Appalachian Trail Project in VA – Grayson Highlands Backpack – 4-1-14 – Deep Gap to Virginia Creeper Trail @ Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge – 11 Miles
I woke up as a happy hiker this morning after a good night’s sleep and a plan to lighten my load thanks to my good friend Mike. Took a few minutes to enjoy the sunrise from my tent door, breathing in deeply and thanking God for the ability and opportunity to make this journey. I left ahead of Mike to get in my extra mileage.
From our campsite near Deep Gap the trail trended downward for two miles toward Elk Garden, crossing a bald summit that probably has nice green views in the summer. My eyes were on the line of rainfall on the distant mountains.
Elk Garden is a gap between Whitetop Mountain and Mount Rogers, the two tallest peaks in Virginia, and VA 600 cuts through the gap. At the parking area there is a convenient trailhead for summiting Mount Rogers going trail north or hiking up Whitetop Mountain and Buzzard Rock going trail south. Bonus points for the privy and trash cans! I took a break to unload my trash, eat breakfast (Clif Bar) and prepare for climbing Whitetop.
The steady climb was not as bad as I had anticipated. At over 5,000 feet I noticed the character change to Hobbit-esque Frasier fir and spruce forest. Many small streams flowed across the trail. A misty rain began to fall but only lasted a short time. The AT doesn’t go across the summit of Whitetop, but at the Trail’s highest point I saw a side trail to the right that appeared to continue up. Didn’t see this on any maps or notes, but I feel sure it leads to the summit radio tower.
The burliest tree I've ever seen
Closeup of a burl
Fungi on a tree, an indication of internal disease
Crossing Whitetop Mountain Road (USFS 89), the views opened up once again. There are campsites that looked very uninviting to me, too exposed right by the road, and I would not choose to camp there alone. There is a spring, however, that is convenient to top off your water supply as you march on to a more conducive campsite or the next shelter 6 miles away. On this section of the AT, from Elk Garden to the town of Damascus, there are numerous options for overnights, including crossing roads and hitching rides into town, etc.
Less than a mile from the road crossing is the highlight of this section: Buzzard Rock, a grand feature worthy of a dayhike all on its own. (If you are Googling, be sure you find the one associated with Whitetop Mountain, VA and not the one near Front Royal, VA). This is an impressive rock outcropping at 5,080 feet.
A careful scramble to the top is rewarded with an inspiring 360-degree view, including this one southwest across multiple ridges in North Carolina and Tennessee.
From Buzzard Rock the trail steadily switchbacked downhill to Beech Mountain Road (VA 601) where I parked my car eons ago on a snowy Sunday morning. Here I unloaded my backpack of everything except the essentials for the last 4 miles, rain jacket, water, camera. I took my time, ate a snack, thought through what I needed and what I could leave behind. Mike’s plan was to hike to this point and then drive my car to meet me at my ending at the Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge.
The remaining miles were a lighthearted blur, no weight, skipping through the trees, clear skies, one puzzling curve about nine-tenths of the way around a small pond. Stopped to say hello to Lost Mountain Shelter, the first shelter south of Thomas Knob and a comfortable-looking home away from home. In what seemed the blink of an eye I was walking onto the Virginia Creeper Trail at the Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge. Cyclists were streaming by in both directions and I had to choose my moment to get onto the bridge. Two women stopped to chat (no, I’m not a thru-hiker, just a weekend warrior) and take my photo. The trip that started in lots of cold weather layers ended in shorts and a tee shirt.
Mike was waiting as I knew he would be. We retrieved his vehicle and stopped for a bite to eat at the Log House in Volney, the only customers for the buffet on a Tuesday afternoon. Then we went our separate ways home.
Mike’s help to me on this trip was both typical and extraordinary. He has many years of experience in the outdoors and there are few places I can name that he has not explored, from Crowders Mountain just 20 miles from Charlotte to Nepal, India. Among many skills, he’s taught me the concept of hiking at a personal sustainable pace, no matter what everyone else is doing, and the pleasure of walking alone and then sharing camp at the end of the day. Some of us have hiking goals and lists, but for Mike it's not as important what trail you're on as long as you're out there somewhere. Nature changes every day. I will follow his example and pay it forward for another traveler soon.