This hike is an extended version of the Wilburn Ridge/Pine Mountain loop that includes two overnight stays and an optional side trip to the Mount Rogers summit. This 2.5 day itinerary is set up for hikers with a long drive on the first and last day of the hike. Alternatively the hike can be completed in 2 days by staying overnight near the Scales or Wise Shelter, or by using the Pine Mountain Trail to shorten the route.
Note – The original Grindstone entrance to the Mount Rogers Tie Trail has been closed since 2011 due to a tornado blowdown. There is an unofficial, cleared (if overgrown) access route through the blowdown to reach the trail from the Grindstone Campground outlined below. An alternate route is to exit the campground through the main entrance and turn right to walk along the shoulder of Rte 603 for 0.4 miles to reach the Fairwood Valley trailhead at Mile 0.8.
Day One – 4.1 miles / 2.0 hours
Mile 0.0 – From the Grindstone parking lot, head back towards the entrance station and take a right onto the Opossum Hollow Loop followed by an immediate left. Take the gravel path opposite Site #10 and turn left 200 feet up the path at a small pile of stones to get onto the Mount Rogers Tie Trail. After 250 feet the trail enters the forest and becomes clear of underbrush and debris. In 300 yards the Tie Trail meets the blue-blazed Mount Rogers Trail. Turn left and follow it for 400 yards until it crosses Rte 603 and reaches the Fairwood Valley Trail, which is marked by a yellow vehicle barrier at the far end of the grassy parking area.
Mile 0.8 – Turn right onto the Fairwood Valley Horse Trail as it parallels Rte 603 for 1.8 miles, passing through a small pasture and crossing Fox Creek and Lewis Fork. At the Lewis Fork crossing there is a signed “High Water Route” along the roadside in the event that the creek is too high to cross.
Mile 2.6 – After passing the Lewis Fork and Old Orchard Horse Trails, the trail intersects the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Turn right onto the AT and cross Rte 603 at the Fox Creek parking lot.
Mile 4.1 – After intersecting the Old Orchard Horse Trail at Mile 3.4, the AT reaches the Old Orchard Shelter. There is a spring located 120 yards WSW of the shelter at the end of a blue-blazed trail, as well as a privy a short distance to the east. Numerous clearings and open spaces around the shelter provide plenty of space to set up tents for the night.
Day Two – 10.5 miles / 6.0 hours plus 0.5 hours for lunch
Mile 4.1 – Continue following the AT south past the Old Orchard Shelter, crossing the border of the Lewis Fork Wilderness several times as the trail heads uphill.
Mile 5.6 – Reach the crest of Pine Mountain, where the blue-blazed Pine Mountain Trail intersects the AT from the right. At this point, the hike can be shortened ~5.8 miles by taking the Pine Mountain Trail and following Miles 7.1 to 9.3 of the Wilburn Ridge/Pine Mountain hike to reconnect with the AT at Mile 13.6 below. Pass through a horse gate and continue following the AT as it veers eastward and descends.
Mile 8.0 – The AT passes through a horse gate and reenters the forest shortly before intersecting with the Bearpen Trail.
Mile 9.3 – The AT intersects the Scales Trail before crossing a plank bridge over Wilson Creek to an intersection with the Wilson Creek Trail. Shortly afterwards the trail crosses a second bridge over Big Wilson Creek.
Mile 10.1 – Turn right as the AT joins an old sunken road. The road runs parallel to the Grayson Highlands/Lewis Fork Wilderness border for 0.4 miles before the AT splits off at a horse gate to the left and crosses a plank bridge over the Quebec Branch. After crossing the stream, the trail begins to ascend Wilburn Ridge.
Mile 11.6 – The AT crosses the gravel Virginia Highlands Connector just north of Massie Gap. Continue following the white blazes as numerous horse trails and traces crisscross the ridge.
Mile 12.0 – The AT turns north and crosses an open field. Just past a wooden fence at the far side, the AT intersects with the Virginia Highlands Trail, Springs Trail, and Rhododendron Gap Trail.
Mile 12.4 – Turn left onto the dark-blue-on-light-blue blazed Wilburn Ridge Trail. The trail passes over the summit of Wilburn Ridge and runs parallel to the AT 50-100 yards to the east. This detour features several short rock scrambles and offers unparalleled views of the Mount Rogers area. Otherwise, continue following the AT to where the Wilburn Trail rejoins it in 0.7 miles.
Mile 13.0 – Reach the peak of Wilburn Ridge at ~5,520 feet. At the top of the trail there is a short path of loose rock to the right which offers an easy route to the summit. The trail descends the north side of the peak to rejoin the AT in 0.1 miles.
Note – There is a spring which can be reached by turning left down the Crest Trail and following it 0.2 miles downhill to the intersection with the Rhododendron Gap Trail. The Crest Trail spring is generally more dependable in dry months than the spring at Thomas Knob Shelter and may be used as a backup source of water.
Mile 14.6 – Reach Thomas Knob Shelter for the night. The shelter features a second story loft which can accommodate additional hikers. There is a small spring located 125 yards downhill behind the shelter by a fenced enclosure. A privy is located just past the shelter, and there are several campsites along the trail in either direction.
