Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Mount Rogers Backpacking: Views, Ponies, and Crowds

We spent the long weekend backpacking with two friends along the Appalachian Trail in the Mount Rogers area. After the long drive (Virginia is a big state, in case anyone was wondering) and setting up the car shuttle on Friday, we set off from Beartree Lake Campground. It was actually a little chilly when we left, but we quickly warmed up as we walked. Our destination for the night was Lost Mountain Shelter on the Appalachian Trail. We made good time, covering 4.5 miles in just about two hours. The shelter looked nice and no one else was there. We contemplated sleeping in it for a minute or two, but then we discovered lots of evidence of mouse activity and went off to set up our tents.

We spent a pleasant night there and woke up to a bright morning. After breakfast, our hike started with an encounter with some disgruntled yellowjackets. Their nest was right in the side of the trail and they were none too happy with our presence. I got stung once and Michael was stung three times. After that, we had a five mile climb that took the rest of the morning. Eventually, we reached Buzzard Rock, where we stopped for lunch. This spot was the first indication that where we were hiking had more in common with Old Rag than with the solitude we experienced at Roaring Plains two weeks ago. Buzzard Rock sits in an open bald below the summit of Whitetop Mountain and it has great views of the surrounding mountains. Buzzard Rock is also close to a road, so we shared our lunch spot with a fair number of people. At this point, one of our friends started counting people and dogs. Before we lost count near the end of the day, we were well over 50 people (and seven dogs) and there were likely a couple of hundred more where we wound up camping (more on that in a bit).

The walk from Buzzard Rock to the Mount Rogers spur trail was beautiful. We periodically passed through balds where we had spectacular views. Then the trail would take us back into the forest, which was nice and cool in contrast to the (relatively) hot sun on the balds. Towards the end of the day, we started looking for campsites, based on the advice of people we had passed. We finally found one just before the Mount Rogers spur trail, but it wasn't very nice: not very flat and not really enough room for two tents. It was also dark since it was under pine trees. I went with one of our friends to look for a better one while Michael and our other friend held it just in case. Nothing prepared me for the number of people camped just north of the spur trail. It was amazing. Pretty much every square of flat ground not covered in blackberries or fir trees had at least one tent on it. There is a shelter up there, too, but we were trying to avoid it because of mouse issues.

We were discussing the No Room at the Inn situation when two guys with a great campsite offered to share. After a bit of discussion, we decided to take them up on the offer. Our campsite wasn't going to be pleasant and they seemed like nice guys. The site was a little bit too small for two additional tents, so we laid out tarps and sleeping bags to sleep under the stars. Our campsite hosts were great company for the night. We shared cookies and hot chocolate to thank them for making room for us. We were treated to a great sunset and the stars (at ~5,300 feet) were amazing that night. We even saw a few shooting stars.
 Helenium autumnale (Sneezeweed).
Rhododendrons along the trail.
 The view from Buzzard Rock.
 Standing on one of the boulders at Buzzard Rock.
Epifagus virginiana (Beechdrops). We saw this little plant a lot along the trail. It is a parasite that feeds on Beech tree roots.
Thistle plant in a pasture at Elk Gardens
The trail between Buzzard Rock and Mount Rogers
Sunset from our campsite.

We woke up to a nice sunset in the morning. Everything was damp from fog that rolled through during the night, so we ate breakfast and hung gear up to dry. We left it there while we hiked up to the summit of Mount Rogers, which is the highest point in Virginia at 5,728 feet. There isn't a view at the summit, but it is a nice walk through a remnant grove of firs.

We returned to our campsite, packed up, and continued our journey north. The landscape was actually more incredible than the day before - wide open and filled with large rock formations. It was also filled with a steady stream of backpackers and dayhikers headed for the summit. Eventually, we saw the famous Grayson Highlands ponies. They are pretty cute. It is sort of interesting: The area was heavily logged and then heavily grazed. After it became a state park, ponies were released to maintain the balds. The balds are beautiful and allow for great views and they are entirely human-created.

The crowds were pretty overwhelming at this point, so it was a relief to pass a trail junction leading to a nearby parking lot. After that, we saw many fewer people, although we still passed groups of backpackers every five to ten minutes. We took a lunch break near a pleasant stream. The area near the Scales (a place that ranchers used to bring their cattle to have them weighed) was another open bald with a great view of Mount Rogers and the ridge we had walked down that day. We spent the night near Old Orchard Shelter.
 Sleeping under the stars.
Sunrise at our campsite. I will never get tired of being up on mountains looking down on clouds below.
The benchmark on top of Mount Rogers.
Michael on the trail in Grayson Highlands. This area was amazing.
 Sneezeweed in Grayson Highlands.
 I put this one in just to show the crowds around the ponies.
One of the more charismatic ponies in Grayson Highlands.
 Michael and a pony passing each other on the trail.
Michael crossing a style over a fence.
A somewhat skinny cow at the Scales.

Monday morning, we hiked a quick four miles to the car before driving home. This was a great trip. I'm so glad we made the long drive and I would love to get back down there to explore more of the area, especially in the state park. However, I probably won't do that on a holiday weekend again because of the crowds. I'm glad we went, though. The scenery was amazing and we got to share a campsite with two great guys from Lynchburg, Virginia.

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