A pristine evergreen forest awaits hikers at the top of Mount Rogers, the official highest point in Virginia, towering in the sky at 5,729 feet above sea level and often referred to as the 'Mount Washington of the Southeast.' Located in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, this fantasy-like trail up to the staggering summit showcases some of the most immaculate and beautiful scenery that looks strikingly similar to the Pacific Northwest; all blanketed across an area that's delightfully explorable on foot.
Named after William Barton Rogers - Virginia’s first State Geologist who later founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - the mountain and its graceful summit isn't the sole reward; the whole journey is, as a stretch of nature's terrains where feral ponies roam free across lush landscapes and wildflowers bloom in spring. Commanding a there-and-back hike to Mount Rogers's tip, this is one hike that nature lovers simply do not want to miss, be it in winter, spring, summer, or fall; it's a year-round route with breathtaking scenes that transform with the changing seasons. With several ways to tackle this trail, the one represented in this guide is the most popular and said to be the most scenic, though that's better left decided by those who go on to explore it!
Where Are The Wild Ponies On The Appalachian Trail?
The route to Mount Rogers includes part of the famous Appalachian Trail, along which over 100 wild ponies roam in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and the neighboring Grayson Highlands State Park in southwestern Virginia. Of course, this isn't the only Virginian spot to find feral ponies, but it is one of the most famous and combines equine spotting with a wonderful hike showcasing the most sublime sights that the state has to offer its visitors.
The usual journey to the Mount Rogers summit begins at the parking lot in Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park before twisting and winding four miles up the route - using the Appalachian Trail for the most part. It's during this initial section of the trek that hikers have a great chance of spotting the famous horses that were introduced to the park in 1974, who, as a feral community, now stand somewhere between 120 and 150 individuals strong.
The Grayson Highlands ponies are left for the most part and keep the grasses maintained as they graze year-round; however, to prevent too much grass from being munched on and control their population, the ponies are rounded up each Fall, with some auctioned off at the Grayson Highland Fall Fest. They're all given a once over to ensure they're in good health as well, being checked for illness and injuries before several are taken to what will be their new homes while others are released back into the wild.
The multiple pony herds are left to their own devices for most of the year except for their annual round-up, which means that, essentially, they are indeed feral creatures. Although they're comfortable and confident around humans and sometimes even approach people hiking along the trail, feeding and petting the ponies is forbidden since they are classed as wild - plus, some individuals may become protective if there's a foal nearby. Still, despite feeding and petting being big no-nos, visitors are encouraged to photograph the animals, observe them, and respectfully enjoy their presence as they traverse the trail.
What Is At The Top Of The Mount Rogers Loop Trail?
Some of the journeys to the high point at Mount Rogers that takes place along the well-maintained Appalachian Trail go through Rhododendron Gap, where gorgeous panoramas of dense floral bushes can be enjoyed before arriving at the Mount Rogers Trail to the summit. Once explorers have reached the tip, a dense spruce-fir forest awaits, and, as the northernmost of its kind, it truly affords the feeling of being in the Pacific Northwest than anywhere else in the country - a natural space surrounding the summit with mossy trees with aged exposed roots that go deep into the ground. While the luscious trees obscure views from the summit, being in the midst of the verdant, damp old forest plush with tall pines marks the magnificent end to the long hike to the top.
How To Hike To Mount Rogers Summit Via The Appalachian Trail
The most popular Mount Rogers hike is an out-and-back 10.5-mile trail and is undeniably one of the best and most stunning in the Eastern United States as one of Virginia's premier trails. To start, the hike sets off at the Massie Gap parking lot, where the trailhead is located immediately north through the nearby field. The gate across this field signals the beginning of the Rhododendron Trail - the point at which the Massey Gap connects to the Appalachian Trail. This initial 0.8-mile section is short, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in pure beauty when the trail's namesake flora is in bloom.
Heading along this portion of the route can be confusing, particularly because it's where the Rhododendron Trail intersects with the Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club and the Virginia Highlands Connector Trail. Most maps show all three trails meeting at the same spot, and although they do, it's not so apparent while hiking, despite signposts displaying information. Anyone navigating this stretch can find their way to the Appalachian Trail by going southbound, which is where a good GPS or use of a mapping app comes in handy to ensure hikers are on the right trail.
