Appalachian Trail Project in VA – Grayson Highlands Backpack – 3-31-14 – Old Orchard Shelter to Deep Gap South of Mount Rogers Plus Mount Rogers Summit – 16 Miles
Up at sunrise, I ate a Clif bar breakfast and got going on my 16-mile day, leaving Mike at camp. He likes a more leisurely morning routine and would be taking a shorter route via the Pine Mountain Trail, so no hurry. We planned to reconvene, perhaps at Thomas Knob Shelter for an afternoon break, but definitely at our camping spot a couple of miles past it near Deep Gap where Mike had camped on an earlier trip. My plan was to follow the AT through the Scales, up and over Wilburn Ridge, past Thomas Knob and then,for bonus points, take the side trail out-and-back to summit Mount Rogers, the high point of Virginia, before ending at Deep Gap. (Picture the letter “U”. My route was the letter part and Mike’s was a dotted line across the top.)
A bit of background: All three days of this adventure the AT wandered in and out of the George Washington Jefferson National Forest and particularly the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, which includes more than 20,000 acres of southwest Virginia high country. The NRA is further broken down into designations of Lewis Fork Wilderness, the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness and the Crest Zone. The Crest Zone encompasses the open areas on the ridges such as Wilburn Ridge, Pine Mountain, Stone Mountain, and more. (Will there be a test at the end of this blog post?)
One thing (among many) that I really appreciate about Mike is his attention to Plan B. We would be separated all day and accidents can happen. We discussed what each would do if the other didn’t show up by a prescribed time at a prescribed place. We knew each other’s routes. For example, if we missed each other at Thomas Knob Shelter, we would hike on to Deep Gap. If the other person didn’t show up at Deep Gap that night, the first one would wait until noon the next day before backtracking to look. (One, i.e. me, might get too tired and decide to stop at Thomas Knob Shelter for the night.) We each had a set of keys to both vehicles set up for the shuttle in the event something happened that either of us needed to bail out and get to a car (hike out, hitch a ride, whatever). We would leave notes at a shelter or any obvious place if we needed to bail out. And of course, there were hikers everywhere so it might be feasible to leave word with a person too.
My first order of business was climbing Pine Mountain, 1,000 feet elevation gain in 1.7 miles, a much needed warm-up on a cold morning. Uphill and plenty of snow made me slow down and look closely at this snow-covered, lichen-covered dead tree.
Fence stile at the top of Pine Mountain. These are the type places that require some thought and real map consulting (not just the elevation guide), because the AT turned sharply left and followed the fence before dipping back into the trees, but footprints continued straight across the meadow. (This was the Pine Mountain Trail that Mike would take across the high country.)
A mile further the Trail goes through the Scales livestock corral, once upon a time used to weigh cattle that grazed in the high meadows before they were taken to market. (The tiny building is a composting toilet, hurray!) Several horse trails intersect there, including the Scales Trail, the First Peak Trail and the Virginia Highlands HorseTrail, and cattle are still grazed in the area to help keep the Crest Zone open areas bald. The other bald mowers are a herd of wild ponies that are very friendly, as they associate humans with food. They eagerly greet hikers and can be petted, but be aware that they may lick you because you’re salty. And PLEASE don’t feed them.
A second herd of wild ponies lives in Grayson Highlands State Park, which I also passed through on today’s hike.
Ponies at the Scales
A pony has noticed me
Walking along Stone Mountain
Looking at Wilburn Ridge – Mike is on the other side
Icy Big Wilson Creek
Crossing the boundary into Grayson Highlands State Park, there are signs that no tent camping is allowed at Wise Shelter. Backpackers can go back onto NRA land at Big Wilson Creek to camp or figure out how to get to the campground inside the park. Many of the thru-hikers I met during the day were heading for this shelter to spend the night. I paused there to eat my second breakfast and check out the privies (yes, there were two!)
After crossing Quebec Branch a couple of times on footbridges I passed the Backpackers Spur Trail, which leads .8 miles to an overnight parking lot. Another place to pay close attention to blazes on rocks as the AT takes a very sharp turn here.
It's ooh-and-ahh time. I walked through Massie Gap, an expansive series of open meadows (okay, and a boring red-mud-and-gravel road bed) with wonderful views of the rock outcroppings I was going to climb over. I’ve hiked this section two times before and was pumped up to be here on such a clear day.
Let the boulder fest begin
Going through the Fat Man Squeeze, a tunnel between rocks so narrow that I had to bend my knees to get my pack through, and yeah, that’s solid ice that was several inches thick. I considered crawling but made it by just sliding my feet inch by inch. No witnesses. There is an alternate route around this but what’s the fun in that?
The trail continues up and down over the rock piles, passing near the summit of Wilburn Ridge. This is the highest point of the AT in Virginia and is higher than Katahdin in Maine at the Trail’s end. My initial enthusiasm was tempered as I slowly went over each bump to Rhododendron Gap where the Pine Mountain Trail comes in. During the rhododendron bloom in mid-June this is one of the most wondrous places on earth.
At the gap the AT turns left and levels out through a rhodo tunnel with campsites scattered among the trees. The trail gently slopes down to Thomas Knob Shelter. As I approach through an open field, who do I see sitting on the rocks behind the shelter gazing out at nature’s majesty? My faithful buddy Mike.
I took a load off, refilled and treated some more water, and took a break. There were several thru-hikers also hanging out and one opportunistic pregnant pony mama. One of the hikers was feeding her, but I kept my mouth shut. The pony licked my hand, then my arm, and was going for my face – I was a salty treat!
Mike and our four-legged friend
Although quite large with an upstairs loft, Thomas Knob Shelter wasn’t very appealing to me. It is right at the trail in a wide open area that was flooded from the recent rain and now-melting snow. I was very happy to continue on. Mike and I checked our Plan B once more (he was continuing straight to camp but I was still planning my side hike up to Mount Rogers) and he left ahead of me. Soon I hefted my backpack and moved on southbound another half mile.
What can I say about the one-mile round trip to Mount Rogers (elev. 5,729 feet)? I have now been there and done that. I hid my pack in some trees and hustled up the trail, noting the change from hardwoods to Fraser fir and a 10-degree drop in temperature.
There is no view at all from the summit, just a couple of piles of boulders and a little search for the marker.
Late in the day now, as I made the steady, slushy, slippery, wet descent (plus a little uphill over Brier Ridge) I met about a dozen thru-hikers slogging their way up. Some asked me how far it was to Wise Shelter (about 7 miles). I told each of them about camping spots just a mile past Thomas Knob Shelter and encouraged them to stop so they could enjoy going through the openness of Wilburn Ridge the next morning. But thru-hiker mentality is to push the miles and I doubt that any of them took my suggestion.
Deep Gap was a sharp turn in the trail with no open space or flat area that I could see. I kept walking another mile until the land leveled out and I glimpsed Mike’s tent far off in the trees. Well, my pink tent was going to stand out! We did our housekeeping chores, got water, set up a bear line, cooked and ate supper and discussed tomorrow’s plan. It wasn’t quite as cold at night and I slept very comfortably.
Good night, John Boy. Good night, Mary Ellen…
“You can't own a mountain any more than you can own an ocean or a piece of the sky. You hold it in trust. You live on it, you take life from it, and once you're dead, you rest in it.” ~Grandpa, Walton’s Mountain