Your Complete Guide to the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia

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Ask almost any thru-hiker, and they’ll tell you, the 170 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia are among the highlights of the trip. From the leafy banks of Whitetop Laurel Creek to the cloud-nestled high country of Mount Rogers to the ridgelines above Burkes Garden, Southwest Virginia is home to some of the most memorable portions of the legendary 2,190 mile footpath. Beyond the scenery, the region is also renowned for celebrating the culture of thru-hiking, famed for welcoming towns and kindly trail angels.

Overview

The Appalachian Trail saunters into Southwest Virginia from the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, crossing the state line just about four miles south of the town of Damascus. After moseying directly through the heart of the trekker-friendly town, the trail meanders into the into the 200,000 acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, part of the massive Jefferson National Forest. Once within the confines of the Jefferson National Forest, the footpath traipses through the lake-anchored Beartree Recreation Area, before entering the high country of Mount Rogers, the realm of panoramic bald peaks, montane forests, and pony-trod meadows.

In the high country, the trail skirts Virginia’s loftiest peak, 5,729 foot Mount Rogers, before snaking through a corner of Grayson Highlands State Park. After descending from the high country, the trail continues through the Jefferson National Forest, veering just seven miles from the hiker-friendly town of Marion. About 35 miles beyond Marion, the trail treats hikers to a bird’s-eye view of pastoral Burke’s Garden—Virginia’s loftiest valley and largest historic district—courtesy of the vantage point provided at Chestnut Knob. Just before meandering out of Southwest Virginia, the trail climbs Pearis Mountain to one of the footpath’s most iconic viewpoints, the rock outcrop dubbed Angel’s Rest, before descending to the New River, one of the oldest waterways on Earth.

You don’t have to be a thru-hiker to enjoy the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia. Choose a scenic section for a day hike, or play a multi-day backpacking trip in the region. Here are just a few of the highlights to explore.

Abingdon and Damascus

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The Appalachian Trail Days is celebrated in Southwest Virginia every spring.

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After the Appalachian Trail crosses into Southwest Virginia from Tennessee, one of the first stops is Damascus. Located 465 miles from the trail’s southern terminus, the town is an alluring haven for weary thru-hikers, with plenty of creature comforts, including places to load up on maps and repair or replace battered gear, like Sundog Outfitter and Mt. Rogers Outfitters.

Just twenty minutes northwest of Damascus is its sister city of Abingdon, which is an excellent base camp for anyone exploring the region. The two cities are connected by the Virginia Creeper Trail, another spectacular option for hiking, running and cycling. (Take a shuttle to the trail’s start at Whitetop Station and enjoy a mostly downhill ride all the way back to Abingdon.) Take advantage of Abingdon’s restaurants, many of which focus on locally produced products, like Jack’s 128 Pecan. After a day on the trail, a craft brew from the Wolf Hills Brewing Co. is a treat not to be missed.

In the spring, the Appalachian Trail Days festival features a rollicking, weekend-long celebration of the iconic footpath, featuring live music, tasty food, and vendor demos.

Mount Rogers High Country

A mishmash of airy Appalachian balds, highland spruce-fir forests, and mountain meadows nibbled by wild ponies, the high country of Mount Rogers is like no place else on the entire East Coast. Fortunately for thru-hikers, the Appalachian Trail offers one of the most spectacular routes through the vista-laden highlands. Besides the wandering ponies, the stunning upland realm supports a unique array of fauna, including Northern flying squirrels, pygmy salamanders, and high-elevation birds not encountered elsewhere in the state.

In the high country, the Appalachian Trail leads trekkers through the pristine Lewis Fork Wilderness and the trout-stream-braided Little Wilson Creek Wilderness, while also rambling past aesthetic gems like "The Scales," a vast alpine pasture that once functioned as a cattle-weighing station, and the braided cascades of Comers Creek Falls, a photo-worthy picnic stop.

Buzzard Rock on Whitetop Mountain

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Buzzard Rock features brilliant colors during the fall.

Virginia State Parks

Crowning a quintessential Appalachian bald, the panoramic crag on Whitetop Mountain dubbed Buzzard Rock is the fourth highest point in the entire state. Perched at 5,095 feet, the stack of rocks offers views of the ridgelines of Iron Mountain, the forest-shrouded summit of Mount Rogers, and weather-permitting, even 5,837 foot Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.

Grayson Highlands State Park

Located in the heart of the Mount Rogers high country, Grayson Highlands State Park is a luxury-laden pitstop for thru-hikers, replete with perks like hot showers, fire-ring studded campsites, and a seasonal Country Store, perfect for grabbing treats for the trail. The park is also home to nearly 100 wild ponies, introduced to the park nearly a half-century ago to graze the highland balds and thwart reforestation. While the herd freely roams the park and adjacent Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, the sturdy ponies are regularly found grazing the upland meadows of Wilburn Ridge. Besides wild ponies and trailside amenities, boulder-strewn Grayson Highlands State Park is also a hotspot for climbers, loaded with more nearly 1,000 problems to tackle.

