Appalachian Highs

Sometimes, when life gets you down, you just have to get high. Real high. Naturally. A change in altitude can give you a lift in attitude!

We recently traveled to Tennessee for a wedding and allowed a few extra days on the front end to climb a couple more state high points, one in Kentucky and the other in Virginia.

Snafus in cross country travel with inept airlines and a prepaid car rental to an agency that had no rental cars left nearly squashed our plans. That whole fiasco is a story in itself, but we’ll leave all of the bad news for another day. When we FINALLY got to Johnson City, Tennessee and paid again for a second rental car from another company, we felt the need to get high. No, not the type of high many might associate with Appalachia. We didn’t take any methamphetamines, fentanyl, or any other illegal substances. We got high the natural way….we hiked uphill to two different state high points until there was no more uphill to climb.

Had we arrived when we were supposed to, we would have headed straight for Mt. Rogers, the high point of Virginia, which is the longer hike. But not wanting to finish that hike in the dark, we headed first for Black Mountain, Kentucky. It is right on the border of Virginia and Kentucky. It is near where all of the disastrous flooding in Eastern Kentucky recently took place, but far enough uphill that we could drive there with no problems. Roads were closed and flooded out just 30 miles from where we climbed.

Black Mountain, Kentucky

Wednesday, August 3rd was the only day that week that was forecast to have clear skies. We had a pleasant drive of under two hours from Tri-Cities Airport in Tennessee into SW Virginia. At Big Stone Gap, VA we took the paved road uphill toward the state line. Exactly between the “Welcome to Kentucky” sign and the “Welcome to Virginia” sign on the opposite side of the road lies the dirt logging road that takes you toward the summit of Black Mountain.

We chose to drive the 1.1 miles of dirt road to get us nearer to the summit. We pulled off to the side to let a logging truck pass us coming downhill. Near the top there is a radio tower and a place to pull the car over to get off of the road. It is a short 1/10 of a mile up the trail to the summit of Black Mountain, which is still mostly in trees. The name Black Mountain comes from the bituminous coal that is mined at its base.

Plaque at the top of Black Mountain

Black Mountain was Mick’s 38th state high point and Beth’s 19th. Near the summit marker, there was an open clearing with a bunch of wildflowers. Myriads of several species of butterflies fluttered about. With no expansive views from the summit, we didn’t tarry long there, but drove back into Virginia to get a hotel closer to Mt. Rogers, VA, as we would need to have an early start to that hike the next day.

Butterflies on Black Mountain

Due to some roads still being flooded, we couldn’t take a direct route to the other high point, but had to double back into Tennessee, but first passed through Appalachia, Virginia on the way. Once in Tennessee, we connected with Interstate 81 which brought us back again into SW Virginia. About an hour north, we stopped in the town of Marion and got a hotel for the night.

After an early breakfast, we passed Hungry Mother State Park, near Marion, VA. Had we had more time, I would have loved to check out a place with such a unique name. But we had a mountain calling us and we made the 1.5 hour drive to Grayson Highlands State Park, where the trail from Massie Gap to Mt. Rogers begins.

An interesting name…(
Map of SW Virginia (Map:Roanoke Times)

Besides being the most scenic route to Virginia’s highest mountain, Grayson Highlands has other attractions for visitors. Access to the Appalachian Trail and other nearby mountains with scenic vistas makes it imperative to get to Massie Gap early enough to secure a parking spot. We got there early enough to park the car close to the trail head and begin our hike.

entrance to the State Park

There was a change in the weather from yesterday. Low clouds blanketed the valleys and there was a layer of higher clouds a few thousand feet above us. Rain was forecast for the afternoon. The humidity was very high, but at least the clouds mostly blocked out the direct sun, making the heat somewhat less oppressive.

low clouds blanketing the valleys

The trail begins at a marked gate and immediately starts to climb, albeit gently. There are a lot of open meadows to cross, while some of the trail is in the trees.

After about a half mile, hikers will intersect with the Appalachian Trail and follow the white blazes for the next three to four miles. The trail is very rocky and you need to watch your step so as not to trip. The A.T. traverses 2,150 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia at the southern terminus all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Any thru-hikers have long since passed through this section of trail. There are bear boxes for backpackers to store their food while camping, but we saw no sign of bears along the trail. But we did see other wildlife.

