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The Interstate Highway System is a great way to get somewhere fast. But what if you wanted to get somewhere slow? Hidden just off I-81 in Southwest Virginia, the Mount Rogers Scenic Byway is a gorgeous route through the mountains. Along the way, you’ll find the highest point in the state, my favorite state park in the country, and lots of outdoor recreation.
George Washington & Jefferson National Forests covers a whopping 1.8 million acres across Virginia, the only national forests in the state. Originally designated as two separate forests, Jefferson National Forest covered a vast area in Southwest Virginia surrounding the highest point in the state at Mount Rogers.
Today, this corner of Virginia is often overlooked for outdoor recreation, scenic drives, and exciting weekend getaways. But considering I grew up in those mountains, I know a thing or two about what awaits around the next bend in the road.
Mount Rogers National Recreation Area
The 200,000-acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is part of the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests, the only national forest in Virginia. The recreation area was established in 1966 by the Congress for the “conservation of scenic, scientific, historic, and other values of the area” around Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia.
Within the national recreation area, nearly 60 miles of the Appalachian Trail and 67 miles of the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail meander across the mountains. In addition to Mount Rogers, the recreation area also includes Whitetop Mountain, the second-highest point in Virginia, and the highest point visitors can drive a car.
The road trip begins at Exit 45 off Interstate 81. But before heading along Virginia Highway 16 into the mountains, make a turn toward downtown Marion for shopping, dining, and lodging.
Main Street is the very essence of small-town America. Either side of the street is lined with large picture windows displaying wares and food for travelers just passing through. Past Time Antique Emporium is an interesting place to start; inside, you’ll find stalls rented by locals to sell antiques, arts, and crafts on consignment. At the other end of Main Street, Hester’s Country Store is chocked full of candies and serves ice cream cones all day long.
Marion is a small town, but they are big on local food. Macado’s, located inside the former post office, is a staple of college towns in the region. Next door, Wolfe’s BBQ has been serving up the best pulled pork and homemade sauces in town for years.
If you started the adventure late in the evening, I suggest spending a night at the General Francis Marion Hotel. The small boutique hotel has about three dozen charming rooms built during the height of motoring in the early 1900s.
Virginia Highway 16
Route 16 passes across the mountains north of Marion, right through the middle of town, and onward toward adventures throughout Southwest Virginia. It’s one of the most adventurous routes in the state.
From Marion, the road trip on VA highway 16 begins quickly enough through rural communities before climbing into the mountains. Be warned: the two-lane, winding road is comfortable to drive but lacks in cellular service the deeper into the mountains you travel.
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Mount Rogers National Recreation Area Headquarters
Just fifteen minutes from Marion, the Pat Jennings Visitor Center serves as headquarters for the national recreation area as well as a tourism information center. To this day, it’s still the most gorgeous visitor center I have come across.
Explore the small museum with information on the recreation area, pick up a free map to explore the region or purchase one of their detailed recreation maps, and ask about what’s happening in the area.
3716 Highway 16, Marion, VA | 276-783-5196
Appalachian National Scenic Trail
The 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail crosses VA Highway 16 at the Mount Rogers NRA Headquarters. During spring months, it’s common to see grimy backpackers hitching a hide into Marion for supplies and a hotel room.
Just behind the recreation area headquarters is the Partnership Shelter. Unofficially, the shelter is called the Taj Mahal because it’s widely considered the best shelter on the entire Appalachian Trail. A spacious first floor allows comfortable lodging for about a dozen hikers with a loft space above for even more. Running water in a sink is definitely an amenity, but not more so than toilet paper at the privy nearby.
Usually, I would not write about a small community along a road trip route. But this might be the only opportunity I ever have as a travel writer to mention my hometown.
Sugar Grove is like so many other mountain towns in Southwest Virginia: population less than a thousand, five stop signs, and three churches. There is nothing to do in the small community, but I never took for granted just how gorgeous the area was growing up there.
Raccoon Branch Campground
After leaving Sugar Grove behind the homes and manicured lawns quickly give way to lush national forests. Just 11 miles from I-81, Raccoon Branch Campground is a charming place to spend a night.
The campground includes 19 campsites for tents and RVs; however, none of the sites include any hookups. A restroom facility with flush toilets and running water is located in the middle of the loop through the campground.
The 5.5-mile Dickey Knob Trail is a popular day hike with the trailhead located inside the campground. The moderately strenuous trail ascends just shy of 1,000’ to the summit of Dickey Knob high above the surrounding landscape.
6416 Sugar Grove Highway, Sugar Grove, VA
Whenever I want to go for a hike, the planning begins with AllTrails. Their website and app are my favorite tools for discovering hiking trails, getting information on length and elevation changes, and creating lists to remember my favorites. Visit my AllTrails profile to browse through my Mount Rogers National Recreation Area list of suggested hiking trails.
