Trip Report: Appalachian Trail Loop in Grayson Highlands - Alta Outdoors


Backcountry adventures via kayaking and backpacking


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Trip Report: Appalachian Trail Loop in Grayson Highlands

Starting a new backpacking season in the spring is always tricky: you need to consider weather, seasonal attractions, bug reports, sunrise and sunset times, and distance, of course. Also, you want to start a season with something really memorable. This season, such a destination for us became the Grayson Highlands State Park where we hiked a ~35 km / 22 miles loop on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in three days arranged around the Easter long weekend in Canada.


The main attraction of the location is wild ponies that live there unattended. While hiking there, one will experience many encounters with that lovely animal. The second interest point is Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia with summit elevation of 1,746 m / 5,729 feet. The third on the checklist is the Appalachian Trail itself, with its unforgettable experience. If all the above is not enough, there are countless beautiful views along the route that will make a lot of memorable pictures.

One of the conveniences of the location is the Grayson Highlands State Park itself with an overnight parking lot (requires payment) and some amenities that could be welcome at the end of the trip. So, the parking lot is where the trip starts.

The route itself can be done in two days distance-wise, but the ascend/descend could be a hard work and also we wanted to spend a bit more time in that area so we planned it for three days. Depending on where you'll be coming from, please add additional time for traveling to and from. The timing of the route represents the fact that we have started in the evening so the first camping site is only two hours away from the parking lot.

Day 1

Distance: 5 km / 3.1 mi with a day's elevation of 370 m / 1201 ft. Camp along the AT 15 minutes before the Thomas Knob shelter. If you prefer, reach the shelter and stay there. Note, that if you don't go to the shelter there is no water source on the first day segment, so carry some water with you.
Day 1 terrain profile. Continuous ascend towards the Thomas Knob shelter on the southbound AT.

Day 2

Distance: 15.8 km / 9.8 mi with a day's ascend of 583 m / 1893 ft and total descend of 1013 m / 3291 ft. This day's highlights are visiting the Mount Rogers summit in the morning and then descending down for almost one kilometer for the best part of the day. There are multiple water sources along the trail during the day. Camp around the Old Orchard shelter. This is a lovely area with a source of water and some view and, if you are lucky, you may hear coyotes howling at night.
Day 2 terrain profile. Mount Rogers summit in the morning and long descend the rest of the day.

Day 3

Distance: 10.4 km / 6.5 mi with a day's elevation of 489 m / 1588 ft and descend of 320 m / 1037 ft. There will be a change of scenery around mid day as you climb through the forested area and reach the open views where you are likely to meet more ponies. This day's camp is close to another AT shelter at the Massie Gap along the Wilburn Ridge right before the state park border. Please note, that you cannot camp in the park territory without a park camping permit and that's why the camp location is still on the AT. This is a very popular rendezvous point at the AT and you are likely to meet many AT though-hikers in the evening.
Day 3 terrain profile. Ascend in the morning through the forested section and reach the open views.

Day 4

Distance: the last leg of 2.3 km / 1.4 mi to return to your car with a bit of an elevation of 153 m / 499 ft and some downhill of 157 m / 509 ft. If you wanted to complete the route a day before it's totally possible. You will hike along the ridge so there will be some picture opportunities.
Last leg of the trip. Hike uphill to the ridge and then descend to the parking lot.

Gear and Preparations

Consider the weather forecast and bugs activity when choosing your clothes. No issues with finding water along the trail and setting up a tent even not-freestanding.

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