Hiking the Highlands of Virginia

There is a tradition for ‘Rat Patrol‘ to take some time off every year and go hiking sometime around his birthday.  Last year, him and I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Devil Fork Gap to Allen Gap–a 20-mile stretch over Flint, Coldspring, and Viking Mountains–all part of the Bald Mountain Chain of the Appalachians (see ‘Birthday Hike 2008‘ in the photo gallery).  This year, despite having an opportunity to hike the southern section of the Smoky Mountains with some friends, he decided to hike a 40-mile stretch of the Virginia Highlands from ‘Fox Creek’ to Damascus.


We rendezvoused at ‘Hairnt Quarters’ shortly after noon on September 9th, the day after his birthday, and drove over the mountain into Virginia to meet up with friends there.  After a brief stop at the ‘Backbone Rock’ to take photos of the falls, we arrived in Damascus and found ‘Legs’ a short time later at Hoppie and Birdie’s place.  Gecko found us soon afterward, and drove Rat, Legs, and myself to the Appalachian Trailhead at Fox Creek in his Chevy truck.  From there we began our trek southward towards Damascus.


We didn’t go far the first day out, as it was already well into the afternoon when we started, and it is always a good idea to get acclimated to the trail the first day or two, and not overdo it, and perhaps injure yourself.  Our packs were not light, but not as heavy as usual; mine weighing in at 40 lbs, Rat’s at 42, and Legs’ pack about the same.  Anyway, the three of us decided to camp at Old Orchard Shelter the first night out.  Rat was showing off his new titanium-coated cook-pot and his ‘sham-wow’, while Legs rehydrated after drinking beer most of the day, carrying a cup all the way to Old Orchard.


The night was coming on quickly, and we had good views of the sunset over Iron Mountain in the distance, when Legs first discovered the large owl hanging out in the tree right beside the shelter.  I have never seen an owl so self-assured and fearless, staying in the nearby tree watching us even after we obviously had noticed her, and attempted to take photos, even.  There was also a bat that flew around the shelter—we were grateful for the protection of the hunters, realizing that it wasn’t likely that the mice or mosquitoes would be bothering us there.  Sometime after dark, I noticed a light coming down the hill toward the shelter; it was a hiker named ‘Super Dave’ (we later re-named him ‘Double-D’, although I can’t recall exactly why) that had walked all the way from ‘Elk Garden’ that day, after getting caught up in a torrential rainstorm the night before.  We made room for him to camp with us inside the shelter, then the rain began, and the snore-fest ensued soon afterward.  It rained all night.

We got a late start the next morning, but managed to hike through the tenacious cloud and wind that gripped the mountain, and over Pine Mountain, through Scales, and on through the meadow/ridge into the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness, eating delicious blueberries and petting wild ponies along the way.  We ended up at the Wise Shelter, having walked 6 miles, and decided to camp there for the night.  Again, the rains fell and lasted all night, and it actually got quite chilly.


The next day, we started off for the spectacular Wilburn Ridge in the Grayson Highlands.  A few F-15’s’s, or some such military aircraft (they were like rockets with wings), flew up the valley and beyond the mountain, which somewhat startled and impressed us.  Since it was September 11th, we were a bit concerned until we eventually heard other aircraft flying around (Rat, who was ahead of me and higher up on the ridge than I, claimed that they were doing ‘barrel-rolls’, but I have my doubts).  The weather had cleared and we were blessed with spectacular views all day.

Climbing the majestic Wilburn Ridge is awe-inspiring and somewhat spiritual in nature, reminiscent of Stonehenge, or some ancient Scottish wonderland.  Onward and up through the Highlands we ascended, marveling at the remarkable scenery.


It had been 12 years, perhaps 13, since the last time I had hiked up and over the ridge, and I remembered that it was very impressive, but I forgot just how amazing.  Everything was going quite well, the sun was out and the views were extraordinary–the only bad part of the hike that day was that Legs wasn’t feeling well, and decided to walk down into Massie Gap and catch a ride back to Damascus.  Rat and I, however, went on over the ridge and through the thickly-grown alpine fir trees on Mount Rogers, getting our first glimpses of White Top Mountain in the distance.