Located along Forest Service 650, Hurricane Campground is one of the best-kept secrets of Southwest Virginia. It’s one of the most secluded campgrounds in the recreation area, and yet offers some of the best amenities.
The campground includes 26 campsites along a babbling creek, and each site features a picnic table and fire ring but no hookups. There are three restroom facilities and, most surprising of all, hot showers.
The 1.3-mile Hurricane Knob Trail is a popular hiking option from the campground. The trail only ascends about 300’, but it does that climb in a short span of the trail. The trail also winds along the creek, crossing it on two gorgeous wooden footbridges.
Virginia Highway 603
Locally called Laurel Valley Road, this two-lane road passes through a narrow valley directly behind Mount Rogers. The road creates a corridor through the massive trees and thick rhododendron between Troutdale and Konnarock.
Fox Creek Horse Campground
The Fox Creek Horse Campground is the best campground for horseback riders in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Located on Virginia Highway 603, the campground is ideally situated for easy access to the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail.
The campground includes two loops with enough room for about a dozen horse trailers at any given time. Amenities include pit toilets and manure collection. Nearby Grindstone Campground offers showers, potable water, and a dump station for an additional fee.
Grindstone Recreation Area and Campground
The Grindstone Recreation Area and Campground is the best place to spend a weekend in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, excluding Grayson Highlands State Park. At the heart of the recreation area is a stone swimming pool built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and filled with cold water flowing from a mountain stream.
The 6.2-mile Mount Rogers Trail begins near the recreation area along Laurel Valley Road. There is a small parking area along the road. The strenuous hike includes a whopping 2,400’ ascent to the summit of Mount Rogers. The good news: it’s downhill the entire trek back.
The Grindstone Campground is one of the best U.S. Forest Service campgrounds in the area. The campground includes almost 70 campsites with picnic tables and fire rings, and about twenty sites have electric hookups. Drinking water and restrooms are spaced throughout the three loops, and the campground even includes a shower facility and dump station!
1946 Laurel Valley Road, Troutdale, VA
Point of Interest
At 5,729’ above sea level, Mount Rogers is the highest point in Virginia. The mountain was named after William Barton Rogers, a Virginia native who served at the state’s first official geologist and later founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Unlike many highest points in states across the country, there is no view to enjoy on the summit of Mount Rogers. The forested top of the mountain thrives in a rare ecosystem similar to that in the New England states, however. At the top, visitors can look for the USGS medallion marking the precise top of the mountain on a small boulder.
There are three ways to reach the summit of Mount Rogers. The most popular is a day hike from nearby Grayson Highlands State Park along the Appalachian Trail. The second most popular is a day hike from Elk Garden on the Appalachian Trail from the opposite direction of the state park. The third, and most strenuous option, is from the Mount Rogers Trails near Grindstone Recreation Area.
In Konnarock, the Mount Rogers Scenic Byway continues straight to an intersection of U.S. Highway 58. However, for this road trip, you may want to detour onto Whitetop Road for a chance to hike the Appalachian Trail, drive to the top of Whitetop Mountain, and visit Grayson Highlands State Park.
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Elk Garden Parking Area
Elk Garden is a beautiful area in a gap between Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, the two highest points in Virginia. The Appalachian Trail crosses the highway at a large parking area. The parking area is a popular spot for day hikes on the Appalachian Trail.
From Elk Garden, it’s a 4.3-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail to reach the summit of Mount Rogers. With a total 1,800’ ascent, the hike is relatively easy and mostly passes through a dense forest. The final half-mile of the hike is along the Mount Rogers Spur Trail.
Heading the other direction, it’s a 3.2-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail to reach the summit of Whitetop Mountain. The gradual hike includes a 1,300’ ascent to the bald mountain top with stunning views as a reward once you arrive.
At 5,518’ above sea level, Whitetop Mountain is the second-highest point in Virginia. However, because of a forest service road leading to a weather station on the summit, it’s the highest point in Virginia you can drive.
The gravel road to the top is passable with passenger cars on dry days. However, the road is full of ruts and large rocks. I recommend an SUV or truck for traveling to the top, but I once took a Honda Civic up there without difficulty. The forest service road is rather appropriately called Mud Creek Lane.
After what will seem forever, the winding and bumpy road to the top will leave the cover of the forest behind and cross onto the bald top of the mountain. After several more switchbacks, you will be rewarded with one of the most breathtaking views in Virginia. To the east, you can just make out the gentle slope of Mount Rogers and Wilburn Ridge. To the southwest, Buzzard Rock, a familiar sight to any Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.
U.S. Highway 58
U.S. Highway 58 is a 508-mile route almost exclusively located in Virginia. Starting near Cumberland Gap National Historical Park at the Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia border, the highway stretches along the entire state just above the border to Virginia Beach.
Although most of U.S. Highway 58 has been widened into a four-lane, divided highway over the years, the stretch between Independence and Damascus remains a pleasant, windy two-lane road through George Washington & Jefferson National Forest.
