The Adventurous Hike to Mount Rogers – the Highest Point in Virginia

The only way to reach the summit of Mount Rogers - the highest peak in Virginia - is this adventurous hike along the Appalachian Trail.

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Written by Jason Barnette
on March 3, 2014
| Last updated on December 21, 2020
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I was just ten years old the first time I tried to reach the summit of Mount Rogers. Of course, I wasn’t alone – I was there with my parents and younger siblings. We didn’t make it that first year, or any of the subsequent years after that. I was 29 years old the first time I reached the summit, and it was an adventure I’ll never forget. This is everything you need to know to create your own adventurous hike to Virginia’s tallest point.

The entire hike from Grayson Highlands State Park to the summit of Mount Rogers is almost exactly 4.5 miles. How long it takes to complete that hike entirely depends on you – are you a speed hiker, prefer a slow pace, hiking with children, or carrying lots of backpacking gear? Regardless of your preferences, I recommend giving this hike an entire day. Maybe two. Spend the night like I do every time.

A supermoon rises over Wilburn Ridge near Mount Rogers.

Mount Rogers

At 5,728′, Mount Rogers is the highest point in Virginia. But unlike most other highest points in states across the country, Mount Rogers is only accessibly by foot. It was left this mountain summit relatively peaceful and pristine.

The mountain was named after William Barton Rogers, Virginia’s first State Geologist. It is home to a magnificent spruce-fir forest, a unique ecosystem typically found above 6,000′ in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The forested summit, accessible only by foot, and proximity to the Appalachian Trail have made Mount Rogers a popular item on outdoor enthusiasts checklist.

And it was on my personal outdoor adventure checklist for nearly twenty years.

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The Homestead Area at Grayson Highlands State Park – excellent place for a walk or picnic.

Grayson Highlands State Park

The Appalachian Trail is the only way to reach the summit of Mount Rogers. There are a few different points where hikers could start the trek to the summit, but my favorite place has always been Grayson Highlands State Park.

Grayson Highlands has been my favorite state park in the country since I created the original list in 2018 – and really all the way back to my childhood. It’s located about 30-45 minutes from Interstate 81 in the very heart of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

READ MORE: Road Trip on the Mount Rogers Scenic Byway in Virginia

Grayson Highlands is a fantastic state park to visit if you enjoy hiking trails, waterfalls, scenic overlooks, camping, and horseback riding. But it’s also a great place to leave the car for overnight adventures on the Appalachian Trail. For about $8 per day, visitors can safely leave their vehicles at the Overnight Backpacker’s Lot.

From that parking lot in Grayson Highlands State Park, it takes about 3-4 hours to hike to the summit of Mount Rogers. But the first time I did the hike, it took two days because I kept stopping to enjoy the beauty.

Autumn view from the Massie Gap Trail.

Start on the Massie Gap Trail

Each summer for six years, my dad parked the family car at the Massie Gap Parking Lot. It was a great place for a day hike to Mount Rogers. The adventure began with a short walk across an open field to a rustic wooden gate – the beginning of the Massie Gap Trail.

The Massie Gap Trail is just 0.5-miles long, climbing a short hill and connects with the Appalachian Trail. As a kid, the trail was a straight climb up the hill and left all of us a bit winded at the top. But years ago, the trail was rerouted into a zigzag pattern that is longer but easier to hike.

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This section of the Appalachian Trail is known for the wild ponies that freely roam.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

The roughly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail stretches along the ridges and valleys from Georgia to Maine. Only about a mile of the trail passes through Grayson Highlands State Park, but it’s one of the most popular sections because of the infamous wild ponies.

At the junction between the AT and the Massie Gap Trail, it’s an easy hike along level terrain for about 0.5-miles to the edge of the state park. A rustic fence serves to keep the ponies outside the park and mark the boundary for hikers.

This was as far as my family made it during out first attempt to reach Mount Rogers. My brother was only 5 years old, and that was quite enough hiking for him on that particular day. We captured a family photo at the rustic gate – a photo I still have in a dusty album somewhere – and headed back to the car.

READ MORE: How to See the Wild Ponies at Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia

The next summer, we returned tot he park and hit the trail once again. Reaching the gate 1-mile from the Massie Gap Parking Lot seemed much easier the second time around. But just beyond the gate, the terrain became more challenging.

The Appalachian Trail ascends Wilburn Ridge, an elevated ridge with three rocky knobs. There are entire sections of the trail where hikers’ feet never touch dirt, instead hopping from large boulder to jagged rock. It’s a strenuous hike on a good day.

After crossing Wilburn Ridge, the AT descends into a dense forest as it continues to wind southbound toward Mount Rogers. After about another 1-mile hike, the Thomas Knob Shelter looms ahead.

This was the furthest my family ever made it to Mount Rogers. It was our fifth attempt in seven years and I was 17 years old. But shortly after I graduated high school, my younger siblings and parents moved to coastal North Carolina and we would never set foot inside that state park as a family again.

The Mount Rogers Spur Trail is a gorgeous hike through the woods.

