The Backpacking Loop Counter Clockwise
So, a day hike isn't what you're looking for and for some the drive to get here is a significant one. To give you some context getting here from Richmond is about a 5 hour drive. Well, make it a long weekend and plan to do this 3 day, 2 night backpacking loop! Mount Rogers is Virginia's highest point and should be on your shortlist of Virginia hikes.
When you're done with your trip be sure to visit Mount Rogers Challenge and get the challenge patch for completing this trip!
Mount Rogers is located in southwest Virginia. While there are multiple starting points to hike to the top, the most popular backpacking starting point, just like our day trip option, is also in Grayson Highlands State Park.
The address for Grayson Highlands State Park is:
829 Grayson Highland Ln.
Mouth of Wilson, VA 24363
***Starting point for this backpack trip is the Overnight Backpacking Lot within Grayson Highlands State Park. Reservations for this parking lot are now required so book your reservation in advance as weekends tend to fill up quickly. Visit the reservation page to check availability and to reserve your parking space. Be sure to book 2 nights in the parking lot for this trip.
Starting Your Hike
Park at Overnight Backpacking Lot (map at bottom of page below)
I like to have my options open on this trip and there a few to think about it. The first decision you'll need to make is which way to hike the loop, clockwise or counter-clockwise. I've done both and either way is fine. In essence, you'll likely be spending one night near Thomas Knob Shelter and the other night near Wise Shelter. Having said that, the benefits are extremely different at each location. Camping near Thomas Knob will give you wide open views to your south all the way to North Carolina, and a clear night with a new moon will allow you to see thousands of stars with a glimpse of the Milky Way. Camping near Wise Shelter will give you a great source of water but you're in the trees for the most part. This can afford you protection when weather is sketchy.
How do I decide which way to start?
- I typically start my trip on a Friday. If the weather forecast is calling for good weather with clear skies Friday night then I'll go clockwise and camp near Thomas Knob the first night. Friday night is typically less crowded near Thomas Knob so your chances of finding a good camp spot are better. I'll then enjoy the beauty of the night sky before settling down for the evening.
- If weather is expected to be overcast or worse on the first night I'll head counter-clockwise and camp near Wise Shelter for the night. Hopefully the weather improves for my second night near Thomas Knob.
This is a personal preference. The other thing I'll try to do is to schedule a trip on a weekend closest to the new moon. As mentioned above, if the weather is good you'll have an amazing view of the night sky. On a previous trip we also saw the space station cruising across the sky. If you'd like to add this on your wish list when scheduling your trip, visit Spot The Station. NASA gives times and locations when you'll be able to see the Space Station with the naked eye.
Since I'm offering two ways to complete this loop I'll outline each version for you.
Regardless of which direction you choose, both options start the same way.
Arrive at the Overnight Backpackers Lot. Last time I was there they had a small kiosk set up where you will retrieve your car pass for the reservation you should have already made for the lot.
Fill out the necessary paperwork, put your car tag on your rear view mirror, then start your trip!
There are two trails that branch off from the backpacker lot. The one to the left of the kiosk will take you to Massie Gap where day hikers typically start their trip. Don't take the trail to Massie Gap. Instead, start on the Appalachian Spur Trail to the right of the kiosk that heads directly into the woods.
About a tenth of a mile after you start you will arrive at a gate. Here's where the trips begin to differ. The Appalachian Spur Trail continues straight ahead. To your left and right is a wider horse trail.
If you are going clockwise and camping near Thomas Knob Shelter the first night I'll be typing up an additional article to posted in the near future. I'll share on our Facebook page when posted.
COUNTER-CLOCKWISE, NEAR WISE SHELTER NIGHT 1
Day 1 - 2.27 miles
After you pass through the gate, continue directly across the trail and back into the woods along the Appalachian Spur Trail. You'll continue your ascent and views begin to open as you continue to climb. Near the 0.81 mile mark you'll connect with the Appalachian Trail (AT). This will be your best view of the day so snap pics if you want. When you connect to the AT you need to turn right. Descend back in to the trees and continue your hike. At 2.1 miles you'll pass by Wise Shelter and a privy should you need to use one. Continue past Wise Shelter along the AT, pass through a gate, and cross a small footbridge over Big Wilson Creek at 2.27 miles. Begin to look for a camp area on the other side of the bridge. Aim to be at least 200 feet from the creek. Be sure to fill up your water for the next day.
Day 2 - 8.47 miles (assumes you day hike Mount Rogers this day)
Pack up camp and continue along the AT. Near the 2.55 mile mark you have another decision to make (this is total trip mileage, not Day 2 mileage). This is where the AT splits off to the right and the Scales Trail continues straight ahead. The Scales Trail is a wider dirt road. If today's mileage is making you nervous you have an opportunity to take a shortcut and shave off about 1.25 miles from your day. If the mileage doesn't bother you then you should continue along the AT which will ascend and eventually open up to beautiful views as you approach and descend into The Scales area. If you need a shortcut then you should continue along the Scales Trail. (Mileage stated for the remainder of this trip option will assume you took the AT so adjust as needed if you end up taking the Scales Trail.)