Optional Mt. Rogers Peak – 1.0 miles / 0.5 hours
The 0.5 mile blue-blazed Mount Rogers Spur Trail lies just past the Thomas Knob Shelter off the right of the AT. The Mt. Rogers summit is the highest point in Virginia at 5,729 feet, but the peak itself offers no views. Instead, the mountaintop is covered with a rare island of Fraiser firs and red cedar left over from the last Ice Age, which are found only on the highest sections of the Appalachians. This short detour can be taken at the end of Day Two or before setting out on Day Three.
Mile 14.7 – Turn right off the AT onto the blue-blazed Mount Rogers Spur Trail. In 0.25 miles the trail enters the spruce-fir forest surrounding the peak.
Mile 16.5 – The AT suddenly emerges onto a view across Deep Gap. The trail itself makes a 90 degree right turn and continues northward, remaining in the woods as it skirts the gap.
Mile 17.4 – Turn right off the AT onto the blue-blazed Mount Rogers Trail, which narrows and grows rockier as it continues around Mount Rogers.
Mile 18.4 – The trail turns northeast as it reaches Elk Ridge and levels out.
Mile 19.1 – The trail meets the Lewis Fork Trail and turns north. In 0.3 miles the trail begins to descend along four long switchbacks.
Mile 20.9 – Turn left onto the Mount Rogers Tie Trail to return to the Grindstone Campground.
Mile 21.5 – Return to the Grindstone parking lot.
Mt Rogers/Wilburn Ridge
Mt Rogers/Wilburn Ridge Hike Comments
Date of Hike: Friday, July 26, 2019
Did this loop backwards, starting from Fox Creek trailhead at 7am, as a one day loop. Moving time was 6hr 45minutes, but I had a light pack, didn't stop, and jogged on some of the easy downhills. It was quite a day but really worth it!
Took the high water route on the horse trail, walked through about 1000 spiderwebs on the Mt Rogers trail, and saw quite a few people out on the AT. I never needed to check my map as everything was really well marked! I did miss the Wilburn Ridge Trail turn off initially, but saw the blue blazes from across a field and managed to hop on it for the 2nd half. Really cool seeing the wild horses out there! Water sources were pretty plentiful and with a filter, I didn't need to carry more than a liter.
10/10 would recommend as a day hike if your fitness is there -- it was a fun day!
Date of Hike: Thursday, July 4, 2019
We did the 2 night backpacking trip starting at the Grindstone Campground. The trek was difficult, but the views made the trip worthwhile. For a holiday weekend, the loop was not crowded at all. There are several very nice camping spots just prior to the Thomas Knob shelter on the second day. There is a spring down over the hill from the bear box. Despite the constant threat of thunderstorms, it was a great weekend in the backcountry. I highly recommend this trek. IT WAS AWESOME!!!
Date of Hike: Sunday, May 26, 2019
I drove down Memorial Day weekend and started hiking Sunday late morning. Note: if you plan to park at Grindstone Campground, take cash as they cannot accommodate credit cards (but they are very friendly and there are water spigots to fill up your bottles). Once I got to the first trail marker, there were warnings about widespread bear activity, and admonitions to only camp with a bear canister OR store food at the bear boxes provided near shelters. That limited my camping options quite a bit. Once I got to Old Orchard, the register was full of reports of bear activity at the shelter for the past few weeks. As it was early, I decided to hike on to Wise Shelter. I didn't see a bear all weekend, but I did see scat in several spots.
The best part of the hike is the area between Wise shelter and Mt. Rogers, which has sweeping views and most of the ponies. I did the alternate .7 Wilburn trail with rock scrambles, which I highly recommend. I saw ponies (including 3 foals) in at least 4 or 5 different spots (5 of them were trying to eat the picnic table at Thomas Knob shelter). The spur trail to the summit of Mt. Rogers is also worth the time, despite the lack of a view at the top. I also thought that Fat Man Squeeze and that area would be on this hike, but it was not. Still lots of enjoyable trail though. Aside from that central section of this hike, the AT is its usual green tunnel a lot of the time, but still enjoyable for all that. If you do the hike exactly as described above, it's a pretty relaxed schedule. I did it in two days and got back to my car around 3:30 pm on Monday.
As to be expected, there were a lot of people in the parks Sunday and Monday, but I did not get a sense of overcrowding.
Date of Hike: Saturday, November 3, 2018
This was a truly spectacular backpacking trip! My friend and I did it over the course of two days, starting from that second parking lot - which was considerably full at a start time of 11am. The area had gotten snow the night before - just a dusting at the Old Orchard Shelter but accumulating the more elevation we gained it made for some spectacular views as well as chilly temperatures. We chose to camp overnight in a clearing less than a quarter mile before the chosen shelter because it became clear VERY QUICKLY that all the closer campsites were full. The trail club maintaining the area has set up an electric fence for bear bags in said clearing which was a beautiful sight considering the trees aren't the best for bear bags and the significant number of signs all along the trail warning about bear activity. Stick around and let the mountains wow you with a sunset/sunrise AND THE GODDAMN MILKY WAY!!! We did Mt Rogers in the morning and don't regret it, the area may not have views but it was an easy addition, the trees were beautiful, and it smelt like Christmas all along the trail!! I can't stop raving about the ponies - we kept thinking it was over and SEEING SO MANY MORE - and the wonderful time we had despite the cold and several knee-killing climbs. Definitely looking forward to doing this again.
