Saturday, November 8, 2014

Mt. Rogers Summit on the A.T., November 3, 2014

I am working on hiking every mile of the A.T. in Virginia, and after a long A.T. day hike near Marion on Sunday, I stayed overnight in an Abingdon motel.  I wanted to be back in Charlottesville before 4 PM on Monday, so I looked at first completing a couple of small southern sections of the A.T. that will be inconvenient to backpack as I finish up my last miles in the state.

Under freezing to start the hike.
One of these sections is 2 miles of A.T. between Elk Garden and the Mt. Rogers Trail, near the summit of Mt. Rogers.  I have twice hiked the A.T. north of the Mt. Rogers Trail, but always exited the A.T. at that point.  To get to the trailhead, I drove up Rt. 600, the Whitetop Mountain Road, to the A.T. crossing at Elk Garden, about 4 trail miles south of Mt. Rogers.  There is a large parking area at this point.  The Whitetop Mountain Road is the highest road in the state, ultimately leading to the top of Whitetop Mountain, the state's third highest peak, and one of only five peaks in Virginia that exceed 5,000 feet.

Southwest Virginia had seen localized snow a couple of nights before, and I had seen some of it on my Sunday hike. But it was much deeper at higher elevations - quite different from the peak colors in Charlottesville at the same time!  Getting out of the car at 7:25 AM, it seemed like winter, with the sun still very low on the horizon and snow drifts covering the parking area.  But the sky was cloudless, and the Johnson City, Tennessee TV Weatherman called for a high of 60 degrees and calm winds. It would not hit 60 on this mile high hike, but conditions were nevertheless ideal.
Snow and ice covered the parking lot.


The A.T. looking northbound at Elk Garden.  
Heading north, the hiker passes through an iron gate on the north side of the road, as this area is permitted grazeland.  LNT kind of goes out the window here - there is little I can do as a moving hiker that can create the damage that cattle create on the land.  And, while the impact on the land is great, it also means that trees cannot establish themselves and snuff out the views.






After cresting the first hill then dipping back down, the trail enters woods and passes through a cattle stile as it crosses the boundary for the Lewis Fork Wilderness.   It hugs the side of a ridge and, after about 2 miles, descends into Deep Gap.  Here, signs say that camping is prohibited, in order to allow the land to heal.  A very popular A.T. trail shelter used to be in Deep Gap, which I believe was taken down around the same time as the Thomas Knob Shelter, to the north and just outside the Wilderness boundary, was built.  The original Deep Gap Shelter has been dismantled and reconstructed nearby in the town of Damascus, Virginia.  My 1991 handbook had the Deep Gap Shelter still extant, and the Thomas Knob Shelter was not described.

Views to the west from Elk Garden, complete with a bench on the left.
Just after Deep Gap, I came to the intersection with the Mount Rogers Trail under deep forest cover.  This trail heads down the mountain to the Grindstone Campground, and is the exit route I had taken both previous times when I summited Mt. Rogers.

At this point, I had a decision to make, as this ended my unhiked portion of the A.T.  I could either continue to the summit and enjoy the already spectacular made even more impressive by recent snowfall, or I could stick with my original plan.  I decided that the snowfall had given this hike the potential to be one of those rare unforgettable experiences we all seek as hikers, and that sticking to my original plan would be an unfortunate example of rigidly sticking to plan, rather than letting life dictate the next move.

And it was a very beautiful hike!  I continued on the A.T., past the Mt. Rogers Spur Trail and briefly out of the Lewis Fork Wilderness, to the Thomas Knob Shelter, which I last visited while backpacking with my son's Boy Scout Troop in June 2012. On the trail to the shelter, I found an unopened can of Spam and two sets of telescoping tent poles.  I picked both up and hauled them out, because I did not feel an backpackers would realize their loss until much later.  So they were essentially trash - though I'll take the Spam to the local food bank.

It looked like it had been a cold night in the shelter for the three Alabama natives I encountered section hiking this portion of the trail.  Snow had blown into the shelter, and the picnic table had several inches of snow on top of it.

This would have been my best chance to see some wild horses, but none were to be seen today.  So, while I would not say this hike fell into the "unforgettable" category, I remain glad that I altered my schedule and hiked the entire way to this shelter.

After returning into the Lewis Fork Wilderness, I summited Mt. Rogers, using tracks that others had made, though I didn't see anyone else.  The summit was very different than the other times I had visited, once in June and once in September.  A comparison photo is shown below.  The Mt. Rogers summit has no attraction except to be able to say that you have been there.  If it weren't the tallest mountain in Virginia, probably nobody would be much interested in summiting.  In fact, during the early days of Virginia's existence, there were several other mountains that folks thought were the state's highest.  Whitetop Mountain, which I saw at the beginning of my hike, is much more spectacular.  Nevertheless, like every other time I have hiked in this area, I couldn't get this close without making my way to the summit.  I took a photo and headed back down.

In fact, I moved pretty quickly back to my car.  I didn't want to be late in Charlottesville, and my trail runners are not acceptable in this kind of hiking - my feet were wet almost from the start of my hike. I love my Hoka One Ones, but am going to have to come up with a new shoe for winter hiking.

I returned to the car and started driving back to Charlottesville at almost exactly noon.  This time, I took a route I have never taken before back to Interstate 81 - I stayed on Rt. 600 (Whitetop Road) all the way back to Chilhowee, where I accessed the interstate.  On my maps, this always looked like a minor road, but after driving it, I realized that this is the most direct access to this area.  It seemed much faster than any other access I've taken, and - combined with taking no stops, I was amazingly back in Charlottesville by 3:15.  Definitely a new record!

Drifts were occasionally deep, but the trail was easy to follow.

Leaves falling after the snowfall gave an unusual appearance

My old hikes met my new hike at this sign.

A passing backpacker took my photo.

The tree ahead has a white A.T. blaze, but it was easy to follow the tracks.

Panorama taken near the Mt. Rogers Spur Trail

Thomas Knob Shelter, just outside of the Lewis Fork Wilderness

Summer visit of Thomas Knob Shelter with the Scouts, in 2012.
Mt. Rogers summit
Summer visit to Mt. Rogers Summit.

Hike details.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 272.0
Total Distance: 10.1 miles.
Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes, including stops.

Starting Elevation: 4280 ft.  (higher than most high points in Virginia hikes)
Low Point: 4280 ft.
Highest Point: 5723 ft.
Difference: 1443 ft.

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