(UPDATED Dec 19, 2020) Whitetop Mountain might only be the second highest mountain in Virginia, but it has the best view and it’s much easier to reach. Nearby Mount Rogers – the highest point in the state – is fantastic to visit but requires a half-day hike on the Appalachian Trail to see nothing but trees. At Whitetop Mountain, though, an easy drive to the top offers breathtaking views from the bald mountaintop. Are you ready to visit?
At 5,518′ Whitetop Mountain is about two hundred feet shorter than the highest point in Virginia. But the only way to reach Mt. Rogers is a long hike on the Appalachian Trail, and once at the top the only view is towering evergreens. It’s a wonderful hike, but lacking one of those sweeping panorama views at the end.
The summit of Whitetop Mountain has just that kind of view. A weather station occupies the very top, but just below is a sweeping panorama view across the mountain landscape of Southwest Virginia. In the distance to the north, visitors can even see the gentle dome shape of Mt. Rogers.
Whitetop Mountain and Mount Rogers are part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. The entire region offers lots of outdoor recreation, scenic drives, and breathtaking moments of adventurous fun.
Getting to the Summit of Whitetop Mountain
The drive to the summit of Whitetop Mountain is at least half the fun of an adventure at Virginia’s second highest point. The best way to get to Whitetop Mountain is to take Exit 35 on Interstate 81 in Chilhowie. It’s about a half hour drive on a two-lane road to the entrance to the mountain.
The more scenic route is to take Exit 19 in Abingdon and take U.S. Highway 58. It starts as a four-lane divided highway, downgrading to a two-lane road just before Damascus. From there, the highway gets curvier but also more scenic through the national forest.
From the base of the mountain, visitors travel along a dirt and gravel road to the summit. It’s my favorite kind of road to drive, but it’s a bumpy ride on a good day. I’ve been to the summit in a Honda Civic – I had to drive super slow – so I would recommend a truck or SUV. The drive is absolutely gorgeous beneath a canopy of trees with gravels crunching beneath the tires. Eventually, the trees give way to a sweeping panorama near the top as the road switchbacks to the summit.
Best Times to Visit Whitetop Mountain
Warm spring, summer, and fall days are the best times to visit Whitetop Mountain – although it’s always a few degrees cooler at the top. Clear days when the sun is shining bright and warm make for the most comfortable visits to the summit.
But don’t discount winter days. Although the ride to the top can be difficult – I recommend four wheel drive and careful driving – the view of a snow-covered summit and surrounding landscape cannot be beaten anywhere else in Southwest Virginia.
In fact, the best time to visit Whitetop Mountain is during a day of the week. It never gets crowded at the summit with throngs of vehicles angling for a parking space. Day time visits offer a chance for hiking or a family picnic. Night time visits offer some of the darkest skies on the East Coast with clear views of the Milky Way Galaxy.
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Things to Do on Whitetop Mountain
At it’s most basic, Whitetop Mountain is a gorgeous mountain summit to visit for spectacular views of the local landscape. But once you reach the summit, there are a few more things to do than just enjoy the view.
The Appalachian Trail crosses the summit of the mountain between Damascus and Marion. From a parking area near the top of the mountain, it is about a ten minute trek on the AT to Buzzard Rock, a rocky outcropping with an amazing view.
If you’re not up for any sort of hiking, lounging is in order. You can park a vehicle anywhere along the road – but not on the grassy areas – and plop out a couple of chairs. Summer days may provide chances to watch storms and rainbows and the autumn is a great time for leaf peeping.
Although car camping is not allowed on Whitetop Mountain, there is no rule against camping along the Appalachian Trail. The general rule is not to leave your car parked on the mountain overnight, so just get a friend to drop you off or you could enjoy an adventurous hike on the AT to get there.
Stargazing is a popular activity on Whitetop Mountain because it is surrounded by dark skies. According to Dark Site Finder, it’s not the darkest night skies but ranks pretty good at around 40% dark – that’s impressive for just about any location on the East Coast.