The Final Leg on the Mount Rogers Spur Trail

I like to think if my dad had known the Mount Rogers Spur Trail was just a half mile from the Thomas Knob Shelter, we might’ve made it to the summit of Mount Rogers after all. He didn’t know and we never did, but when I was 29 years old I returned to the park for the first time in a decade.

I spent the night at the Thomas Knob Shelter and awoke early the next morning, eager to complete a journey nearly 20 years in the making. Leaving my hefty backpack and tent behind, I took nothing more than a water bottle and film camera on the last leg of the trail.

The Mount Rogers Spur Trail is 0.5-miles from the Thomas Knob Shelter, and the trail itself is a 0.5-mile hike to the summit. It’s a gentle 200′ ascent through a dense forest with trees, fallen trunks, and rocks covered in moss.

I’m about 95% certain that USGS medallion marks the actual summit of Mount Rogers.

Summit of Mount Rogers

The first time I reached the summit of Mount Rogers, I had visions in my head of capturing a gorgeous photo of the landscape from the highest point in Virginia. The half-mile hike to the summit was a breeze and gave me plenty of time to think of the different ways I could capture the view.

Can you imagine my disappointment when I reached the summit to find no clear view whatsoever? The summit of the mountain is completely forested with no overlook or observation tower.

But the disappointment didn’t last long. Sunlight filtered through the thin pine needles. Trees were wrapped in moss like a cozy sweater. It was so quiet I could not hear a single sound no matter how intently I listened. More than any other highest point I had reached so far – or since – this was the epitome of peacefulness.

A few weeks later, I saw my parents at their home in South Carolina. I showed them the photos from the summit of Mount Rogers and told them about the adventurous hike to get there. They’ll never reach that summit themselves now, but at least they had my story to remember. The story of when I checked a 20 year old item off my outdoor adventure wish list.

READ MORE: Reaching the Summit of Whitetop Mountain – the Second Highest Mountain in Virginia

Rhododendron Gap at Mile 491.8 on the Appalachian Trail – otherwise known as my favorite backcountry campsite I have ever come across.

Camping on the Appalachian Trail

It’s only a 9-mile round trip hike from the Massie Gap Parking Lot to the summit of Mount Rogers. It’s a moderate hike – with a few strenuous moments – and can easily be finished in a single day. However, every time I have summited the mountain, I have spent at least one night camping along the Appalachian Trail.

There are several really great places to pitch a tent on the AT, but one thing to note is that camping inside Grayson Highlands State Park is only allowed in the campground. There is a moderately nice campsite just outside the boundary of the state park, but with no fresh water it’s not the best place to spend the night.

My favorite place to camp along this section of the Appalachian Trail – and one of my favorite places I have ever camped anywhere – is a forested area between Wilburn Ridge and the Thomas Knob Shelter. The trail winds through a dense forest, but if you keep an eye out you’ll see some naturally carved campsites in the woods to the south of the trail.

Each of the natural campsites is large enough for about half a dozen tents, and there are about five of those campsites. Over the years, hikers have built fire rings using local rocks and dragged fallen trees to use as benches. The campsites are first come, first served, so arrive early to get the best one for yourself.

The Thomas Knob Shelter is one of the best and located in the perfect location for reaching the summit of Mount Rogers.

Staying at the Thomas Knob Shelter

The furthest my family ever made it to the summit of Mount Rogers was the Thomas Knob Shelter. It was the final hike we took as a family on the Appalachian Trail. My mom had brought a bag full of sandwiches, crackers, and cheese. We spread everything out across the picnic table with the gentle slopes of Mount Roger in the distance.

The Thomas Knob Shelter is one of the best on the Appalachian Trail. The solid structure has been there for decades – and will probably be there a few more decades – located on a peaceful hill near the base of Mount Rogers.

A trail leads around the shelter and down the hillside to a fresh water source about ten minutes away. One of the best features of the shelter, though, is the enclosed privy. This is definitely a luxury on the AT – but you’ll still need to bring your own biodegradable toilet paper!

Where to Stay in Abingdon

Camping isn’t for everyone – I think even I have grown past the point of pitching a tent in the woods after lugging it for miles. Abingdon is a wonderful town about forty-five minutes from Grayson Highlands State Park, and it would make an excellent place to spend a couple of nights while enjoying this adventure.

The Martha Washington Inn & Spa is the premiere overnight accommodation in Abingdon. Luxury furnishings in ginormous rooms offer the best in comfort. Guests can take advantage of the complimentary indoor swimming pool and outdoor hot tubs, or book an appointment at the spa.

The Country Inn & Suites is a great place to spend a night or two, especially if you travel with children. Book a room with two full beds or take advantage of the King Suite with king bed and sofa bed. An outdoor swimming pool will offer some soothing relaxation after a long day of hiking.

Comfort Suites is one of the most popular hotels in Abingdon. The hotel features rooms with one or two queen or king beds, but no other special amenities.

My top recommendation for lodging in Abingdon is Fairfield Inn & Suites. This comfortable hotel has rooms with two king beds, but the real treat is the Queen Suite with Mountain View – a room with two full beds and a sleep sofa!

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