Trip Report: AT-IMT Loop Through the VA Highlands

Posted by Matt Scharf on

With my better half, who is not yet a backpacker, in New Orleans for April, I was looking forward to spending as much of the month as possible in the mountains. So when the Tuscarora Trail Catch-up trip I was planning to attend was postponed until May I began scouring the Internet for trip ideas in the mid-Atlantic (someone should really put together a book of those) and stumbled across a Backpacking Light trip report expounding the many virtues of the Mt. Rogers/Grayson Highlands area of Virginia. Taking the suggestions in the report for creating longer routes, I planned a ~44 mile loop using the AT, Iron Mountain Trail (IMT) and a few side trails.

Bryan and I met up at the Vienna Metro at 1930 on Thursday evening and began the long drive down to the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. The drive was uneventful and passed relatively quickly while discussing gear and previous trips. After some minor navigational difficulties upon reaching the Recreation Area we located the Fox Creek trailhead and crawled into our bivy sacks in a campsite just off the AT at 0200 on Friday morning.

We woke up to beautiful clear skies a short while later on Friday morning, ate breakfast, broke camp and hit the trail at 0819, heading northbound on the AT. We crossed Fox Creek and began the ~1,000 foot climb up Hurricane Mountain. After about 2 miles we came to the intersection with the IMT, which had been the original route of the AT, and headed west. The IMT bounced around pleasantly on top of the spine of Hurricane Mountain and then Iron Mountain, with nice, if obstructed, views through the trees to Mt. Rogers and its high neighbors to the south and a series of smaller mountains, valleys, farms, and villages to the north. We passed a number of scenic and nicely weathered trail shelters, particularly the Cherry Tree shelter which had a hitching post for horses as the IMT is open to equestrian travel in places. The trail was generally in good shape. Some areas had rather loose, rocky footing, and there was about a mile or so of fire road connecting segments here and there, but after about mile 6 the trail was very pleasant, mostly well packed dirt with some rock and roots, well shaded by trees.

We stopped about 10 miles in at the Straight Branch shelter for lunch and to replenish our water supplies and then continued southward on the IMT. We had been making excellent time all day and covered the 3 miles from the Straight Branch shelter to Shaw Gap in less than an hour. We turned south off the IMT onto the Beartree Gap Trail and began descending into the Laurel Valley on our way back towards the AT.

The trail passed through a number of Rhodendron thickets which formed beautiful, arched, green tunnels. About halfway down the Beartree Gap Trail we came to a neat little pond on the lefthand side of the trail where we took turns walking out on a downed tree which almost stretched clear across from one shore to the other. After taking some photos we continued southward, passed Beartree Lake, crossed over US58 and met back up with the AT. We headed northbound on the AT and did some trailrunning on the steady descent down to Creek Junction and the Virginia Creeper Trail. After about 18 miles on the trail already and having the sun beating on us on the southeasterly facing slope on the descent to Creek Junction we stopped to splash off in the creek. Bryan decided to take a dip, and judging by the ensuing yelping I believe he may have wished to wait another month or so. After the short break we shouldered our packs and made the climb to the Lost Mountain shelter where we rolled into camp exactly 8 hours after leaving Fox Creek in the morning. We covered 20 miles in just over 7 hours of hiking time that day, which included a very deceptive 5,400 feet of elevation gain.

We were greeted in camp by Thru Hikers Rambo and Heiko from Germany after not having seen a soul all day until 10 minutes before we reached the shelter. Having made great time that day we leisurely made camp in the warm afternoon sun. Bryan took a nap, I gathered some firewood and chatted with Rambo. After awhile I showed Bryan how I pitch my tarp as he plans to start using a tarp system soon. Thru hikers continued to trickle in as we made camp and began making dinner. We were eventually joined by Wrong Leg, Blink, Facts, Penguin Man, and a mother-daughter duo from Maine named Mama Bear and Half Moon. All the Thru Hikers were fresh off zero days in Damascus and had bulging food bags. Mama Bear made a strong showing for Mom of the year, supplying us all with carrots, hummus, cashews, and a mountain of S'more making materials. Rambo and I made a campfire and we all chatted and ate before retiring for the night at around 2130.