On the Appalachian Trail

Grayson Highlands is known for its abundance of “wild” ponies. They are accustomed to seeing hikers and are not startled by your presence, but don’t be tempted to reach out and pet them! The picture below is just one of many encounters we had with these animals. They were introduced here in the 1970s and they do a good job of grazing and keeping the meadows open.

two more wild ponies

After a few miles of ups and downs, we finally spot the top of Mt. Rogers in the distance, framed by a notch in the rocks in the trail.

Mt. Rogers in the background. White blaze marks the Appalachian Trail

As we approach the Thomas Knob shelter, Mount Rogers summit comes into full view. The summit catches more moisture and the trees take over the apex of the mountain. The mountain is named for William Barton Rogers, who became the first state geologist of Virginia in the 1840s.

Mt. Rogers summit in sight

The trail now leaves the Appalachian Trail and the last 1/2 mile is on the Mount Rogers spur trail.

where the Mt. Rogers summit trail leaves the A.T.

The transition from mixed deciduous forest to Spruce/Hemlock forest is very abrupt. It’s like we left Virginia and entered a Pacific Northwest Forest in less than 100 yards. The trail to the top is now marked in blue blazes.

Forest near the summit

At 5,729 feet in elevation, Mount Rogers has terrain and habitat features uncommon to other parts of the state and the East Coast. It holds a biologically diverse variety of plants and animals typical of much more northern areas of the continent. Why are things so unique and different from Black Mountain, which is not that far away as the crow flies? The answer is in the Geology.

The rocks in the Mt. Rogers area contain a mixture of sedimentary and volcanic rocks, the majority of which are made of mostly of Rhyolite. Kentucky rocks are mostly made up of limestone. These rocks erode at much different rates, with the Ridge and Valley and Blue Ridge provinces of Virginia having rocks much more resistant to erosion, leaving outcrops of higher elevations. Kentucky is known for Karst Caves, while Virginia has the higher mountains. The biological diversity is due to the variety of elevations and slope aspects which are zones of several different micro-climates which act as a refugia for plants after the retreat of Pleistocene glaciers. For those interested, I would recommend reading E.Lucy Braun’s book “The Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America”, first printed in 1950.

Geologic Map of Virginia Map:Radford College

When we reached the top, we found two other hikers at the summit. They were fellow adventurers who had a You Tube channel. We chatted with them for a few minutes, and took a picture of the USGS marker at the top of the mountain. We didn’t mind a bit that we weren’t the only ones getting high that day! State high point #39…..CHECK!

USGS Survey Marker

Our original plan was to summit both high points in one day and then possibly drive to the SC/NC border and summit the high point of South Carolina (Sassafras Mountain), but that hill will have to wait for another year. We had a rehearsal dinner to get to back in Tennessee and a rental car to return, so we retraced our steps back towards Massie Gap.

On the way back, we again passed the Thomas Knob Shelter. This time, two ponies blocked the path. We had to wait a minute for them to give us enough room to pass behind them without the threat of being kicked.

Not so wild ponies near Thomas Knob Shelter

As the meadows opened up we saw some more ponies grazing. The overall distance of the hike was about 9 miles, but the rocky trail made it seem much longer.

can you spot the pony in this picture?

At one point, while we were in the trees, we ran into a longhorn cow. I thought it was a bull at first, but then saw an udder when checking under the hood. Even so, the long horns made it disconcerting to see such a large animal in the middle of the trail with nowhere to go. I picked up two rocks and banged them together. That annoyed her enough to head on up the trail, where she took the first exit off of the trail.

what’s a longhorn doing on the A.T.?

Closer to the car, we ran into several day hikers. Most were just out for a short stroll to see the ponies. Very few were there for a Mt. Rogers summit.

The route back to Tennessee took us through Damascus, Virginia next to the Virginia Creeper trail, a world class 35 mile long Rails-to-Trails bike route from Abington to Whitetop, Virginia which passes near the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. Damascus might be the lowest elevation on that trail, but it is a center of recreation and tourism for Southwest Virginia. An example of having to bike low to get a high. We had our “Conversion on the Road to Damascus” moment, and would like to come back in the future when my arm heals well enough to ride a bike again.

Getting high naturally for two days in a row was enough to take the sting out of cross country air travel in the summer of 2022. With our emotions soaring from the Appalachian highs, we could now attend our nephew’s wedding without the sanguine feelings we had a few days before. Dear readers, we enjoy virtually traveling with you anywhere, but if you read this post to the end, we want to especially thank you for getting “high” with us in Kentucky and in Virginia!

Mick and Beth

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