Hiking with wild ponies on the Appalachian Trail towards Mount Rogers

Mount Rogers Hike: Complete Guide to Planning Virginia’s Ultimate Day Hike

Last updated Apr 18, 2022 | Outdoor, Virginia

Move over Old Rag. For those non-Virginians, Old Rag is considered by some to be the best hike in Virginia. But that is probably because they have not discovered the Mount Rogers hike. I have done both, and I have to say Mount Rogers is the ultimate Virginia hike! It is incredibly unique.

Read on to find out where to find the wild ponies, the panoramic views, and the mystical forest as you hike to Virginia’s tallest mountain peak. And of course, since there are always foodie stops included on our hiking adventures, I will share where to pick up the best pimento cheese sandwich to enjoy while on your hike.

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Quick Overview of Hike

  • Hiking distance: 10.5 miles
  • Hiking time: 4.5 hours
  • Parking: Massie Gap

Mount Rogers Hike Parking + Entrance Fee 

Mount Rogers is located in southwest Virginia. In order to do this out-and-back day hike, you will be starting in Grayson Highlands State Park. Put “Massie Gap Parking” in Google Maps. There is plenty of parking along the side of the road. If those spots are full, people park on the opposite side of the road. 

The parking and admission fee is $7 and $10 for weekends in April – October. 

Parking at Grayson Highlands State Park

Parking spaces at Grayson Highlands State Park

Map of 4 Trailheads for the Mount Rogers Hike

4 WAYS TO ACCESS THE SUMMIT OF MOUNT ROGERS

1) The trailhead for the Mount Rogers Trail (TR 166) is right off Route 603 (Laurel Valley Road). Parking is along the road. 

2) There is also a trail that connects to the Mount Roger Trail (TR 166) from the Grindstone Campground.

3) Another access point is off Route 600 (Whitetop Road) at the Elk Garden Trailhead.

4) Lastly, you can start the trek by parking at Massie Gap right off VA-362. *We started from this trailhead.

Map of Four Trailheads to Reach the Mount Rogers Summit

Map of 4 Trailheads to Access Mount Rogers Summit

THE ROUTE WE CHOSE 

We started at Massie Gap, took the Rhododendron Trail to the Appalachian (AT) Trail Southbound, and then to the Mount Rogers Trail to the summit. 

A Map of Mount Rogers Hike from Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park

Map of Mount Rogers Hike from Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park

Our Step-By-Step Hiking Experience + Where to See the Ponies 

MASSIE GAP PARKING

After parking at Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park, we walked across a big open field and through a gate to start this epic hike. 

Massie Gap at Grayson Highlands State Park

Starting point of the Mount Rogers hike: Massie Gap at Grayson Highlands State Park

RHODODENDRON TRAIL (Ponies!) 

Rhododendron Trail at Grayson Highlands State Park

Rhododendron Trail at Grayson Highlands State Park

The Rhododendron Trail is a well-marked easy path that has a steady incline. 

Well marked path on the Rhododendron Trail in Grayson Highlands State Park

Well marked path on the Rhododendron Trail in Grayson Highlands State Park

Shortly into our hike, we spotted pony poop on the trail. Watch your step. The wild Grayson Highland Ponies were close. As we rounded the corner, we came across our first pony and quite a few other hikers all congregating around. These beautiful animals with their flowing manes are quite a tourist attraction! 

Grayson Highland Pony on the Rhododendron Trail

Grayson Highland pony on the Rhododendron Trail

Where else in the world do you have to hike around a wild herd of ponies to keep on the trail? 

Now where I can think of.

By the way, what’s the difference between a pony and a horse? Height. Ponies are less than 14.2 hands. 

The ponies are technically wild. However, they have becomes so used to people, they have no fear and will walk right up to you. Although it is tempting, do not let their friendly nature trick you into petting and feeding them. If you feed them, it can cause behavioral and health problems. You will be fined if caught. 

So where did the Grayson Highland ponies come from? 

In 1974, they were brought in to help maintain the parkland by grazing on the grasses and shrubs in open areas called balds. The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association manages their health. Once a year, they hold an annual auction of some of the ponies in order to control the herd numbers. 

Beautiful brown pony at Grayson Highlands State Park

Beautiful brown pony at Grayson Highlands State Park

APPALACHIAN (AT) TRAIL SOUTHBOUND (More Ponies!) 

After completing the Rhododendron Trail, we came to a 3 way split: AT Trail Northbound, AT Trail Southbound, and Horse Trail North. Take the AT Trail Southbound. 