Matt Scharf posted on

After a good night's sleep and a leisurely breakfast spent chatting with our new friends, Bryan and I inexplicably hit the trail at 0819 for the second consecutive day. Continuing northbound on the AT, we descended briefly, crossed US58 again and soon after began a series of steady climbs up the south slope of Beech Mountain and then Whitetop Mountain which would take up the better part of the morning. After climbing about 2,000 feet over 3.5 miles we came to a large bald below the summit of Whitetop Mountain called Buzzard Rocks. We stopped for a snack and to chat with an Army vet who had made camp on the bald for the last night of his section hike the day before. There were fantastic views of the Smokies to the south in TN and NC, and the views across the bald to the summit of Whitetop were excellent as well. The trail crossed the bald and wound through an open forest of stunted hardwoods, came into another bald, crossed Whitetop Road and headed back into the woods to begin the descent to Elk Garden. On the way to Elk Garden there were several very scenic stretches of forest where everything was bright green and covered with moss. We covered the 3 miles to Elk Garden quickly and began the second long ascent of the day up to Mt. Rogers.

Near the top of Elk Garden ridge we were treated to a series of teaser balds just before the spur trail to the summit of Mt. Rogers. We took the spur to the high point of VA, where we lingered in the cool, damp, mossy forest for a short while and took an obligatory photo of the USGS survey marker. We made our way back down the spur to the AT and stopped at the Thomas Knob shelter to eat lunch, fill up on water, and change socks.

After our break we continued northbound on the AT. Just past the shelter we came across a pony posted up right beside the trail. We had heard rumors of a pony, possibly pregnant, who hangs out in this area waiting for handouts from hikers. The pony took quite a shine to Bryan, licking the sweat off of first his right leg and then his left as I howled in laughter and took photos. We decided to continue down the trail when the pony, hereafter designated by Bryan as the 'Promiscuous Pony', exhausted the supply of sweat below Bryan's knees and began nosing up his shorts, prompting Bryan to understandably sprint down the trail. I would like to publicly thank Bryan on behalf of myself and several other hikers for taking one for the team, and would like to propose that Bryan henceforth be known by the trail name 'Saltlick'.

Leaving the Promiscuous Pony behind, we soon made our way into the open, scenic balds for which the area is famous. We briefly departed the AT in favor of the Wilburn Ridge Trail, which takes a higher, ruggeder route involving some scrambling as it parallels the AT southward towards Grayson Highlands State Park. There were excellent views in all directions on Wilburn Ridge and after rejoining the AT we soon made our way into Grayson Highlands State Park where we were greeted by a welcoming committee of ponies.

We continued on the AT through Massie Gap and wound our way down to Big Wilson Creek. We stopped to tank up with water as we would be making a dry camp that night and having pushed well over 15 miles for the day decided to refresh ourselves in the rushing water of the creek. Being a slow learner, I did not call to mind Bryan's experience at Creek Junction the previous day and waded into the creek splashing, shrieking, and cursing and setting a terrible example for the Scouts camped on the north bank (I'm an Eagle Scout myself) before extricating myself just before my feet went completely numb. Bryan, being the more sensible of us, kept himself firmly planted on shore and dipped water out of the creek to splash himself.

After I regained full feeling in my feet we crossed the creek and entered Little Wilson Creek Wilderness and began the climb up Stone Mountain. After reaching the bald on the western crown of Stone Mountain we made our way to the highest ground and selected an area to camp for the night that was sheltered some from the southerly wind after covering 19 miles on the day and racking up another 5,400 feet of elevation, which was not a subtle as the previous day's. Between the rocks (Stone Mountain is not a misnomer), briars, and horse poop it was not particularly easy to find a good spot to camp but the skies were clear and the forecast favorable so we each found a plot where we could comfortably bivy for the night and then made our way to an outcropping of flat rocks where we made dinner and watched the sun set over Mt. Rogers and the Highlands. Having hiked at a good clip all day we gladly turned in for the night at 2030.

We woke around 6 on Sunday morning after a less than stellar night of sleep. My left ankle has a tendency to lock up due to an old childhood playground injury and I had great difficulty finding a comfortable position from 0300 onward. When I was headed over to retrieve our bear bags I found Bryan in his bivy perpendicular to his sleeping bag with his feet on top of his pack. We ate breakfast and were on the trail at 0735 and were back at the car after covering the last 5 miles before 1000.

Bryan and I both enjoyed this route thoroughly. It provided a nice mix of hiking, from easy rolling ridges on the IMT, to sustained rocky climbs up Whitetop and Elk Garden Ridge; incredible views; and alternately provided solitude and the opportunity to spend quality time with other backpackers. I think spring was a great time of year to do this route, I can imagine the area being quite crowded during the summer months, and would also consider hiking this route again in the fall once the leaves had begun to turn. Backpacking with Saltlick was also a fantastic experience and I'm looking forward to enjoying his company on many more DC UL trips. All in all this was a great weekend, and the high country of Southwestern VA is somewhere where I plan to return for many years to come.