Getting Up Early Gives You Options: Mt. Rogers and Grayson Highlands, VA

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On my AMC Mountain Leadership School trip in August 2012 (also mentioned in the post “Pairing: Beer and Hiking (Part 3 of 3)”), one of my instructors, Rich, stressed the importance of an early wake up time.  He would say:

“Getting up early gives you options.”

Boy, did living by that mantra serve me and my friends well on our trip to Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area.  More to be said about that later.

My first trip to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands was amazing, and certainly a highlight of my senior year at Virginia Tech.  It is a crime that I haven’t gone there more often throughout college, given its proximity to Blacksburg.  If you haven’t gone, I highly recommend it.  It is home to some of Virginia’s highest country, finest views, and tallest peak (Mt. Rogers, elevation 5,729 feet)!

(April 12-14, 2013)

The Plan

Initially, I had wanted to make my first trip to Mt. Rogers a backpacking trip.  However, as plans were coming together, and the group was falling into place, I realized this trip would be much easier, logistically, as a car camping trip with day hikes instead.  As the planning ensued, I came across a Backpacker Magazine article that pretty much planned the trip for me.  It told me where to camp and what hiking loop to do.  Planning:  done!  Easy.

Article found here:  http://www.backpacker.com/2012-september-easy-epics-car-camping/destinations/16784?page=15

The article gives the trail sequence we wanted to take:

excerpt from Backpacker Magazine article
excerpt from Backpacker Magazine article
official NatGeo map
official NatGeo map

In addition to the 14.8 mile dayhike on Saturday that the article suggested, we were going to include a relaxing day at Grayson Highlands State Park on Sunday, including a few short hikes, possibly a bit of bouldering, and an easy lunch before heading home.

How plans change…

Day 1

Even though I like getting up early, it can sometimes be hard on the weekends, when it is your only time to sleep in and relax.  However, sticking to the motto “getting up early gives you options”, and knowing that we had a big chunk of trail to chew, we decided that we wanted to be at the trailhead by 7 am.  Naturally, we started hiking a little late, closer to 7:30.

We set out on the Mt. Rogers Trail, blazing, with a thirst for the summit of Mt. Rogers.  I was surprised at how fast we were going, but I figured, we’d all be able to keep it up.  We plowed through the first set of switchbacks as we watched the forest change from lowland deciduous trees to lots of spruce as we gained elevation.

Despite an extremely wet Mt. Rogers trail, we met up with the Appalachian Trail junction in no time.

my and my childhood friend Steve, at the Mt. Rogers/AT junction
me and my childhood friend Steve, at the Mt. Rogers/AT junction

After a stop for pictures in our first grassy bald area, the type that Mt. Rogers and Grayson Highlands are famous for, we reached the view less and rather anti-climactic summit around 10 am.  The lack of view, sign, or any significant marker at the summit was hilarious.  Just an old stump and a small American flag.

the group, summit of Mt. Rogers (elev. 5,729 feet)
the group, summit of Mt. Rogers (elev. 5,729 feet)

At the summit, we met a guy who greeted us with “Is this the way to Mt. Rogers?”  I told him “This is it!  Welcome!”  It was funny because he didn’t even realize it was the summit.  Like anyone, including myself, he thought the summit of VA’s tallest peak would be much more grand than it actually is.  As quickly as he came up, he went down, citing that he was going to drive to Tennessee and bag Clingman’s Dome (TN’s tallest mountain at 6,643 feet) that same afternoon, and Mt. Mitchell the next day (NC’s tallest peak, elev. 6,683 feet).

Mt. Rogers, while tall, is a very humble mountain.  A mountain like Rogers reminds us to be humble, not flashy.  Despite all of your great accomplishments, sometimes, a grounded approach is best.  You will not get that awe-inspiring picture on the summit of Mt. Rogers that everyone will ‘like’ on facebook, but you did accomplish something great, alongside great people.  Sometimes, that’s all you need.

Mt. Rogers is famous for high grasslands and big views.  The other thing it’s famous for:  ponies!  We had been seeing pony poop along the trail all day, so we felt it was only a matter of time until we saw one.  Well, soon after descending Mt. Rogers, we got our next big thrill!  Just behind Thomas Knob shelter (one of the nicer AT shelters I’ve ever seen, by the way), we caught a glimpse of our first pony!  After admiring it for a few minutes, we pushed on smoothly to Rhododendron Gap and the Wilburn Ridge.  Along Wilburn Ridge, we were greeted once again, by this time, a pack of ponies!  They were right on the Appalachian Trail!

me and a pony along Wilburn Ridge
me and a pony along Wilburn Ridge

Typically, I would not get so close to wildlife, citing the Leave No Trace principle of “Respect Wildlife – observe wildlife from a distance.  Do not follow or approach them.”  However, they were right on the trail, and I wasn’t going to go off trail.  So, the group and I had a very close engagement with the ponies.  By far, the most unique hiking experience I’ve ever had!  They are beautiful creatures, and don’t seem too bothered by humans.

