#14  Mount Rogers, Virginia (5,729 ft.)

Mount Rogers is one of my favorite highpoints, not least because it's a relatively easy hike and it's in my home state. The countryside is gorgeous, moreover; Grayson Highlands State Park is a gem, and the summit is miraculously unspoiled by any tower, road, pavement, or structure of any kind. And yes, there are wild ponies there. Ponies!

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The venerable Appalachian Trail passes through Grayson Highlands on its way south to Springer Mountain and north to Katahdin.There is a little cave that you have to pass through mid-hike, and the famous white blaze is right there on the rock. I got a kick out of that.

Several north-bound thru-hikers I've met over the years have told me this section of the AT was among their favorites, and I can see why. The trail undulates but is not too taxing, and the scenery reminds you of Ireland, with open vistas onto cropped meadows, weathered rocks, and low, colorful trees.

To get to Grayson Highlands you usually end up on Route 58, most of which forms part of what is known as the Old Crooked Road, Virginia's "old-timey" music turnpike of fame. The road itself is indeed crooked, and certain sections are known to be more lethal than others. Bound up with the music of the area was a history of moonshining and bootlegging: the bootleggers would whip around their cars in 180-degree "bootleg" turns and then shine their headlights toward pursuing revenuers to escape. More on the legacy of Virginia country music and bootlegging (the antecedent, some claim, of NASCAR) can be found in this excellent article in Smithsonian magazine by Abigail Tucker (no relation to the Dolley Llama), whence I poached some of the facts above.

I happened to catch Mount Rogers on a moody day of low clouds and mist, but there was no substantial rain and the autumn colors were brilliant in the damp. The ponies were out, too; the black-and-white fellow I nicknamed Freddy followed me around the pasture, probably after smelling my peanut butter.


Dolley Shot: The Marauding Ponies of Grayson Highlands State Park

To reach the summit you leave the AT and follow a short spur trail through an ecological island of spruces and spongy needles underfoot, which is unlike anything else in the surrounding acres. There are no views from the top, but in its isolation the spot feels secretly majestic nonetheless: an Appalachian sacred glade.

Mount Rogers was the first highpoint my father and I did on an epic tour through the South in pursuit of six states in three days (VA, KY, TN, GA, SC, and NC). Although Dad is not much of a hiker, you can glimpse him in the slideshow testing out the trail. I think he enjoyed Mount Rogers most of all, and in that sentiment, at least, we were in complete agreement.

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