We took several breaks along the way, one on top of Wilburn Ridge, to take in everything we had walked that day so far, another on top of the incredible cliff (which gave me vertigo) approaching Mount Rogers, and another at the Thomas Knob Shelter for snacks and water.  We decided to continue hiking on from there (a 6-mile trek that day) to see many more wild ponies and astonishing views, before deciding to make camp beside the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail near Deep Gap.


Although we missed our trail-friend, Legs, we set up our tents and cooked a fine trail supper, enjoying a restful evening.  The night started out well; the stars were plentiful and bright, but the rains came later, and we both had to get up and fortify our little shelters with tarps.  I was actually sleeping under a rain fly, as the tent I sometimes carry is way too heavy for backpacking, but with the extra tarps, everything, including myself, stayed dry. Rat didn’t seem to have any problems either.  Sometime during the night, we were visited by another owl, which perched in the tree above me and hooted for quite awhile, but both of us were too tired to get up and appraise the night bird’s stealth.


We had a bit of trouble finding water the next morning, but I still had a few ounces left when a nice couple in Elk Garden gave us both a bottle each.  We found a spring about a quarter mile up the hill, on our approach to Whitetop Mountain.  2009 has been a great year for hiking, I must say, even with all the rain, as the springs everywhere, even on the mountain tops were running quite well, even late into the summer season. After enduring years upon years of drought, it is nice to have the luxury of not having to carry the extra poundage of water up steep mountain slopes.  Water is quite heavy.


On our ascent up White Top Mountain, we re-entered the balsam jungle, and then skirted the summit through a colorful, flowering meadow and took a break out on ‘Buzzard Rock’, where we enjoyed a marvelous view of the Iron Mountain Chain, the deep valley, and could even glimpse the trail ahead of us.


From there, we descended down the mountain, crossing ‘601’, where we re-filled our water bottles at the spring box, before trekking through a nice farm where we encountered a bull and a few curious cows.  I was astounded at the size and age of the locust trees there—some of the oldest and largest I have ever seen.  Anyway, we continued on beyond Highway 58, enduring a few steep climbs, to the Lost Mountain Shelter where we set up our tents and tarps in the pines behind it, since they were still wet, having walked 11 miles that day.  I arrived just before twilight, and Rat dragged in about 10 minutes later, looking rather tired.  The weather was great, and it did not rain that night.


The next morning was beautiful, also; Rat was the first one to get up and start moving around, as the sun rose through the trees on Lost Mountain. I was a bit surprised by his readiness, expecting to be able to sleep in for another hour, or so.  But, he was motivated to start hiking, and we both knew we were still about 15 miles from Damascus, where we intended to be by the end of the day.


After the first 3 miles, we met up with the Virginia Creeper Trail, and began walking on it, traversing over several trestles, while dozens of bikers effortlessly passed us by.  We found an impressive set of cascades and waterfalls with a nice swimming-hole, and having been out on the trail for several days, I was very tempted to strip down, rinse off, and swim.  But, we were on a tight schedule, and we returned to trekking– all set and motivated for the ‘Death March to Damascus’ when one of the bikers traveling up the Creeper Trail told us of a bearded guy in Taylors Valley who was waiting for us with beer!  Legs!  Rat poured out his water and blasted off, like an F-15 over Mount Rogers, and that was the last I saw of him until I reached Taylors Valley, two miles later.  Legs saved me a PBR, another thing for which I was grateful for–besides saving us both 7 more miles of walking.


We visited a few friends at the Lazy Fox while waiting for Rat’s girlfriend to arrive, and later ate a good meal at Quincy’s while we were still in town.  Good times with good people…

In the end, we had walked approximately 33 miles over the most awe-inspiring trails; the Virginia Highlands are so beautiful!  As Rat had commented while hiking over Mount Rogers; ‘It is like walking through a (Bob) Ross painting…’ I would go back tomorrow, if I could.  Surely it will not be another 12 years before I return there—at least I hope not.


For another perspective on this remarkable hike, check out Rat Patrol’s personal blog ‘here’.

To view the Virginia Highland photo gallery, go ‘here‘.

More adventures soon…


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