Partnership Shelter

One of the most-buzzed about shelters on the Appalachian Trail, the spacious Partnership Shelter has a reputation that precedes it—especially as a place hikers can order pizza on the trail, from the nearby town of Marion. Offering running water, and even a shower, the sturdy shelter is also a popular spot for socializing, especially following Appalachian Trail Days in the spring, when northbound thru-hikers pass the log-hewn lean-to on the path to Katahdin.

Burke’s Garden Overlook

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Burke’s Garden remains a bucolic time-capsule—and one of the state’s most unique historic districts.

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One of the best places to catch a glimpse of the stunning geological anomaly dubbed Burke’s Garden is from the Appalachian Trail, along Chestnut Knob above Walker Gap (marked by the Chestnut Knob shelter, at 4,409 feet). Nicknamed God’s Thumbprint, the high-elevation valley – sitting at 3,200 feet – is completely encircled by Garden Mountain, and was famously the top choice location for George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate. Today, verdant Burke’s Garden remains a bucolic time-capsule, and one of the state’s most unique historic districts.

Practical Information

The Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club is tasked with managing about 60 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia, beginning at the Tennessee border, and including section in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, the Jefferson National Forest, and Grayson Highlands State Park. The group is an invaluable source of information on the trail, and leads regular recreational hikes in the high country of Mount Rogers.

Maintained by the Southwest Virginia Citizen Science Initiative, the website High Lonesome Trails also provides detailed information on several regional sections of the Appalachian Trail and other hikes in Southwest Virginia.

For thru-hikers or day hikers, detailed maps of the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia include National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map of the Mount Rogers High Country (which includes Grayson Highlands State Park), and the pair of maps available from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, covering the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia from the Tennessee border to the New River. So learn more and take advantage of one of the state’s most impressive outdoor resources.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Abingdon.

Featured image provided by Virginia State Parks

5 Things Parents Should Know Before Choosing a Summer Camp

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Looking for a cure for the winter blues? Start making plans for the summer. Having something fun to look forward to — such as days off and family trips — can make those dreary days more bearable. One thing you'll want to add to your summer planning list is finding a great summer camp or two for your kids.

Even before leaves start appearing on the trees, many organizations begin announcing dates and enrollment for summer camp sessions. Get a jump start on the process with this guide to choosing an enriching summer activity, where your child will also have a blast.

First, know the best places to look

You may not be aware of the number of great summer day camps taking place around your community. Start with college campuses, parks and recreation departments, local school districts and churches. Be sure to tune in to nonprofits, like performing arts centers, museums and your local animal shelter or zoo. Finally, ask the other adults in your child's life for the inside scoop. The art teacher, soccer coach and scout leader may be in the know about the best camps in town.

Look for the immersive experience

When you think about it, "camp" is an odd word choice. But look at what sleep-away camp means to kids, and it makes sense. Yes, it's fun to sleep in a cabin and spend all day sailing, swimming and climbing. What's key is that these kids are immersed in a new reality that's different from the usual home and school routines. So when a local organization bills an activity a "camp," they promise an experience that lets your kid jump in and become a part of something. When choosing the right camp, look for that quality. Is there a clear theme or topic? Will kids be active and involved? Or is the "camp" just made up of a series of talks led by adults?

Make sure your child is on board

Consider your child's interests and how camp can make them stronger. Your play-acting child with a flair for drama will probably thrive and bloom at theater camp. However, if camp is a strategy to help them improve at something they struggle with, make sure the program is designed for these kids, or you're setting them up for a session of misery. After all, you wouldn't send your sports-loathing child to, say, a high-intensity wrestling camp, to make them more athletic.

Don't forget the fun factor

What makes camp truly memorable is having fun, so make sure the camp you're looking at takes fun seriously. For example, Blake Furlow, CEO of Bricks 4 Kidz, says kids keep coming back to their camps partly because these sessions bring building with LEGO Bricks to the next level of fun and exciting. But watching their enjoyment unfold during the camp is also massively rewarding. "Seeing the kids light up, get excited and make new connections during a Bricks 4 Kidz class is a heart-warming experience," Furlow says.

Consider longevity

When looking at various programs, a good question to ask is how long the camp has been around. New summer camp themes and programs can sound exciting and fresh, but it takes a few rounds to work out the kinks with any new organization. Choosing well-established programs with experienced leaders is one way to ensure that your child will get that worthwhile and fun experience with a new activity.

If you're looking for a camp experience from a trusted provider that fosters learning in STEM subjects, look for a Bricks 4 Kidz franchise in your community. Bricks 4 Kidz is celebrating its 10th anniversary of providing fun and enrichment for kids in schools and communities across the United States and beyond! At these camps, kids get to use LEGO Bricks along with specialized LEGO Technic pieces like gears, axles and electric motors to build unique and exciting models to help kids explore engineering and architecture — while having a blast doing it. To discover camps taking place in your area, visit Bricks4Kidz.com.

Written by Brandpoint for The Healthy Moms Magazine.

Featured image provided by Jonathan Petersson