By:Dan and Aaron
Date of Hike: Thursday, July 26, 2018
We did this hike backwards and took care of most of the elevation on the first day. We originally were going to do three days and two nights but ended up doing it in two days. The hike up the Mount Rogers trail was not as difficult as we anticipated and made it to Thomas Knob shelter in about 5 hours. There are many good campsites before and after the shelter, but the water source behind it is difficult to get to. After setting up our tents we backtracked and hiked to the top of Mount Rogers. It was worth taking the side trip. Day two was as enjoyable as the first day and we continued to marvel at the incredible views, scenery, and topography. We particularly enjoyed hiking in the wide open spaces and did get excited when we saw the ponies and cattle wandering on the trails. If you’re going to spend a second night you’ll find many good tent sites around Wise shelter and Old Orchard shelter. This was the best backpacking trip we’ve been on and we plan on going there again.
Date of Hike: Monday, June 4, 2018
We began our week long backpacking adventure with great anticipation. We stopped at the ranger station and were told of some bear activity around Rodo Gap Trail and Thomas Knob Shelter. The Nation Forest Service has placed an electric fence with a bear proof metal box inside the fence at the Thomas Knob Shelter and just north of the shelter they placed an electric fence but without the bear proof box. We camped north of the shelter and placed our BV450 Bear Vault inside the fence. One other couple placed their BV450 in the fence along with another individual placing a Bear Bag. Awaking Tuesday morning to our surprise out Vault was outside the fence and all our food eaten except for the coffee and the lid bitten and clawed open. The other couples BV450 was opened in the exact same manner and their food eaten. So, nothing to do but hike out with one nutrition bar between us and return home to re-supply. We reported this to the ranger station and they took pictures telling us they would make a report to the NFS. Grayson Highlands and the surrounding territory will always be favorite but be aware a bear or bears can open the BV450 Bear Vault.
By:Adventures in Roamance
Date of Hike: Thursday, November 23, 2017
This is probably my favorite hike on the east coast (in the states anyway). The wild ponies were definitely the highlight. Be careful and pay attention to the route - we ended up getting lost more than once. I reviewed the trail in more detail here: https://adventuresinroamance.com/backpacking-in-the-south/
Date of Hike: Saturday, August 5, 2017
So I just want to start out saying that me and my friend ended up doing this hike in reverse which I believe was probably easier than what is directed here. With that being said, this would be a very difficult hike for a beginner or for anyone with good backpacking experience. Besides the physical nature of this hike, I rated it as a 5 five because of the views! The entire hike is wandering through old growth forest and hiking along ridgeline through high mountain open balds. It reminded me a lot of Dolly Sods. There are quite a few people on the AT once you get closer to the entrance of Grayson Highlands State Park but the majority of the hike is pretty private. There are some of best campsites I have ever seen near the Thomas Knob shelter. Can't wait to come back out here and do the 40 mile sister hike.
Date of Hike: Saturday, May 27, 2017
I agree with the last reviewer (Ken). This hike is not for new backpackers. This was our troops last training backpack before Philmont. We arrived late and parked in the Fox Creek AT trail head which saved us ~ 2 miles. Followed the HU plan from there. Day two is a beast with almost 3000' of elevation gain over 10-12 miles (the AT map and the markers seem to be in disagreement). The 1.5 miles leading up to the Thomas Shelter has great camping sites. Hint if you are passing lots of tents way before the shelter assume it will be full and the sites around it taken. So you may want to grab a tent site. As mentioned in the HU trail guide there are lots of ways to cut this hike up and make it easier with many trails and cut offs. Scenery is great. Having hiked a lot of the AT from Peaks of Otter to Reeds Gap this beats those sections by far.
Date of Hike: Saturday, July 23, 2016
The hike was great, but the one thing I would say, is that this loop is not an easy hike. We took a group of 21 scouts and adults, ranging from 13 to 53 and ranging at all levels of fitness and experience. The majority of the second day of the hike is uphill, with lot's of "stairs", along with a fair amount of very tricky terrain. It turned out to be almost beyond my capabilities, which granted, are on the lower side of most hikers that are out there.
The positives were the camping areas were good. Access to water was good at Old Orchard, a rather full creek made a great spot for lunch and refills on day 2. the water access at Thomas Knob was a bit more challenging, as it involved going about 20 years down a rather steep hill. Thomas Knob, however, had a privy. The hike down to Grindstone was, for me at least, the easiest of the three days, even though I was sore and tired, as the last half was mostly smooth trails in a gradual decline.
Best parts were the views, being in nature and unplugged, and the ponies. The scouts loved this hike, as did most of the adults. A couple of the less fit among us were suffering by the third day. But that is why we do this, to grow and learn.