Whitetop Mountain: The Second Highest Mountain in Virginia

Written by

Jason Barnette


December 1, 2016

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

Don’t let the fact this mountain falls into second place discourage you from visiting the summit. In fact the view from the summit of Whitetop Mountain is better than the highest point in the state at nearby Mt. Rogers. Why? Because Mt. Rogers is completely forested at the top, and Whitetop Mountain is mostly bald.

Warm Sunset at Whitetop Mountain, VA

Sunsets on the mountain are always peaceful and usually breathtaking.

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 via hiking along 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.

A trio of backpackers walk along the Appalachian Trail on Whitetop Mountain, the highest place in Virginia you can drive and the second highest mountain in the state, in Wilson Creek, VA on Tuesday, October 15, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette

Every once in awhile the clouds are lower than the elevation of the mountain.

The drive to the top of the mountain is a fun journey. Two lane paved roads brings travelers to the base of the mountain from nearby Abingdon, Galax, and Chilhowie, but that’s as far as the pavement extends. From here it’s a dirt and gravel road to the top beneath a lush canopy of leaves. About 2/3 of the way to the top the trees end and suddenly the vistas appear. The road continues along a series of switchbacks to the top.

Once near the top the road forks a few times. Stick to the left to a cul-de-sac at the end. Along this section be sure to keep looking left for the popular Buzzard Rock, a cliff along the Appalachian Trail that makes a popular photographic subject. The AT crosses the mountain along this section and during the late spring months dozens of thru-hikers will cross the mountain each day.

A view of Mount Rogers (left) and Wilburn Ridge (right three peaks) from Whitetop Mountain in Whitetop, VA on Friday, February 14, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette Whitetop Mountain is the highest place in Virginia you can drive at 5,552', second in height only to nearby Mount Rogers. The top of the mountain is accessible by a gravel road, managed by the National Park Service, and open year-round to day-use visitors.

The peak on the left is Mt. Rogers, viewable from a curve in the road on Whitetop Mountain.

Warm spring, summer, and fall days make the best time to visit Whitetop Mountain, but don’t discount a wintry adventure. It can be difficult to reach the top after a large, fresh snow unless you have a very good four wheel drive vehicle. You could always hike to the top like I once did, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have snow shoes, cold weather clothing, and a weird sense of “fun”.

But the effort is absolutely worth it. Barren trees stand out like sticks against a white landscape. Everything feels clean while walking through the snow drifts. It’s an exciting adventure with gorgeous views, but one you’ll have to work for to see.

Supermoon on Whitetop Mountain, VA

The Supermoon in November 2016 rising over Wilburn Ridge, seen from Whitetop Mountain.

If trekking through the snow isn’t appealing, what about spending a night on Whitetop Mountain? This is a popular destination for stargazers with some of the darkest skies in Southwest Virginia. It’s easy to see the Milky Way Galaxy in the night sky here and stargazers will frequently spend the night with their telescopes.

The mountain road is left open unless very bad weather causes the local forestry ranger to close it. Although people are allowed to drive to the top twenty-four hours a day, car camping is not permitted (parking your car and pitching a tent nearby). This isn’t really recommended anyway; camping on the exposed mountain top might be a fun night, but if a storm comes through or high winds it could quickly turn frightening and dangerous.

Spring, summer, fall, or winter, it really doesn’t matter when you take the drive to Virginia’s second highest mountain. It is sure to be a beautiful view and a fun adventure. Bring a blanket or a chair, relax for awhile, and enjoy everything Whitetop Mountain has to offer.

If you would like to view more photos from Whitetop Mountain, Virginia, please visit my photography site at photography.southeasterntraveler.com/Virginia/Whitetop-Mountain

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