The Appalachian Trail Southbound at Grayson Highlands State Park

The Appalachian Trail Southbound at Grayson Highlands State Park

The rocky trail led to an open meadow. This marks the boundary of Grayson Highlands State Park. 

Border of the Grayson Highlands State Park

Border of the Grayson Highlands State Park

We went through the gate and came to another split. 

Hiking past the border of the Grayson Highlands State Park

Hiking past the border of the Grayson Highlands State Park

The Mount Rogers Summit Hike from Massie Gap

Take the trail to the far left towards Mount Rogers

We took the far left trail that continues on the Appalachian Trail towards Mount Rogers. Be prepared to be hiking around a lot of rocks! 

Hiking the Appalachian Trail Southbound in Virginia towards Mount Rogers Summit

Hiking the Appalachian Trail Southbound in Virginia towards Mount Rogers Summit

It was rainy and misty on the day of our hike. At first, I was disappointed in the weather. We were supposed to see all these amazing panoramic views. But, the moody weather really created this mystical vibe. 

Were we in the Scottish Highlands? 

Hiking in the foggy mist on the Appalachian Trail Southbound towards Mount Rogers

Hiking in the foggy mist on the Appalachian Trail Southbound towards Mount Rogers

About 10 minutes later, we came across another junction where you could either continue along the AT Trail or take the Wilburn Ridge Trail (which eventually dumps you back on the AT Trail). 

Wilburn Ridge Trail in Virginia

Wilburn Ridge Trail 

The Wilburn Ridge Trail supposedly offers some fun and challenging rock scrambling and fantastic panoramic views along the rocky peaks on the ridgeline. We skipped this section and stayed on the slightly easier AT Trail because we had a long hike ahead of us. Next time. If you have done this section, let me know what you thought in the comments below! 

As we continued our trek, we came across a large rocky mountain that had a perfectly sized hole to fit a human through. At first, you think there’s no way I am going to fit through this, but you will. That section was pretty cool. 

Hiking through the hole in the boulder on the Mount Rogers Hike

Hiking through the hole in the boulder on the Mount Rogers hike

Five minutes after we passed the “hole in the wall” section, we came across more ponies!!! And there were way fewer crowds. Besides us, there were only 2 others groups of hikers. This was an incredible experience. 

Wild ponies hanging out on the Appalachian Trail Southbound towards Mount Rogers

Wild ponies hanging out on the Appalachian Trail Southbound towards Mount Rogers

Grazing wild ponies on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia

Grazing wild pony on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia

Friendly wild Grayson Highland pony

Friendly wild Grayson Highland pony

Curious wild pony at Grayson Highlands State Park

Curious wild pony who got too close

It was incredible to see the wild ponies with their flowing manes hanging out in the fields with the misty fog as the backdrop. 

We even saw a little cream-colored foal with a white star on its forehead. He/she was incredibly curious and walked right up to me while I was taking photos. Remember, no touching or feeding. 

Wild little foal at Grayson Highlands State Park

Adorable foal who had no fear and walked right up to me

Curious foal at Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia

Alright last pic … this curious foal is just too cute

My husband finally had to peel me away from the ponies to continues the hike. I could have hung around them all day. 

We continued to hike across more rocks. So many rocks! Your feet will be aching later. Wear proper footwear. 

Hiking the Appalachian Trail to get to Mount Rogers

Hiking the Appalachian Trail to get to Mount Rogers

The next signpost we came across led us to the left as we continued to follow the Appalachian Trail Southbound towards Mount Rogers. 

Hiking to Mount Rogers Summit via Appalachian Trail

Hiking to Mount Rogers Summit via Appalachian Trail. Veer left to stay on the trail.

We hiked through a few more open fields and passed the Thomas Knob Shelter until at last we reached a sign that pointed us to the trail to hike to the Mount Roger summit. Almost there! 

Hiking through open fields to get to Mount Rogers summit

Hiking through open fields to get to Mount Rogers summit

Signpost pointing towards Mount Rogers Summit

Signpost pointing towards Mount Rogers Summit

Oh, be aware of the bears! Luckily, we did not see any. 

Bear box seen along the Appalachian Trail leading towards Mount Rogers

Bear box seen along the Appalachian Trail leading towards Mount Rogers

MOUNT ROGERS TRAIL

Now, this is where the trail drastically changes. Open fields and rocky outcroppings give way to mystical moss-covered forests. A lot of people have compared this section of the trail to those found in the Pacific Northwest. I agree. The Mount Rogers Hike reminded me of the hike we took through the forests of Multnomah Falls in Oregon. 

