Story (who has taken Calamity Jane as the new trail name) and I were looking for some backpacking ideas and our favorite ranger from South Cumberland State Park suggested a short stretch on the AT from Rhododendron Gap to Thomas Knob Shelter as one of his favorite hikes, so I started looking and discovered it’s very easy to do a loop in this section!
I named this post “A” loop because there are a half dozen options ranging from a very short ‘first time backpacking’ type trip with little ones up to a 4-5 day trip just ranging back and forth along the many crisscrossing trails.
I have long been wary of leaving my van parked at just any trailhead, it has been broken into before and along with the insurance not covering the windows, it’s a PITA to get cleaned up, get a new window and then replace whatever got stolen. We were going to car camp for a bit after the backpacking trip and were leaving big fluffy pillows and blankets, a bag full of swimming gear, our hammocks and bath stuff, a box with cooking gear and yummy heavy food, extra shoes, extra clothes…all the stuff that makes lounging worthwhile. Aaaa, I LOVE to camp!
I wanted a patrolled parking area, so we opted to park at Grindstone Campground on Laurel Valley Road in Troutdale. It’s $5 a night, due up front via self-pay kiosk. One of the campground hosts came up while were were fiddling with the map and got us situated with payment, parking and suggested a few trailhead options but was unsure which would get us where we were going. There’s a spur trail JUST past the kiosk on the left headed to the parking area, fully signed. That’s the one!
The parking area is 100% shaded and is in a little loop in the far back of the campground. The playground and tiny nature trail are both beyond the parking area, but other than a couple very enthusiastic kiddos (Jacob just turned 6 and he got a new bike!) riding around and around the loop, we didn’t see anyone else. The campground is gated at night, starting at 10 p.m.
We loaded up, talked to the campground host who had hiked partway up the trail we were taking and was able to give us a couple of suggestions for where to set up for the night and used the bathroom before setting out. The weather was PERFECT, warm, windy and not the least bit humid. It took up about 8 hours to get there, so we were not on the trail until about 5 in the evening, we hiked about 3 miles up to where the trail levels out for a short stretch.
The trail from the campground at around 3500 feet to the top of Mt Rogers at 5729 feet is 7 miles and the 2000 foot elevation gain is metered out (along the Mt Rogers Trail at least) in a steady-but-not-steep climb ranging back and forth along switchbacks. At the top of the switchbacks after the trail junction, it levels out for a short time and there are a few obvious campsites along the trail. The one we saw that we liked the most is with 1/2 mile of the junction of the AT and is off to the right-you can’t miss it. We didn’t get that far the night before, but thanks to all the recent rain, we were able to camp next to a nice little creek.
After the flatter stretch, the trail starts to ‘really’ climb, involving rocky steps and steep bits and I was glad to have a good sleep under me before tackling that stretch. At Deep Gap where it meets the AT, we ran into a lady who assured us we would die of hypothermia in seconds on the balds. Gee, thanks! She was head-to-toe clad in Goretex under her hiking clothes. Had it been raining, the high of 53 and the crazy all-day wind would have done us in for sure, but it turned out to be the most refreshing day of hiking I have ever experienced, it was like having a freezer door open, digging around for that last ice cream sandwich when it’s 90 outside. ALL DAY. The sun was very warming and the hiking kept us toasty, but that breeze was constant and COLD.
Once on the AT, the climb gets a little harder up to the balds, but it’s short and amnesia sets in the moment the view comes into play. We followed the AT around through trees and across open spots to the base of the Mt Rogers spur trail. We left our packs behind some trees off the trail a bit and walked to the top. There is no view, so even though it’s a state ‘highest point’ it gets skipped often by hikers in the area. But it is worth the walk to see the trees! It’s no gradual thing, the vegetation flips a switch and BAM, becomes something out of the Pacific Northwest, all huge trees and moss. It was the closest to feeling teleported than I have come since playing in The Minister’s Treehouse (which is now closed).
Back down from the top, we continued along the AT the rest of the day, ignoring the many, many trails that branch off. We met a few fellow hikers, saw the ponies in four different locations and ended the day camped not far from a creek once we were back down into the treeline. It was so windy on the balds, our tent would have collapsed!
The last morning, we got up and hiked the AT to the 603 junction, then took the Fairwood Valley Trail back to Grindstone. Be forewarned, that walk back is a CLIMB. It goes up only 500 feet over 3 miles, but it was hard after walking downhill most of the day. Our knees were feeling the downhill!
Back at camp, we had paid for 3 nights of parking, so we swapped the last night’s unused fee for hot showers. Well, in our minds we did. The campground host was off riding the VA Creeper Trail.
Of Note: There is NO cell service, no matter the carrier, in that part of the world. I got a text through to Paycheck from Mt Rogers to let him know all was well, but that was it. Damascus has no cell reception and we had to drive to within 2 miles of Troutdale proper to get a signal. There’s a signed overlook with a parking area near Iron Mt Trail between Troutdale and the campground that gets really good reception. If needing to check in before or after a hike, this is the best option.
When we go back, we will park at Grayson Highlands State Park and stay up on the top the whole time. The climb up was not the problem, it was walking down the mountain for miles and miles that hurt our knees.
Click it, it gets bigger!
This is from a meetup group, but is a good overview of the trip. All the intersections are signed and the AT in particular is really easy to follow. Still, a map is never a bad idea, with this area, if there were bad weather or another need to get off the trail quickly, an alternate route is readily available. Keep in mind that despite being so high up, there is NO cell service. Self-rescue or at least getting to an area where other hikers would more likely pass by (parking area, shelter or trail junction) is vital. We were there mid week and despite the awesome weather and 15 miles on the AT, we saw less than 20 people.