wilburn Ridge is rocky, steep, and unstable at times. For almost half an hour your foot never touches dirt as you step from one small boulder to the next. This is an average ascension for a section of the AT, but it can be rough on children. For that reason parents should consider the Rhododendron Trail. This trail splits off the AT just outside Grayson Highland State Park, heading right around the base of Wilburn Ridge. The trail crosses over one of the grassy fields on the ridge before rejoining the AT on the other end of the ridge. It’s a much easier, gentler walk for children.
Just after crossing Wilburn Ridge the AT snakes through a dense forest. Keep an eye out on your left (heading southbound) for several large campsites. These are some of the most peaceful, breathtaking campsites on the Appalachian Trail. Most have fire rings built by overnight campers years ago, and several have large fallen trees that have been dragged over for use as a bench. There is fresh water in a mountain spring about five minutes away. Each campsite is within sight of the next, but still divided with a few trees and dense foliage for a little privacy from your neighbors.
About twenty minutes beyond this point is the Thomas Knob Shelter. This shelter is one of the best on the AT with three solid walls and a second level to accommodate more overnight hikers. A natural privy is located just a few minutes’ walk into a densely wooded area, which is a real treat for any shelter on the AT. Fresh water is located down the hill behind the shelter.
Early mornings are fantastic at the shelter if you get up early enough for sunrise. The view along the mountains from a rocky outcropping behind the shelter is amazing. Of course this means you would have to get up early which can be difficult with a night sleeping in one of the most comfortable shelters in the area.
Mt. Rogers is the highest point in Virginia at 5,728′. But before you get your hopes up let me warn you now: there is no majestic view to be seen from the summit of this mountain. Mt. Rogers is a densely forested dome mountain with nothing but a large boulder and USGS medallion at the top. But don’t let this discourage you from visiting; it’s neat to be be able to say you’ve hiked the tallest mountain in Virginia, and the trail leading through the forest is stunning to view.
The climate is a bit different here with large ferns covering the floor of the forest and nearly everything that doesn’t move covered with moss. It’s a green wonderland with a cool, damp atmosphere even on the hottest and driest of summer days. The dense foliage creates a canopy over most of the trail, making it a welcome escape on cloudless days.
The summit is located on a spur trail off the AT just a few minutes south of the Thomas Knob Shelter. The roundtrip hike to the summit and back takes about 30-40 minutes. It’s a gentle hike and great for families.
Continue southbound the Appalachian Trail hugs the edge of Mt. Rogers, passes through Deep Gap, and crosses over Whitetop Mountain Road at a small parking area. This stretch is an easy 3 mile downhill trek through a green tunnel of trees and foliage. One large field about a mile from the Mt. Roger spur trail leads to some fantastic views and would make a great campsite for a night. Sometimes wild ponies will roam this field for your viewing pleasure.
Another great campsite is located about a mile from the road crossing at Elk Garden. A large field just off the trail provides ample room for large groups to camp. It’s a great place with a beautiful view of the night sky. But again be warned: no fresh water here or at the parking area at the road crossing.
From the parking lot the trail begins a steep climb up Whitetop Mountain. It’s about a mile to the top of Whitetop Mountain, but it’s a 700′ ascent. Once you reach the top, however, all the effort will be worth it.
Whitetop Mountain is the second tallest mountain in Virginia at 5,518′ (210′ shorter than Mt. Rogers). But unlike Mt. Rogers, Whitetop is nearly bald at the top and provides stunning panorama views. Looking north from here you can see Mt. Rogers and Wilburn Ridge leading back to Grayson Highlands State Park. Looking south the mountain landscape continues to the horizon.
Although some are tempted to spend the night at the top, it’s not entirely recommended. Epic summer thunderstorms will pass across the mountain and you don’t want to be caught in that. There is no fresh water to be found at the top. And with the mostly exposed top there is no shelter from the wind. If you time it just right you can enjoy this view early in the morning as you descend the other side, heading toward Damascus.
It’s a 20 mile hike from Whitetop Mountain into the most popular trail town on the AT, Damascus. With only one exception the hike is nearly downhill the entire trek, making it easy heading southbound. You don’t have to worry about finishing this section in one or even two days; the Lost Mountain Shelter and Saunders Shelter will give you a nice place to sleep, and there are several other natural campsites along the way.
About six miles after you leave Whitetop Mountain the AT connects with the Virginia Creeper Trail. This rail-trail runs about eighteen miles from the town of Whitetop Mountain back to Damascus. The AT runs alongside a section of this rail-trail before splitting off and coming back again later.
Eventually the AT arrives in Damascus. At first you would not know this is one of the most popular trail towns on the AT, but as soon as you walk down the main street you’ll begin to understand. Hostels, outdoor equipment stores, and bike rental businesses populate this small town. Damascus is connected by Highway 58, making it just twenty minutes from Abingdon and about forty minutes from Grayson Highlands State Park. This is what makes Damascus a good anchor point for the end of a trek from the state park.