Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands Loop Backpacking Guide

grayson highland mountains

The Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands loop hike is an iconic section of the Appalachian Trail, located in the southwestern hills of Virginia within the Jefferson National Forest. It also crosses over into the bordering Grayson Highlands State Park. The region was once home to early settlers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many areas are named after these settlers. Massie Gap takes its name from Lee Massey, who lived in the gap with his family. The Wilburn Ridge is named after the famed bear and wolf hunter Wilburn Waters.

Today this region is best known for its vast mountain views and alpine peaks with wild ponies roaming about. This area is also home to Virginia's highest point, Mount Rogers, sitting at 5,729'. Additionally, there are many rock outcroppings on the trail that you can enjoy hiking through. This is a premier east-coast backpacking destination. With so many different things to see and experience, going on a trip like this will no doubt be a memorable one.        

Trail Facts

  • Length: 21.1 Miles

  • Duration: 2-3 Days

  • Best Time: Spring or Fall

  • Difficulty Level: Moderate

  • Bear Canisters: Not Required but Recommended

  • Permits: Not Required

Highlights

  • Wild Ponies

  • Spectacular Mountain Views

  • Unique Rock Formations

  • Grassy Meadows

  • Rhododendron-Filled Forests

  • Appalachian Trail Community

grayson highland wild pony

Maps

There are many different options to help navigate yourself on this trail. My favorite is the offline digital maps that you can download on to your mobile device, like the Avenza app. For a hard copy map I always recommend the National Geographic water proof maps. See the link below.   

 

Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands Slideshow

Parking & Accommodations

Parking is available at the Mount Rogers trailhead off of Rt. 603 for no fee. However, some hikers in the past have reported car brake-ins at this trailhead. When I hiked this trip, I did choose to park there and had no problems. But if you want some peace of mind, the nearby Grindstone Campground will let you park inside the grounds for $3/night per vehicle.

If your traveling far and need a place to stay before or after your hike, I recommend camping at the Grindstone Campground. It's a really nice Campground where you can get a shower and rest up.

  • Campsites Starting at $24 Per Night

Terrain

With Mount Rogers being 5,729' you can expect a decent climb at that particular location, but nothing too extreme to be overly concerned about. The overall terrain is fairly easy to hike. The only other section of the trail that you will have to be careful of is at the Wilburn Ridge area. It gets a little rocky there.

appalachian trail grayson highlands

 Dangers

Weather is probably the biggest danger. Even though the Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands area is pretty far south, they do receive a lot of cold weather because of the higher elevation. On my first backpacking trip to this area it snowed on top of the mountain and dropped to the low 20s in mid October. This area is also known for high winds. Make sure to check the weather at mountain-forecast.com

Another thing to keep in mind when camping near or at the Thomas Knob shelter, is that the wild ponies will steal your bear bag if you don't store it properly overnight. This is what happened with two hikers on one occasion. After looking for two hours they were unable to find their bear bags. The problem is that there are very few trees tall enough to hang your bear bag from. The best and safest solution is to have a bear canister.    

 

Bugs

The Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands area is known to be windy and that helps keep most bugs at bay. However, if it’s been an unusually rainy season, certainly things could change in this regard. It is always good practice to bring some bug repellent with you, because you never know. I recommend using DEET or a natural insect repellent made from lemon and eucalyptus.         

 
Mountain view grayson highlands

Water Sources

There is an abundance of water on this particular trail. As long as you bring 2 liters of water you will be fine. I've marked several good dependable water sources on the map below so you can plan accordingly. Make sure to bring a good water filter like the Sawyer Squeeze or Mini because bacteria is a concern for these streams.  

 

Camp Spots

Since most of the loop follows the Appalachian Trail, there are many good camping spots through out. But the best spots can be found close to the Thomas Knob Shelter. They are out in the open with beautiful mountain views. Refer to the map below to see where they are specifically located.  

Mount rogers camp spot

Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands Video

Trip Itinerary

Day 1:

  • Start at the Mount Rogers Trailhead off of Route 603

  • Hike for 4.1 miles uphill on the Mount Rogers Trail through forested terrain

  • Turn left on the Appalachian Trail and hike for 3 miles

  • Turn left again onto an optional spur (side) trail to Mount Rogers Summit (no view from the top)

  • Retrace your steps back to the Appalachian trail and turn left which will eventually lead you to many open views of the mountains

  • Stay at the Thomas Knob Shelter or camp at one of the many tent sites in the highland meadows area

Day 2:

  • Hike 10.5 miles through highland meadows with rocky outcroppings. Then you will hike your way into more forested terrain

  • Stay at the Old Orchard Shelter or find yourself a tent site nearby

Day 3:

  • Hike 1.9 miles down hill to Route 603.

  • Cross the road and turn left onto the Fairwood Trail and hike for 1.8 miles to where the Mount Rogers trailhead parking lot is. This completes your hike

Do you have a question about backpacking the Mt Rogers/Grayson Highlands Loop? Leave a comment down below

Disclaimer

Some of the links above are affiliate links. If you click on them and purchase an item, I'll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps me to continually make content and keep this site going. Thanks for the support!