After the excitement of the ponies was wearing off, and we were approaching the AT entrance to Grayson Highlands State Park and the intersection with the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail, I was questioning our progress in regards to time, as well as the distance that BM stated the trail was in the article.  We hadn’t taken many breaks, but we were farther behind than I had thought we would be (I believe it was sometime between 12-1).  I was considering the idea of short cutting our AT loop by using the horse trail.  This would eliminate a very long, wrap around section of the AT.  However, citing the time and amount of daylight left, we decided as a group to continue along the AT.

the group in the distance, along the AT
the group in the distance, along the AT

As we kept on, the sun was hot, the trail was long, legs were tired, and water was low.  As we approached the Wise shelter along the AT, I could tell that the group’s happiness was slightly decreasing, as fatigue was increasing, myself included.  Additionally, I was frustrated at my blind trust of an internet article and potentially own oversight and miscalculation of distance.  Sometimes, when I get frustrated (as Rich from MLS knows), I can get down on myself, especially if I feel responsible for the group’s well being.  Not the type of attitude needed when you still have some mileage left.  Thankfully, we were able to fill up on water at the spring at Wise.  However, I suggested, and we decided, on taking a shortcut.  Change of plans.

We went forward on the AT until we met up with Wilson Creek Trail.  This is a shared use trail, that would meet up with the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail.  This shortcut would take us north, eliminating the need to take a huge bend around on the AT.  On our way to this shortcut, we met some backpackers, also looking for the Wilson Creek Trail.  They told us that we were headed in the wrong direction, that we needed to go back the other way on the AT.  Thankfully, I trusted my own knowledge and map reading skills, as we successfully reached the Wilson Creek Trail, and successfully followed the shortcut that we mapped out.  I hope those guys ended up finding their way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADespite our shortcut, we still had a good way to go.  We hustled along the AT again, reaching Pine Mountain, but water was once again getting low and fatigue was becoming apparent.  The “pick-me-up” on this section of trail was Gatorade Propel Powder that I had given to the group.  After being dehydrated on Garfield Ridge Trail last summer in NH, I know how critical those are.  Some of us indulged in the processed sweetness that is electrolyte powder.  Also thankfully, just ahead was Old Orchard Shelter, which also had a spring.  I also know, after Garfield Ridge, to get water when you can.  The group refilled there and got ready for the final push back to the car.

Shortly after the shelter, we reached a sign that read ‘Old Orchard Trail.’ Great, the trail that was highlighted in the Backpacker article!  We were almost there!  As Lee Corso from ESPN would say, “not so fast, my friend.”  We were confused by the intersection, because it seemed that Old Orchard Trail would be about a mile from Old Orchard Shelter.  Was the shelter misplaced on the map?  The trail mismarked?  We weren’t sure.  What I later realized was that my NatGeo map does a poor job of distinguishing between the Old Orchard Trail and Orchard Spur Trail at this location.  So, our rationalization:  take the left onto the trail, if it takes us to the road, good, we did what we intended.  If it doesn’t take us to the road, it will take us to the Lewis Fork Trail, which can also take us to the road.  Despite the confusion about which trail we were actually on, we would end up on the road either way.  Turns out, we ended up on the Lewis Fork Trail, which was a flat and straight horse trail to the road.  We made it to the road quickly.

A long day:  over.  Now it was just a short walk back on the road to the car.

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Day 1 Conclusion

I’m not sure how accurate the Backpacker Magazine mileage was.  I think the loop is actually more than 14.8 miles.  Also, given our spontaneous route changes, I have no idea how far we hiked.  It took us a little more than 9 and 1/2 hours to complete this hike.  This was strange to me, considering I’ve done the entire 25 miles of Presidential Traverse in NH in one day, in only 13 hours and 40 minutes (including some very long breaks).  I couldn’t believe this took us so long.  Soon I’ll update this blog with calculations of our intended mileage and actual mileage.  For right now, I can’t think about it.

UPDATE:  (APRIL 15, 2013, 8:30 PM) – After some calculating, I believe I figured out the distances.

Intended Loop Distance (based on trails suggested by Backpacker Magazine):  21.39 miles.  This value includes the out-and-back it takes to reach the summit of Mt. Rogers, which BM may or may not have considered.  There will be minor variation to the number I got, depending on whether one takes the Old Orchard Trail or AT back to Fairwood Valley Trail (a trail that, despite going unmentioned in the article, I assumed was in the loop).  Reminder – backpacker said the loop would be 14.8 miles.

Distance We Actually Hiked (after shortcuts and re-routes):  around 19.1 miles.

The issues:  1.)  Don’t believe what you read on the internet.  Don’t blindly trust a trip report, even from a supposedly reputable publication like Backpacker Magazine.  Always check over your route yourself.  2.)  It would be easy to blame BM.  They should be ashamed for providing such poor information.  However, I’m to blame.  I should have known better, as a guide, to check every last detail.  The difference in mileage between 14.8 and 21.39 is huge, and completely affects all aspects of a trip – start time, water, food, pace, etc.  That is an inexcusable mistake on my part.  3.)  Despite my mistakes, I am proud of my instincts.  For a while on the trail, when it seemed to be taking too long, I thought I was just being overly nervous.  I am glad that I recognized that something didn’t feel right, trusted my gut, and made safe adjustments to improve the situation, to whatever degree possible (through minor re-routes, collection of water at reliable sources, etc).