Once trekkers have reached the Appalachian Trail section, they should follow it for around a mile before turning left onto the Wilburn Ridge Trail - a short part of the hike that comprises plenty of rock scrambling sections complete with some of the very best views to be had on the entire trail to Mount Rogers summit. If climbing over rocky obstacles is a bit too much, this optional section of the trail can be skipped in favor of continuing the Appalachian Trail; however, the fun and vistas are worth the effort.
Next, hikers arrive at Rhodendron Gap after following about a mile of the Wilburn Ridge Trail, at which point it rejoins the Appalachian Trail. At this marvelous dot on the journey, hikers can climb Pinnacle Rock to soak up sweeping 360-degree vistas of the entire landscape and enjoy a pit stop while doing so - but it can get rather windy up at this point since there aren't any trees to shelter the breeze. Then, once hikers have enjoyed their break with a view, they can continue the Appalachian Trail for another one and a half miles, during which they'll pass by the Thomas Knob Shelter, enter the Lewis Fork Wilderness, and arrive at the Mount Rogers Summit Trail - upon doing so, they bear right.
Granted, the views along the way are surreal, but the summit evokes a different kind of awe that's completely unique to the journey that got hikers to the top. As mentioned, there are no views at the tip due to the thick, forested hemlock grove. Still, the tranquility of standing in this enchanting space enveloped by Mother Nature delivers a powerful sense of serenity, utterly extraordinary in its own way. Resembling more Washington's plush forests than Virginia's, the eerie summit of Mount Rogers looks like a postcard from the Pacific Northwest, the green gradients blending together, soft moss growing on wooded surfaces, intertwined tree roots on display, verdant ferns still in the moist air, and a rich, damp woodland aroma that fills the nostrils with forest perfume.
Mount Rogers Hiking Tips
Mount Rogers Trail-goers should note a few pointers before heading to tackle this rewarding yet potentially challenging hike. To better prepare for the trip, consider the following tips:
- This hike is considered family-friendly. Still, it's fairly long and can be taxing for young children, those with lesser-abled bodies, or people who are a little less fit than the average person.
- Dogs are permitted to walk the trail with their owners, but they must be kept on a leash in Grayson Highlands State Park and the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
- No matter what travel guides say, there's no quick way to reach the trailhead, so planning extra travel time is always a wise move.
- There are also a few campsites along the route.
- The most popular way to access this hike is in Grayson Highlands State Park at Massie Gap off VA-362. Put 'Massie Gap parking' into Google Maps to find a convenient parking spot.
- In Grayson Highlands State Park, the parking and admission fee is $7 on weekdays and $10 on weekends from April to October.
- The weather can often be unpredictable, which means hikers need to be prepared for intense temperature and changes and sudden rain seemingly out of nowhere.
- Because wild ponies are peppered throughout most of the trail, a number of gates are present to contain them in certain areas. Hikers are kindly asked to close any gates behind them to prevent any ponies and to roam cattle from going where they shouldn't.
How To Get To Mount Rogers Summit
Although this guide discussed the most popular way to access and challenge the hike starting at Massie Gap, there are a few others. These are:
- Visitors can access the trailhead for the Mount Rogers Trail (TR 166) off Route 603 on Laurel Valley Road, along which visitors can park.
- Another separate trail links to the Mount Roger Trail from Grindstone Campground.
- A third access point is found off Route 600 at Whitetop Road at the Elk Garden Trailhead.
With wild ponies and grazing cattle roaming freely across the picturesque trail, emerald-green forests and flowering flora, and views akin to the Pacific Northwest, the hike to Mt. Rogers summit is none other than fantastic and otherworldly. Granting a feeling as if visitors have been transported to the other side of the country, the scenery and rich forests look as though they've been airlifted over from the northeast. Lastly, as a hike that's doable even for those with less stamina and little legs, this jaw-dropping Virginia trail isn't as hard as people might think - the difficult part is keeping the camera in the backpack.