Grayson Highlands State Park
The hiking trails, waterfalls, hidden areas, and infamous wild ponies have made Grayson Highlands State Park my favorite state park in the country. There are many ways to enjoy a few hours in the park or an overnight stay in the wonderful campground.
One of the biggest attractions for visitors to the state park is the Appalachian Trail. Backpackers can safely park their car at the Overnight Backpacker’s Lot and spend days hiking the AT through the area. For day trip visitors, a short hike on the Massie Gap Trail leads to the AT and the opportunity to see the infamous wild ponies along Wilburn Ridge.
Inside the park, the 1.8-mile Wilson Creek Trail descends into a gully where hikers can enjoy a series of cascading waterfalls and swimming holes. The 1.5-mile Cabin Creek Trail leads to another series of cascading waterfalls, while the 1.3-mile Twin Pinnacles Trail is a strenuous hike to the highest points in the park.
The campground includes 32 campsites for tents and RVs, and about half those sites include electric and water hookups. Potable water, restrooms, and shower facilities are located in the campground along with a camp store.
829 Grayson Highland Lane, Mouth of Wilson, VA | 276-579-7092 | www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/grayson-highlands
Green Cove Station
Almost within sight of the highway, Green Cove Station Visitor Center is an excellent place for picking up information along the road trip and learning about the history of the Virginia Creeper Trail (more on that later). The visitor center is operated by the U.S. Forest Service and also makes an excellent stop for bicyclists on the rail-to-trail.
41259 Green Cove Road, Damascus, VA
Beartree Recreation Area
The Beartree Recreation Area is a gorgeous and peaceful stop on any road trip through the national recreation area. The 1-mile Beartree Lake Trail circles the small lake, crossing the earthen dam at the end of the lake. A small sandy beach area is perfect for hanging on on summer days and going for a swim in the lake.
Beartree Campground has over 70 campsites for tents and RVs, but no hookups. The campground does offer potable water and restrooms throughout the loops of the campground.
Straight Branch Parking Area
The Straight Branch Parking Area along U.S. Highway 58 offers a rare and exciting opportunity in this national recreation area. It’s the point where the Virginia Creeper Trail and Appalachian Trail meet. The two popular outdoor trails continue alongside about a mile to the Creeper Trail Café, once hailed by Southern Living Magazine as having one of the best pies in the south.
The downright charming town of Damascus is the congruence of the Mount Rogers Scenic Byway, Virginia Creeper Trail, and Appalachian Trail. The town has become a worldwide destination for outdoor recreation.
Known as “Trail Town U.S.A.,” Damascus is the host of the annual Trail Days Festival. The festival offers the chance for previous Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to return for socializing and to meet the next generation of hikers. The festival is held around mid-May each year to coincide with northbound thru-hikers who started in Georgia a month earlier.
The Virginia Creeper Trail is one of the best rail-trails in the country. The railroad was established in the early 1900s to haul lumber, iron ore, and passengers from Abingdon to Elkland, North Carolina. The railroad traveled across the mountain at a 7% grade, which caused the early steam locomotives to move incredibly slow, earning the nickname Virginia Creeper.
The most popular way to enjoy a day on the trail is to rent a bicycle at a shop in Damascus, who will then drive you in a shuttle to Whitetop Station, and then gently glide down the mountain back into town. Along the way, you can enjoy the view from dozens of old wooden trestles, babbling creeks, and gorgeous mountain views.
You’re bound to get hungry for all the adventuring and road tripping. Damascus Old Mill is a classic place for a great meal and an even better view. The Damascus Diner is precisely the kind of hole in the wall eatery with cooking you’d find at home (if your mom was a good cook). Dessert should always be had at Off the Beaten Path Ice Cream, located just off the Virginia Creeper Trail at the edge of town.
Mount Rogers Scenic Byway
Technically, the Mount Rogers Scenic Byway continues along Virginia Highway 91 from Damascus to Glade Spring. That route is more scenic coming from the other direction, but either way, it’s a rather dull drive.
Instead, I suggest continuing along U.S. Highway 58 into Abingdon. The road has been upgraded to a four-lane divided highway in recent years, but it’s still a gorgeous drive through the rolling hills.
With a charming Main Street shrouded in lush trees, Abingdon is one of the most comfortable and exciting destinations in Virginia. Home of icons like the Barter Theatre and The Martha Washington Inn, the town has become a hub for outdoor recreation in Southwest Virginia, particularly in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
When in Abingdon, eat at The Tavern. The charming building is home to a fantastic restaurant serving authentic German food. If you want something more country, head over to Bone Fire Smokehouse for southern barbecue and homemade sauces. Anthony’s Desserts is always a great way to end an evening in town.
The Martha is a great place to spend the night or several nights, but I also recommend one of the charming rental cottages in town. A Tailors Lodging is located inside a charming restored 1840s home, and just across the street is Creeper’s End Lodging at the end of the Virginia Creeper Trail.