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meteorologist Nick measuring wind speed with his anemometer. 40 MPH gusts!
photo by Sean Gart

More importantly though, we got up early!  Getting up early is what made this a safe hike.  Had we gotten up and to the trailhead much later, we would have been in a situation where we would have been flirting with the onset of darkness.  While it is possible to hike in the dark, we weren’t particularly prepared for a hike into the night.  Having that extra time at hand, because of our early start, gave us options.  It gave us options to:  take breaks when fatigue set in, make calm, cool, and thought out decisions about possible re-routes, take time to collect and treat water when we needed it, as well as risk taking a trail we were somewhat unsure about.  And despite our big day and quick pace, getting up early allowed us the time to enjoy some amazing views, take a few photos, measure wind speed, and greet a few ponies.

I truly believe starting early is essential, in most situations, to having a successful hike.  Otherwise, we would have been very rushed and concerned.

This hike was a bit of a challenge for me.  It was the farthest I’d hiked since the previous summer, and required a fair bit of trail navigation on my part.  Mt. Rogers NRA is kind of confusing at times, due to its multitude of trails.  There are many, many trail junctions of all sorts of multi-use trails.  Signage and blazing are different for each type, so it is not too hard to get mixed up.  The sheer variety is, however, what makes this a great place for everyone’s enjoyment.  I am glad that my friends trusted me in where we were headed, as I was the lone guide. They also stuck in there with a positive attitude when the trail seemed to go on forever, and when I seemed to get frustrated with myself.  I am grateful for them.

With that being said, Mt. Rogers National Recreation area is AWESOME!  Holy cow, this place unique.  Unlike any place I’ve ever been.  Apparently its grassy balds are a result of intense deforestation in the past, but it sure makes for some great scenery now.  Expansive views, rocky outcroppings, and sparse trees can sometimes make it feel like it’s out west.  Its deciduous lowland forest that transitions to thick stands of spruce and fir at high elevation sometimes makes it feel like Vermont or New Hampshire.  Mt. Rogers recreation area has it all!  I am so glad to have made it there before I unfortunately have to leave the breathtaking commonwealth of Virginia.  It’s an amazing place to spend a lot of time above 5,000 feet!

More info:  Mt. Rogers NRA – http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/gwj/specialplaces/?cid=stelprdb5302337

Day 2

After a much needed night of rest at our campsite along the road that Backpacker Magazine suggested, we headed into Grayson Highlands State Park.

Grayson Highlands State Park’s land is seamlessly connected to Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area.  Its environment is very similar.  We planned to spend a little time in the park to catch a few more views, and definitely some chill time, before we headed home.

view of Mt. Rogers from Little Pinnacle
view of Mt. Rogers from Little Pinnacle

First, we headed up to the Visitor Center to pick up the Twin Pinnacles Trail.  This trail, starting at high elevation, takes you in a short, 1.8 mile loop over two tall peaks:  Little Pinnacle (elev. 5,084 feet) and Big Pinnacle (elev. 5,063 feet).  Wait, Little Pinnacle is bigger than Big Pinnacle?  Yes, it surprised me too, haha.  From these peaks, we got view where we had been the previous day.  It was nice to sit and truly soak in the view without moving, unlike what we did the day before.

view from Big Pinnacle, with my ONWARD bandana from MLS
view from Big Pinnacle, with my ONWARD bandana from MLS

After we completed that loop, we headed down to the Cabin Creek Trail.  Along this trail, we followed a self-guided interpretive tour, which revealed to us an ancient spring, a rare Bigtooth Aspen, and finally a 25′ waterfall.  We laid on the rocks near the waterfall, enjoying the warmth of the sun entering the ravine, for quite some time.

the waterfall along Cabin Creek
the waterfall along Cabin Creek

After a quick return to the car, we stopped at an overlook to make lunch and enjoy one last view before leaving the park and heading home.  We never made it around to bouldering (for the climbers out there, GHSP is home to some great bouldering, including some high-balls!  Definitely check it out if you’re in the area).

Day 2 Conclusion

This day was the perfect way to end the weekend.  We got to bag two more 5,000 footers, but most importantly, just relax.  We didn’t have to get up early, it wasn’t rushed, and it was equally as beautiful as the day before.  Grayson Highlands State Park is a great way to get big views in a peaceful way, while still having access to the big country outside the park.  A wonderful place indeed.

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More Info:  Grayson Highlands State Park – http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/gra.shtml

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One thought on “Getting Up Early Gives You Options: Mt. Rogers and Grayson Highlands, VA

  1. I actually was able to sleep on my back quite a bit on this trip. I didn’t get through a whole night on my back, but I did wake up a few times from deep sleep, and noticed I was laying on my back. Progress? maybe.

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