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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Backpack the Mount Rogers & Grayson Highlands Loop

An excellent overnight or multi-day loop through one of the most scenic areas in Virginia. The route leads hikers to the summit of Mount Rogers, the highest peak in the state, beside large rock outcroppings offering expansive ridgeline views, and through lush mountain meadows where wild ponies roam freely. The loop also features exceptional backcountry camping options, providing mountain panoramas sure to leave lasting memories for those who call Mount Rogers and the Grayson Highlands home for the night.

Mount Rogers Grayson Highlands

Trailhead elevation 3,753'

Water Thomas Knob Shelter and three streams after the shelter

Don't miss Camping near the Thomas Knob Shelter

Backpacking the Mount Rogers & Grayson Highlands Loop

The loop can be started from a number of trailheads, the two most common being the Overnight Backpacker's Lot in Grayson Highlands State Park located at the southern end of the loop, and the Mount Rogers Trailhead in Lewis Fork Wilderness at the northern end of the loop. The route detailed below begins from the Mount Rogers Trailhead, hiking counterclockwise. Due to an abundance of intersecting trails along the route, having a downloaded map of the loop is strongly encouraged.

Free roadside parking for the Mount Rogers Trailhead can be found along VA-603 at coordinates 36.6893579, -81.5320954. The gravel lot can accommodate around ten vehicles. In the event that these spaces are take, additional pay for parking can be found 0.4 miles west at the Grindstone Campground.

Mount Rogers Trailhead parking

From the trailhead, the route initially follows the blue-blazed Mount Rogers Trail as it ascends through Lewis Fork Wilderness and the northern slope of Mount Rogers. For the first 3 miles, the scenery remains relatively constant, characterized by a mix of hardwoods prevailing throughout. Beyond this point, at the 3-mile mark, the landscape transitions into a medley of pine, spruce, rhododendron, and continued hardwoods.

At 4.2 miles, the Mount Rogers Trail intersects with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, followed by a 0.8-mile stretch leading to the loop's first panoramic view. Here, hikers will have views of Balsam Mountain to the east, Bluff Mountain to the southeast, and a slew of other peaks in the distance.

Mount Rogers Grayson Highlands

A similar view continues beyond this point as the trail skirts along the southern slope of Mount Rogers before entering into a forest dominated by pine trees.

Mount Rogers Trail

Around the 6-mike mark, the AT intersects with the Mount Rogers Spur Trail. While the summit of Mount Rogers itself is completely void of any views, those aiming for Virginia's highest peak can hike up the spur an additional 0.5 miles, ascending 300 feet to reach it. At the top, a large boulder marked by a USGS survey benchmark indicates the summit.

Mount Rogers USGS survey

Once known as Elliott's Knob, the mountain was renamed Mount Rogers in 1883 in honor of William Barton Rogers, Virginia's first state geologist and founder of MIT. An article published in the Staunton Spectator on August 18, 1882, briefly notes Rogers' appointment as state geologist and the subsequent renaming of the mountain in his honor.

Mount Rogers newspaper article

Upon descending from the summit and rejoining the AT, the route advances eastward, tracing the perimeter of the Lewis Fork Wilderness boundary. Around the 7.5-mile mark, hikers encounter the Thomas Knob Shelter, a large two-story shelter capable of accommodating a dozen or more people.

Thomas Knob shelter

A bear box and a dependable year-round water source can be found a few hundred feet behind the shelter. Adjacent to the shelter, among the pines, is a sheltered privy.

Thomas Knob shelter privy

Flanking the Thomas Knob Shelter, hikers will find numerous tent sites, with three available before it and at least two dozen beyond. Nearly all these sites provide exceptional mountain views, but tend to experience high winds throughout the year.

Those starting from VA-603 and hiking to the summit of Mount Rogers and Thomas Knob Shelter can anticipate a day covering 7.5 miles with an elevation gain of 2,300 feet.

Mount Rogers Grayson Highlands

Within 0.75-miles from the shelter, the AT leads into Grayson Highlands State Park where backcountry camping is prohibited. Soon after entering the park boundary, hikers will catch a distant glimpse of Wilburn Ridge, Virginia's second tallest peak at 5,542-feet.

Mount Rogers Grayson Highlands

Continuing on, the AT crosses a vast open meadow speckled with spruce trees and small boulders before ascending the rocky slope of Wilburn Ridge.

Wilburn Ridge

Once atop the ridge, hikers might consider taking a moment to take in the views of a seemingly endless sea of peaks on the horizon and scan the eastern slope for the wild ponies often seen grazing along it.

Grayson Highlands ponies

Prior to its designation as a state park in 1965, the Grayson Highlands were once sprawling farmland, frequented by cattle and a small population of ponies. However, with the park's establishment, the lush grassy balds were left unattended. Recognizing the need to preserve the landscape, a herd of twenty ponies were introduced to the area in 1974. The introduction led to the formation of the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association in 1975, a nonprofit that safeguards the free-roaming ponies that number around 100 today.

Grayson Highlands ponies

After Wilburn Ridge, the loop meanders past several sizable rock outcroppings and open meadows before descending to Quebec Run, the first dependable stream encountered after the Thomas Knob Shelter, at approximately the 12-mile mark. Water from Quebec Run, as well as all subsequent streams along the loop, should be filtered for drinking.

Mount Rogers Grayson Highlands

Over the next three miles, the trail predominantly winds through wooded terrain, passing the Wise Shelter and privy at around the 13-mile mark, and two additional reliable streams crossed via footbridge at approximately 13.1 and 13.3 miles. The bear box for the Wise Shelter is located 500 feet past the shelter, on the far side of Big Wilson Creek at the 13.1-mile mark.

Mount Rogers Grayson Highlands

No more than 0.25 miles after crossing Wilson Creek at 13.3 miles, hikers will find a large camping area along the right side of the trail capable of accommodating around a half dozen tents. By the 13.7-mile point, the AT enters Little Wilson Creek Wilderness, ascending to an open plateau offering expansive views of Wilburn Ridge, Pine Mountain, Mount Rogers, and various other peaks in the distance. Along the plateau, hikers will find numerous backcountry campsites. Those interested in making the trip into a two night, three day hike might consider one of these sites.

Mount Rogers Grayson Highlands

Around the 16-mile mark, hikers will arrive at the Scales Campground, a large fenced in field equipped with an outhouse and bear box. There is no water source at this site.

Continuing three miles more through wooded terrain, hikers will reach the Old Orchard Shelter and privy, two bear boxes, and a large field suitable for around ten tents. A dependable spring lies within a short distance from the Old Orchard Shelter.

Old Orchard Shelter

After the Old Orchard Shelter, hikers have several options to complete the loop. Following any combination of the AT and Old Orchard Trail will lead to VA-603, where hikers can choose to follow the Fairwood Valley Trail or walk along VA-603 back to the trailhead. Those who choose to follow the loop as described can anticipate day two to cover around 13.5 miles with roughly 1,500 feet in elevation gain.

Those planning to backpack the loop should be aware that the 5 miles leading up to the Thomas Knob Shelter and the last 5.5 miles are entirely forested with no views. However, the core of the loop, spanning from the Thomas Knob Shelter through Wilburn Ridge, offers remarkable beauty that more than compensates for the lack of views in those sections. While the loop can be hiked in either direction, it's recommended to go counterclockwise. This direction offers far superior views of the surrounding landscape while descending Wilburn Ridge and allows for faster access to the Thomas Knob Shelter area.

1 Comment

Apr 17

It looks beautiful! I hope you had a great time!

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