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The first time I tried to reach the summit of Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia at 5,728′, I was just ten years old hiking with my family. Every summer for the next six years we would get a little further, but as a family we never reached that tree-shrouded summit that was always within sight. I was 29 years old the first time I ever reached the summit of the highest peak in Virginia. Here’s how you can do it for yourself.
Grayson Highlands State Park
Mount Rogers has one aspect that places it in a small portion of highest peaks in the country: it’s only accessible by foot. The Appalachian Trail is the only hiking option to reach the highest peak in Virginia and Grayson Highlands State Park is the best place to start that hike.
The park is a 30-minute drive from I-81 and about an hour from I-77 along curvy but beautiful Highway 58. The easiest route is Exit 35 in Chilhowie onto Whitetop Mountain Road. It’s the most direct route and the quickest to drive, especially if you are driving a camper or RV. The most scenic route is Exit 19 in Abingdon along Highway 58 through the small town of Damascus, also known as Trail Town USA for the Appalachian Trail.
What makes this state park such a great place to hike to Mount Rogers is the Overnight Backpackers Lot. The admission fee is $5-$7 per vehicle and with an additional $10 fee for using the overnight lot. It’s a safe and secure way to leave your vehicle behind if you plan to spend a few nights on the trail.
Start With the Massie Gap Trail
Each summer for six years my dad would park the family vehicle at the Massie Gap Parking Lot. It’s a great place for a day hike to the highest point in Virginia. A short walk across an open field to a simple gate and the adventure began.
The Massie Gap Trail is just 0.5-miles from the fence to the top of a small hill. It’s not much of a climb, especially now that the trail has been shifted to zig-zag up the hill rather than climb straight up as it did when I was a kid. That was a long first half hour when I was a teenager with my first trail pack chocked full of enough gear to survive a month on a trail.
At the top of the hill the Massie Gap Trail connects with the Appalachian Trail. To the right the AT crosses over a ridge before heading north toward the Friendship Shelter near Highway 16 and Marion. To reach Mount Rogers hikers turn left and head south on the AT.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Hiking this portion of the Appalachian Trail is pretty easy. For the next 0.5 miles the trail meanders to the edge of Grayson Highlands State Park at a rustic gate meant to keep the wildlife out of the park.
This is as far as my family made it during our first outing. My dad had the foresight to bring water, but only a couple of bottles. That shortage combined with the fact my brother was just 5 years old at the time meant the first one mile hike of this journey was enough. We headed back to the car and it would be another year before we tried this again.
Outside Grayson Highlands State Park
The next summer we returned to once again begin the family journey to reach Mount Rogers. Everyone was a year older and year wiser so we felt we could achieve the goal that year.
Just on the other side of the rustic fence, and outside the boundary of the state park, the Appalachian Trail begins an ascent across Wilburn Ridge. For a good half mile hikers’ feet never touch dirt as the trail climbs over rocks and boulders. It’s strenuous and does a number on your knees, but still worth every step.
Once atop Wilburn Ridge the trail flattens out. There are three knobs, each higher than the previous, across the ridge. This is usually the first point you’ll see the infamous wild ponies of the Appalachian Trail. It was thrilling the first time I saw this as a child and every single time since.
Between the second and third knobs the Rhododendron Trail crosses over the ridge. This flat spot was a great place to have a family picnic that second year and also happened to be as far as we made it. After watching the ponies grazing while we ate peanut butter and crackers we finally headed back to the car at Massie Gap.
Thomas Knob Shelter
Just past the third and final knob on Wilburn Ridge the Appalachian Trail descends rapidly a couple hundred feet and passes through a dense forest. This forested area is a great camping spot (more on that later) and a welcome break from the sun on those hot summer days.
After passing through a couple more rustic gates the AT passes the Thomas Knob Shelter, a total 3.5-mile hike from the Massie Gap parking lot. It’s certainly one of the better shelters on the trail with a loft sleeping area, nearby privy, and access to water from a mountain spring.