Near the 5.04 mile mark (total trip mileage) you'll know you've arrived at The Scales when you see a large fenced in area (see image below). The small building within the fenced area toward the upper right is a pit toilet should you need it. You're likely to encounter a few parked vehicles as well. There's a separate dirt road that climbs up to this area where people like to camp. Let's assume you entered the fenced in area of The Scales. If you stayed on the AT to get here (highlighted in yellow) then your hike will continue directly across the field through the gate on the opposite side (highlighted in blue). If you took the short cut on the Scales Trail (highlighted in red) then your hike will continue to your left after you've entered the fenced in area.
Now that you've left the fence line of The Scales, ascend the rocky dirt road in front of you known as the Crest Trail (again, highlighted in blue above). You'll see the AT turn off to your right in about 100 feet BUT DON"T TAKE IT!!! Yes, you could continue on the AT here if you want then connect with Pine Trail to take you to where you need to go but it adds mileage to your trip along with a loss then gain in elevation that is unnecessary. And to be honest, the views along the Crest Trail are much better in my opinion. Again, personal preference.
Continue along the Crest Trail for about 3 miles and you'll reach an intersection of trails around the 8.12 mile mark (total trip mileage). The area is easily identified by what I call Pride Rock. Think of Lion King and holding Simba in your arms as you gaze at the large rock cropping in front of you. This is a great area to take an extended break, drink some water, and eat a lunch or snack. People do venture to the top of Pride Rock but if you choose to do so please be very careful. There is a significant drop off at the top.
After you've had a break, join the AT again just to the left of Pride Rock. See image below. You came in on the Crest Trail highlighted in yellow. You'll then continue on the AT South highlighted in blue. As you can see, multiple trails branch off here so keep an eye out for white blazes to make sure you're on the AT.
You'll pass through a couple of longer sections of forest with intermittent open views to your left. Eventually the trail opens up and you'll see mountain peaks to the south over the North Carolina border. Feel free to set up camp where you can find a spot either in the forested area leading up to this point or in an open area with views. Again, try to stay at least 200 feet off trail. By this point you'll be around 8.8 miles total trip mileage. Need water? Thomas Knob Shelter is about 0.3 miles further south on the AT. Climb over the rocks to the left of the shelter and descend to the water source near the fenced area. Just past the shelter on the right is a side trail to a privy.
After you've set up camp, your next option will be to:
- Day hike up to the top of Mount Rogers and back today, Day 2.
- Day hike up to the top of Mount Rogers and back tomorrow morning, Day 3.
- Or, skip it. But why would you do that? You're just a 2 mile roundtrip to Virginia's highest point!
If you're day hiking to Mount Rogers continue south on the AT and pass by Thomas Knob Shelter. Around 9.27 total trip mileage you'll reach the Mount Rogers Spur Trail. Time to leave the comfort of the white blazed AT and begin your last section of uphill climbing. A half mile later you'll be at the top of Mount Rogers. The view at the top is blocked by tress all around you but I hope you would agree that the views to get this point were amazing. While at the top revel in the glory of being higher up in elevation than any other person in Virginia. There are two rock croppings at the top, each with a circular marker signifying the top of Mount Rogers. One is right in front of you as the trail ends and the other is off to the right about 15 yards.
Let's assume you day hiked Mount Rogers on Day 2. By the time you get back to camp you'll be around 10.75 total trip mileage and have a short hike out on Day 3.
Day 3 - 3.09 miles
Pack up camp and head north on the AT backtracking your steps from the day before all the way to Pride Rock. Today you'll be arriving along the yellow highlighted area below and will continue on the AT North along the blue highlighted area below.
Continue along the AT North which actually feels like you're heading south directionally. Around 12.82 total trip mileage you'll reach the gate that takes you back into Grayson Highlands State Park. Once through the gate the AT continues just to your right and a Horse Trail (road like trail) is just to your left. Continue along the Horse Trail. The AT will cross over the Horse Trail further up around the 13.30 total trip mileage mark. Stay on Horse Trail and begin to look for the trail to turn off and down to your left around 13.46 total mileage mark. There should be a sign indicating the trail will take you back to the Backpacker Lot. Descend along the trail and around the 13.83 total mileage mark you'll reach the Appalachian Spur Trail you crossed shortly on your trip on Day 1. Turn off the wider trail and go through the gate on your right. You'll arrive at the Backpacker Lot in about 0.1 miles.
Mileage: 13.93 miles round trip
Elevation Gain/Loss: +/-2,446 feet
Key Mileage Points
0.00 - Overnight Backpacker Parking Lot
0.10 - Cross through gate, cross over dirt road, and continue straight on Appalachian Spur Trail
0.81 - Join AT, turn right and descend
2.10 - Wise Shelter
2.27 - Camp Night 1
2.55 - AT splits off to the right from Scales Trail
5.04 - Arrive at The Scales
8.12 - Pride Rock
8.80 - Camp Night 2
9.07 - Thomas Knob Shelter (Privy)
9.27 - Mount Rogers Spur Trail
9.81 - Mount Rogers Peak
11.44 - Back at Pride Rock
12.82 - Gate back into Grayson Highlands State Park
13.30 - Horse Trail crosses back over the AT
13.46 - Horse Trail branches off and down to the left
13.83 - Turn right through the gate back to the Overnight Backpacker Lot
13.93 - Back at Overnight Backpacker Parking Lot
Categories: Trip Planning