I lived in Virginia most of my life but somehow I always managed to NOT go to Mount Rogers. I hiked almost the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in VA except for the southern and northern portions. My old High School friend and I reconnected and he mentioned doing the trail and I agreed that I had to do it. I am glad that I made the journey. It was only about 2 hours driving for me to the Grayson Highlands, where a lot of my family originated so it seemed ideal. This would also be my first outing with the ENO Hammock and no bivy.
We met up at the Grindstone Camping area and paid about 3 dollars a night to park the vehicles. It was late July but around 7:30 we were going to be running out of daylight soon so we geared up and hit the trail. As soon as we got to the connector trail we were confronted with a Trail Closed sign. I wouldn't recommend what we did for most people but two former Eagle Scouts could not be deterred and we bypassed the signage and made our way in. Unsure of why the trail was closed we soon found out. A large section of the forest was down and the trail soon disappeared under fallen tree limbs. It wasn't just two or three tree, it was a very large section of the canopy on the ground like a tornado had hit the area. There was a massive derecho in SW VA prior and I can only imagine this was partially the result. Consulting the map we realized the switchbacks extended widely and if we launched straight up we would surely hit the trail. Sure enough, past all the brush we eventually hit the trail as dusk descended.
So we ventured along the 166 trail destined to link into the AT before we called it a night. It was about a 4 mile stint and the trail was not too bad. It was obviously well maintained and the incline was moderate. As we ascended a deep fog rolled in and it made for a very intriguing hike through the fog. Matt leading the way had some sad little handheld lamp and me behind him with my Black Diamond Storm I blasted a light path through the mountain. There's nothing like 100 lumens when hiking at night. Who needs the sun? We made it up to Deep Gap in a good amount of time by around 11pm. We didn't see any immediate spot to camp so we pitched in on the side of a hill. I got my hammock up and tied in my ProFly in case the weather turned bad, which it is known to do on Mount Rogers.
The next morning after breaking camp we found a nice grassy area about 50 yards away. Oh well. We heading out on the AT and the next stop was to take the Mt. Rogers spur trail to the peak. We passed some insane trail runner that morning. I have no idea where he came from but we were nowhere near a parking area and it was only 9am. I was impressed by this man of steel only carrying a small bottle of water as he jogged away. After regaining my thoughts we hit the peak through an gorgeous pine and moss area. The peak of Mt rogers doesn’t offer any grand views but it's still a neat area. It is the tallest peak in VA so I had to get there. Afterward, we made our way down to Thomas Knob shelter.
Thomas Knob offers some fantastic views and you should definitely walk down to the water area. There's nice spring that is fenced off to keep the wild ponies out of it. Don't worry there's plenty of runoff below for the horses but the upper area is cordoned off to keep out any potential contamination. So, we filled our bags up with some nice cool spring water, rinsed off the goo of yesterdays sweat and grime, and got set for the rest of the day.
We kept rolling on the AT for most of the day taking in the views along the way stopping for lunch along a ridge filled with rock formations. Our next stop would be wise creek where I had to cool my feet off in the creek for a while. My Merrell boots were failing me and my feet were on fire. So it was an enjoyable stop to regroup myself and get ready for the last portion of the day. Just after Wise creek we shambled by the Wise shelter. At this point we thought we were only 2-4 miles away from our destination of the day, being Old Orchard shelter. We decided to take a side trail, Scales Trail to trim off some of the trail as it was starting to get later in the day and the sun was baring down. Scales trail is like a creek bed with loose rocks through the middle of a pasture. Tons of huckleberry trees along the way but it wasn't enough to break the heat and of course sunburn on the pasty IT guy set in and I was quickly sizzling. I still enjoyed the huckleberries even though I was quickly soaking through all my clothes. Joining back up with the AT at Scales was kind of an interesting experience. Apparently there is a horse trail area and there were campers, RV's, horses, and joyful people all around watching the crazy backpackers make there way through the heat.
I believe it was near this point or perhaps before the Scales Trail we realized we had miscalculated and instead of 4 miles were looking at 8. So all told it was going to be about 16-17 miles that day which was pushing my limits. This was also the first outing where I was determined to not cook anything and only rely on strict paleo food. Well I didn’t eat nearly enough for lunch after my mouth got tired of chewing jerky so I started flagging badly on the final push. The heat didn't help nor did the fact that my boots were failing and my ankles were trashed from the constant root and rock assault. I was having to take way too many breaks so I finally settled down for a few minutes to eat some more jerky and regain myself. It got me back on my feet but Matt hadn't even noticed I fell behind so it took me a bit to catch up again. We finally hit a decent descent down into Old Orchard, which is a really awesome campsite, and pitched in the for day and settled in after dinner to read my Kindle a bit as the sun went down.
I was completely satisfied with the camping area until some other people moved in, pitched some sort of teepee tent and managed to bring a cooler full of beer with them which progressed to loud talking and cackling throughout the evening. Not to be deterred, I grabbed a melatonin and magnesium intent to pass out. Then some time late in the evening an evil ear piercing noise emanated from the woods. Half awake thinking a mountain lion had ripped the beer drinking goons open I had to run through my mental guidebook and realized that it was a screech owl sitting nearby. If you ever need an alarm clock or need to get someone's attention quickly, a screech owl will do it. Even better if it's in the middle of the night when you're sound asleep. Regardless after the miniature heart attack I passed back out in my hammock.
The next morning we discussed and laughed about the insane screech owl and made out way out for the quick two miles back to the car. At this point I soon realized that I was in bad shape as any hint of sunlight and my calves were on fire. Oh yay, sun poisoning.
So, I finally conquered Mt Rogers. I loved the scenery and the diversity of the area. I somehow missed the ponies but there were plenty of signs of them being nearby as I skillfully dodged the excrement left behind. I would've enjoyed the trip more had I made a better meal plan and if my Merrell's had held up a bit better. The lack of ankle support on the heavy rock and root trail did me no good and I spent more time tripping over my own feet than anything which led to more exhaustion. Regardless this is probably one of the best hikes in VA and has a lot tow offer. There are multiple routes to take and I feel like I would probably return and try a different angle next time...with better boots!