This was the furthest my family ever made it to Mount Rogers. From the steps of the shelter I could see the gently dome shape of the mountain ahead. Not knowing how much further it was to the summit my dad decided to turn us around. It would be the last time my parents, brother, and sister ever stood at that spot. Life got busy, they eventually moved to North Carolina, and none of them ever visited Grayson Highlands State Park or attempted to summit Mount Rogers again.
The Final Leg: Mount Rogers Spur Trail
I think if my dad had known the Mount Rogers Spur Trail was just 0.5-miles from the Thomas Knob Shelter we might’ve made it to the top of Mount Rogers as a family. But as it turned out he wasn’t big on maps and we had no idea. When I returned in 2009 I was fully prepared and motivated to find this for myself.
The hike from the shelter to the beginning of the spur trail is pretty easy. It’s mostly flat and semi-open. At the beginning of the spur trail the AT turns left and continues around the base of the mountain.
The spur trail is about a half mile long and ascends nearly 200′ to the summit of Mount Rogers. I had left most of my gear back at the shelter and only carried a water bottle and small camera bag to the top. I was eager to reach the summit and capture a photo of the gorgeous view from the highest point in Virginia.
Only there wasn’t a view. The summit of Mount Rogers is completely overgrown, as it always has been, with no overlook at all. The best I could do was capture a photo of my booted feet on either side of the USGS medallion marking the highest point.
I wasn’t disappointed, though. The hike on the spur trail was gorgeous. It’s a temperate climate on the mountain so the forest was dense, cool, and moist. The trees, both standing and fallen, were covered with moss. It was a beautiful and rare sight in Virginia.
On my way down from the summit I realized I had accomplished something my family had started 18 years earlier. I had finally reached the highest point in Virginia. Despite the lackluster view from the summit 8-mile round trip hike was still worth every step.
So now I challenge you to complete what my family never could. Will you reach the summit of Mount Rogers with your children?
It’s only an 8-mile round trip hike from the Massie Gap parking lot at Grayson Highlands State Park to the summit of Mount Rogers. It’s a moderately strenuous day hike. But it’s also an outstanding overnight hike.
The last time I summited Mount Rogers I decided to spend three nights camping along the Appalachian Trail, each night at a different spot. Here are my three favorite spots on camp between Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers.
Thomas Knob Shelter
The Thomas Knob Shelter is one of the better shelters along the Appalachian Trail. Three solid walls with an open fourth wall make it easy for numerous hikers to get in and out. An upper loft sleeping area adds some space for those wanting a little more privacy or need to get away from those that snore.
A privy is located nearby surrounded by shrubbery for some privacy. Just down the hill behind the shelter is a nice water source from a mountain spring. The spring is surrounded by a fence to keep the wild ponies away.
There isn’t any room at the shelter to pitch a tent, though there are a few good spots to hang a hammock.
Forested Area at Wilburn Ridge
Just beyond Wilburn Ridge, coming from the state park, the Appalachian Trail passes through a dense forested area. The first time I hiked to Mount Rogers I noticed how there were a few campsites kinda carved into the forest and vowed I would return. It took three years.
The campsites are quite large with plenty of room for pitching a good sized tent. Most of the sites now include a fallen tree pulled over as a bench and a fire ring built sometime in the past. What I love most about these sites is that each is surrounded by just enough shrubbery to afford a little barrier with the next site.
There is no privy nearby at this campsite and the water is a longer walk. I was only able to find the water with my AT map I bought at the state park before hitting the trail. It was about a twenty minute walk there and back, but pretty easy once you find it the first time.
Edge of Grayson Highlands State Park
The final campsite I used during my three-day trek was right at the edge of Grayson Highlands State Park. The only camping allowed inside the park is in the campground so this was the last place to spend a night before trekking into the park.
The campsite is large enough for a good-sized group. I’ve seen youth groups and families setting up large cabin-style tents here in the past.
The only downside to this campsite is a complete lack of water. The site is less than a mile from the Massie Gap parking lot inside the park, but that won’t do you any good if you arrive late one night without water.