Hiking the Mount Rogers Trail in Virginia to get to the summit

Hiking the Mount Rogers Trail in Virginia to get to the summit

As we walked through the thick, shaded, moss-covered spruce and fir forests, it looked like we were walking onto a set of a Harry Potter movie. 

Hiking through the misty forest to the Mount Rogers Summit

Hiking through the misty forest to the Mount Rogers Summit

Ok, there is one important thing to note about the Mount Rogers Hike.  When you reach the summit of Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia, there is NO epic panoramic views or big sign stating you made it! 

You know you reached the summit when you see this gold medallion. See the picture below.

Gold medallion marking the summit at Mount Rogers in Virginia

Gold medallion marking the summit at Mount Rogers in Virginia

Although the Mount Rogers summit was anticlimactic, the journey was incredibly epic and worth every screaming leg muscle 24 hours later!  

Foodie Stop Near the Mount Rogers Hike

HARVEST TABLE 

I hike to eat. I love finding foodie gems during our travels. We were staying in an Airbnb in nearby Abingdon for a long weekend. On our way out to Grayson Highlands State Park, we swung by the Harvest Table Restaurant to pick up sandwiches for our hike. 

Harvest Table Restaurant in Meadowview Virginia

Harvest Table Restaurant in Meadowview, Virginia

The Harvest Table has its own farm located 2.5 miles from the restaurant. They are truly farm-to-table, using both their own local produce and meats and vegetables from surrounding farms. The Director of the restaurant has even written a well-rated book promoting a healthier food culture called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

What to order? 

I highly recommend the Pimento Cheese Sandwich! They slather their pimento cheese on their soft house-made bread. Splurge on the $2 upgrade and add bacon. Simple ingredients. Incredible flavor.

We threw a sandwich in our CamelBak and enjoyed it once we reached the summit. 

Enjoying a pimento cheese bacon sandwich at the summit of Mount Rogers in Virginia

Enjoying a pimento cheese bacon sandwich from Harvest Table at the summit of Mount Rogers in Virginia

I did not appreciate pimento cheese growing up in Virginia, but now I have an obsession with it.  As we found out during a recent celebratory dinner at the 3-star Michelin restaurant The Inn at Little Washington, even they find a way to incorporate this star ingredient. 

The Harvest Table also has a general store next door to the restaurant, where you can pick up local food items and handmade goods. I love local honey, so we picked up some from Millcroft Farm from Stanley, Virginia. We also purchased grapefruit Mother Shrub (made of apple cider vinegar + grapefruit + organic cane sugar) to use in making cocktails like Palomas. 

Local honey and Mother Shrub grapefruit purchased at the Harvest Table General Store in Virginia

Local honey and Mother Shrub grapefruit purchased at the Harvest Table General Store

Things to Do Near the Hike 

We enjoyed a long holiday weekend in Abingdon, Virginia, which is located a little over an hour from Grayson Highlands State Park. If you make Abingdon your base, there is plenty to do near Grayson Highlands State Park. 

VIRGINIA CREEPER TRAIL

Hands down, the Virginia Creeper Trail is one of the best biking experiences in Virginia. The starting point from this incredible bike ride starts in Whitetop, about 30 minutes from Grayson Highlands State Park. 

The most popular way to enjoy it is riding downhill from Whitetop to Damascus, where you’ll ride through dense forests, encounter some really cool bridges, and bike right next to babbling cold mountain streams. 

Hands down, the Virginia Creeper Trail is one of the best biking experiences in Virginia. The starting point of this incredible bike ride starts in Whitetop, about 30 minutes from Grayson Highlands State Park.

The most popular way to enjoy it is riding downhill from Whitetop to Damascus, where you’ll ride through dense forests, encounter some really cool bridges, and bike right next to babbling cold mountain streams.  

Riding a Cannondale bike on the Virginia Creeper Bike Trail

Riding the Virginia Creeper Trail from Whitetop to Damascus 

THE GREAT CHANNELS HIKE

I am actually a little hesitant to share this one because this 6.6-mile hike is truly a hidden gem. When we hiked it, we only passed two other couples. Now, we didn’t start the hike until 4 pm so maybe that is why we had it almost to ourselves. 

The Channels Natural Area Preserve is located about 1.5 hours from Grayson Highlands State Park. These sandstone outcroppings form all these cool crevices and channels in between these towering moss-covered boulders. Large twisting tree roots line the floor. This is unlike any Virginia hike I have done. 

The Great Channels hike in Virginia

The Great Channels hike in Virginia

EXPLORE ABINGDON 

Abingdon, Virginia was rated as having the Best Small Town Food Scene by USA Today. If you are a foodie, there are plenty of little mom-and-pop restaurants to explore. We can personally vouch for 128 Pecan, The Girl & The Raven (our favorite place by far!), White Birch, and Greeko’s Grill & Cafe. 

