AT Hike through Mount Roger NRA

Trip Start Aug 19, 2012
Trip End Dec 30, 2013

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Where I stayed
Grayson Highlands State Park
What I did
Mount Rogers National Recreation Area
Buzzard Rock
Elk Gardens
Rhododendron Gap

Flag of United States  , Virginia
Saturday, June 22, 2013

Saturday morning, we woke up early, had breakfast, and got ready for a long hike.  We started by leaving two cars at the Massie Gap parking area in Grayson Highlands, then drove to our starting point on Beech Mountain Road (SR-601), about 14 miles from the park in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.  Once we were all ready, we started hiking up the Appalachian Trail.   And up and up.  The first couple of miles of this hike were quite steep as we hiked up towards Whitetop Mountain, gaining about 1500 feet in elevation in less than 3 miles.  The forest was thick during most of this climb, until we reached a clearing near Buzzard Rock.  The exposed hilltop and rock outcroppings provided fantastic views of the mountains in all directions and we stopped at Buzzard Rock to have a snack and enjoy the views.  There were several flame azaleas in full bloom adding a beautiful orange color to the otherwise green landscape.  But we still had quite a bit of ground to cover, so we couldn't stay too long.   We continued on the trail around Whitetop mountain, the second highest point in Virginia.  We didn't climb to the top, but followed the AT around the southern end of Whitetop and eventually down towards Elk Garden.  Along the trail here, we saw some interesting mushrooms that were growing on a dead log and actually pushing the moss off as they grew.  There were quite of few of these mushrooms along this stretch of trail.  After a little bit longer, we came down a ways and came out on Whitetop Road (SR-600) at Elk Gardens.  There is a parking area here with a restroom, and so made a good spot to stop for lunch.  Although the area is very open, a large tree provided some shade to escape the sun for our lunch.  After lunch, we continued on through Elk Gardens.  From the parking area, the trail headed up through an open area for a short ways.  Here we saw our first wild pony, who was strangely alone.  Usually, the ponies graze in herds, but this guy was alone.  We got some pictures, although the pony was a little aggressive and was trying to eat the cameras.  So we continued on through Elk Gardens and heading into the forested area past Deep gap and towards Mount Rogers.  We took a brief rest stop at a spot where a spur trail leads to an open area along the Virginia Horse Trail and then continued to the Mount Rogers Spur Trail.   A few in the group made the trip up to the summit of Mount Rogers, but the rest of us took a break at the Thomas Knob shelter.  More great panoramic views from behind the shelter and some Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies were eating nectar from the many wild blackberries growing in the area.  Strangely, we had yet to see blooming rhododendron.  But that was change soon.  Once everyone regrouped at the shelter, we continued on to  Rhododendron Gap.  Although it was later than usual, on account of the mild spring, the rhododendrons were peaking this weekend and were absolutely beautiful.  Approaching the gap, the rhododendron flowers were getting thicker and thicker, until we reached the outcrop and it was pink flowers as far as the eye could see.  We climbed up onto the rocks and enjoyed the wonderful views for a bit, then started making our way back to Grayson Highlands.  Unfortunately, it was getting late and we didn't have quite enough time to stay here.  Traveling  over Wilburn Ridge, many more rhododendron were blooming.  And when we crossed into  Grayson Highlands State Park, we immediately saw a herd of ponies, including my favorite, Fabio.  Of course we had to stop and greet the ponies and get some pictures, and then made our way down to Massie Gap to our waiting cars.  We shuttled to get all the cars back and took a very enjoyable shower before eating dinner and heading to bed.  Grayson Highlands is really luxury camping.  The handicapped shower has a detachable massaging shower head with a seat, so I could massage my sore feet in the shower, forgetting for a moment that we were camping.  This weekend had the super moon, the closest a full moon comes to earth.  After my shower, I took the camera down to the open field in the campground and got some pictures of the moon.  But soon after the sun went down completely, I was ready to pass out after a very long day.
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