Chilly Spring Weekend at Mt Rogers


I can’t believe it’s been a year since our last overnight hike together, but 2017 sort of got away from us. Between helping get the kiddo moved to Tuscaloosa, visiting family far away, and plenty of regular old work, we never got another chance.

So we rectified that with a two night backpacking trip to our favorite local destination, the Mt Rogers National Recreation Area in Virginia. It’s an easy two hour drive to Grayson Highlands State Park, where we parked the car in the backpacker lot at Massey Gap, and we were hiking before 6:30 Friday evening.

Spring has been late this year, and even with warming temperatures back home, it was still late winter in the high country. Trees were bare, and early flowers like the spring beauties were only blooming down low. It was under 50F when we left the car, and in the 40s while we sat and watched the sun set at our campsite on Wilburn Ridge. The brisk wind  made it feel much colder, of course, so we were in the tent before 9pm, trying to get warm. Had something of a chilly night (well, one of us did), and woke to semi-frozen water bottles and a glorious sunrise. I made coffee while Dragonfly packed things up in the tent, but we left the quilt out for her to stay warm while we ate hot oatmeal for breakfast. The forecast for the day was for clear blue skies and warming in the afternoon, so we packed up and started climbing Wilburn Ridge toward Rhododendron Gap. We still weren’t too sure of our route – just that we wanted to be camped somewhere near Wise Shelter later that evening. At Rhodo Gap, Dragonfly looked at the map and thought that the clockwise route all the way around Mt Rogers looked doable, so we saddled back up and headed south on the Appalachian Trail toward the Thomas Knob Shelter. There we got some water from the spring, used the very nice privy (this area gets a lot of use), and kept heading south on the AT. We passed a lot of backpackers on the way.

We stopped for lunch in a large clearing overlooking Briar Ridge and the Virginia Highland Horse Trail. Had little packets of almond butter and chocolate/hazelnut spread, dried bananas, and tortillas. Kind of dry and hard to eat — maybe fresh apples would be better in this. Then we hiked down to Deep Gap, where we took the right turn onto the Mt Rogers National Scenic Trail. It’s not remotely scenic — it’s a connector trail that runs four miles up from Grindstone Campground to the AT at Deep Gap. Halfway down, there is a connection with the Lewis Fork Trail, which offers a choice of upward toward Pine Mountain, or down towards the Old Orchard Shelter on the AT. We chose upward. Most of the trail is an old road bed, so it’s wide and well graded, and there was plenty of water coming out of the mountain. The last half mile or so gets off the road and so it gets a lot steeper climbing up toward the saddle in the middle of Pine Mountain, where the LFT intersects the Pine Mountain Trail and the Crest Trail.

Walking up the old road we went through some open woods. Dragonfly heard some vireos calling, so we stopped and looked for them. We had terrific views of a male blue headed vireo, then she saw a male yellow-rumped warbler in full breeding plumage. While I was looking for that with the binoculars, I spotted a male hooded warbler — a spectacular wood warbler, who then spent ten minutes showing off his bright colors as we watched. (The photos at the link do not do him justice. He was stunning.)

We had planned to spend the night at that saddle. It’s a popular spot, with good water at a couple of springs, nice views, and plenty of tent sites. But we arrived at 3:00, too early to stop for the day. So we got some water and took the Crest Trail, toward Scales, where it intersects the AT and a couple of other horse trails. The Crest Trail is mostly in the open, and it has terrific views of the area. Lots of hikers here, too, mostly large groups of kids. After we stopped at Scales, we headed on yet another horse trail, the Scales Trail, back toward the state park and the Little Wilson Creek area. On a previous trip, we had noticed a terrific little campsite well off the AT down near Little Wilson Creek. Even with all the hikers in the area, the site was far enough off the trail that no one was there when we arrived around 5:30. Got the tent up, changed clothes, and made dinner, then we sat around in the cool air as the sun set over the ridge above us. Had some chocolates and a wee nip of Scotch before heading off to the tent. Temps overnight were warmer, though we still had a hard frost on the tent in the morning – but no ice in the water bottles.

Dinner was one of my personal favorites: a Knorr “Broccoli Alfredo” noodles and sauce meal, to which we added dried tomatoes, freeze-dried peas, and half a bag of real bacon pieces. Sort of a backcountry fettuccini carbonara. We shared it, but on a longer hike I could have eaten the whole thing in about five minutes.

Got up early Sunday morning to a cool, bright morning. With no breeze, it was warm enough to sit out with our coffee and some granola for a bit before packing up. Headed back to the car, and we were home before noon. Ended up with about 15 miles for the weekend, more than 12 of them on Saturday. Came back down the mountain refreshed and ready to do it again.


Gear Notes: As usual, the first trip of the year always presents some gear issues. I like to putter around and check all the gear before a trip, make sure everything is working, etc., and I mostly did that. Of course, the one thing I didn’t check was our water filter, which did not work at all (it’s the regular Sawyer filter, so I’m sending it back for a replacement. It shouldn’t ever fail.) I do carry chlorine dioxide tablets for a backup, and we used them all weekend.

The Zpacks Triplex tent is still working very well, easy to set up and spacious. Zpacks stuff is expensive, but if you have the money I think this tent is worth it. A couple of years ago we switched from individual sleeping bags and pads to a shared quilt and a double sleeping pad (the Exped Ultralight.) This saves at least two pounds in total weight, but it’s not without some challenges, especially as the lows get down below freezing at night. Just like at home, when one person moves, it can suck cold air inside any gaps, or pull the covers off the other person — which is mildly annoying at home with the thermostat at 64, but far more so when it’s 30 degrees out. On the upside, the sleeping pad did very well in the cold. It has some insulation built-in, and we never had any cold spots under us.