The Big Pimp Egg Breakfast Sandwich with Pimento Cheese at The Girl and The Raven in Abingdon Virginia

The Big Pimp Egg Breakfast Sandwich with Pimento Cheese at The Girl & The Raven in Abingdon, Virginia. Told you I love pimento cheese.

It is also home to the oldest bar in Virginia, The Tavern. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to have a cocktail here due to mixing up their hours, but I would love to come back to check them out. Another popular place if you love craft beer is the Wolf Hills Brewery. They often have live music. 

If you love the arts, check out a performance at the Barter Theatre right on Main Street in the heart of Abingdon. To gain admission into the theatre back in 1933, you could “barter” your way into the venue by offering up items like eggs or homemade jam. Pretty cool history.

Barter Theatre in Abingdon Virginia

Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia

LEARN MORE: Want to know what else to do in Abingdon? Check out my top 10 things to do in Abingdon in 72 hours. 

MAP OF NEARBY THINGS TO DO 

Map of Things To Do Near the Mount Rogers Summit Hike

Map of Things To Do Near the Mount Rogers Hike

Where to Stay Near Mount Rogers 

If you are driving from northern Virginia, hiking Mount Rogers is not a day trip. You will have to spend the night somewhere nearby. 

We loved using Abingdon as our base and spent 4 nights/5 days there. Because we were biking the Virginia Creeper Trail, we found a charming Airbnb that was located right off the bike trail 

This adorable accommodation is located in an old renovated building called the Old Alvarado Station. If you are planning to embrace the outdoors and hike and bike to your heart’s content, stay in this Airbnb.

Farm-house chic. Modern conveniences. King bed (this is non-negotiable in all of our travels to keep a happy marriage … lol). Hot shower. Outdoor picnic area. Outdoor swings by the river. Need I say more?

Old Alvarado Station Airbnb off the Virginia Creeper Trail

Old Alvarado Station Airbnb off the Virginia Creeper Trail

What to Bring on the Mount Rogers Hike

Z

Bring a CamelBak. For a 10.5 mile hike, you will need that hydration bladder. 

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Don’t roll an ankle. Wear hiking shoes. There are so many rocks you will be stepping on and around. I wore my Saucony trail runners, but I probably should have worn my hiking shoes.

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Consider trekking poles. We did not bring ours, but they would have been helpful. 

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Food! It’s a long hike, and you will be burning a lot of calories. In addition to our pimento cheese sandwiches, we also brought a few Kind bars. 

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I bring my GoPro on all of my hikes. Raining? Misty? No problem. The GoPro can handle it.   

Top Tips

Z

Don’t rely on the park map. It’s too confusing. Download the AllTrails App for $29.99 (worth it!) and have the map pre-downloaded. That way you will never get lost even without cell service. 

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The weather is much cooler than the surrounding areas, so layer up. 

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There are quite a few signs along this hike that can get confusing. Just remember to keep following the signs towards Appalachian Trail South and Mount Rogers, and you shouldn’t get lost. 

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Please do not feed or pet the ponies. It is so tempting especially when that cute little pony walks right up to you begging for attention. Resist the urge. 

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The ponies are wild animals. There is no guarantee you will see them on the trail. We saw the first herd of ponies around 1 pm, and a second herd around 2 pm. When we were coming back from our hike close to 5 pm, we passed a group that told us they had not seen the ponies yet. I’m not sure if there’s a better “time of the day” to see them based on grazing patterns. Might be worth it to ask the park ranger.  

Z

We hiked on a misty, rainy day, which gave it a mystical vibe. However, it completely obstructed all panoramic views. If panoramic views are a must for your hiking experience, do the obvious and pick a sunny clear day. 

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Pick up that pimento cheese bacon sandwich to enjoy along the hike. There’s nothing like chowing down on some amazing food out in the middle of nature. 

Final Thoughts on the Mount Rogers Hike

Yes, the summit of Mount Rogers is anticlimactic, but the journey is incredibly epic! Wild ponies, open fields, panoramic views, and moss-covered forests. Where else do you get this diversity on one hike in Virginia? 

Maybe this is blasphemy, but I would have to say the Mount Rogers hike trumps Old Rag even on a misty, rainy day. 

Grayson Highland Pony in Virginia

Grayson Highland Pony in Virginia

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Have you hiked Old Rag and Mount Rogers from Massie Gap? What do you think? Which is better?

Let me know in the comments below!

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