The legendary Appalachian Trail is an epic thru-hike offering the classic wilderness experience that movies and books are made of.
Virginia has the distinction of having more miles of the A.T. than any other state with overlooks revealing pastoral scenes that are a mix of forest and farmland. The A.T. also travels through the history-filled mountains and charming small towns of Southwest Virginia. For those of us who don’t have the time for a months-long journey, there are small sections of the AT to explore one day at a time. Make Smyth County, Virginia your base camp for these great day hikes on the Appalachian Trail. Here are our Top 5 suggestions for not-to-be-missed sections of the A.T. in Smyth County:
1. Massie Gap to Wilburn Ridge | Grayson Highlands
Why You Should Go: Easy loop with rare forest growth, mountain views, and wild Grayson Highlands ponies.
Consistently reviewed as a favorite section along the Appalachian Trail, boasting the best views in the Southeast, the A.T. through the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area should be on every hiker’s must-do list. This loop will deliver the best parts of this region in one fantastic day hike while avoiding the typical crowds of Grayson Highlands State Park.
Access the Massie Gap parking area from Grayson Highlands State Park, and begin climbing up to the Appalachian Trail heading north away from the pony-watching congregation area to the south. After hiking through the Wilson Creek basin, follow the white blazes to climb the AT to top-notch views for miles on open ridges. You’ll cross the Scales compound through a conifer forest, an oddity in the southeast you’ll only find here. The Appalachian Trail straddles these open ridges above 5,000 feet and offer views that feel like you’ve been transported to the Pacific Northwest. Several trail crossings offer more adventure here, where you can take the Pine Mountain Trail for an option to Mount Rogers, the Crest Trail for expansive views, or choose a shorter return to the parking lot via the A.T.
2. Beech Mountain Road to Buzzard Rock/Whitetop Mountain | Near Damascus, VA
Why You Should Go: Good workout up the mountain, leisurely hike back down with incredible views at the top.
This portion of the Appalachian Trail follows the mountain ridge for a steady climb up through a tunnel of trees. When hiking in late fall or early spring, you can see the silhouette of Grandfather Mountain in NC through the tree line, while during seasons where the canopy is full, you’ll feel like you’re in a tunnel of trees. For the last quarter of the hike, the tree canopy will give way to the balds as you climb the trail.
The Whitetop Bald is one of the largest individual balds in the Appalachian Mountains, approximately 2.4 miles from the parking lot at Beech Mountain Road. This hike is a moderately strenuous trip, climbing nearly 1,600ft of elevation to Whitetop Mountain, but the reward at the top is the most incredible 360° views available on the Appalachian Trail. Be prepared for the wind at the balds, and a 20-30° temperature difference when you reach Buzzard Rock, an outcropping of rocks perfect to rest and eat your packed lunch, or catch the sunset to the west. Hiking poles are recommended (but not necessary) to navigate the hike down on this great day hike on the A.T.
3. Elk Garden to Whitetop Mountain | Troutdale, VA
Why You Should Go: Beautiful forest hike, expansive panoramic views and options for camping.
Less than 30 minutes drive from Chilhowie, VA in Smyth County, the Elk Garden trailhead offers multiple day hike options on the Appalachian Trail. Hike to the east for a long hike with overnight backpacking options to Mount Rogers, or for a great day hike, head west towards Whitetop Mountain for a 7.2 mile out and back to Buzzard Rock from a new section of the A.T. This hike is a moderate climb up to Whitetop mountain, where you’ll traverse small water crossings and boulder formations on your way to open meadows and expansive views of Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia.
Just before you reach the Whitetop Mountain parking lot on your hike at approximately 2.4 miles, you’ll see a short spur trail to your right that leads to the peak of Whitetop. After you’ve explored the second highest peak in Virginia, continue along the Appalachian Trail for another mile to reach Buzzard Rock. After returning to the Elk Garden parking lot, if you’re not quite ready to leave the wilderness of the trail, add on another .6 miles out and back to the summit of Elk Garden. Just cross the street for this bonus, and the chance to encounter the wild ponies. Remember, the ponies are wild, please don’t feed or approach them.
4. Settlers Museum to Great Valley | Atkins, VA
Why You Should Go: Learn about life in the mountains over 100 years ago before hiking the A.T. to sweeping views from Glade Mountain.
This great day hike on the Appalachian Trail is less than 3 miles off of I-81 and a short drive from Marion, dubbed “America’s Coolest Hometown” in Smyth County. Cross off this section of the A.T. from your list while enjoying history and access to breweries, wineries, distilleries and world-class entertainment. This day hike is perfect for those who want to add a touch of wilderness to a full weekend of travel in Smyth County.
You’ll start your journey at the Settlers Museum of Southwest Virginia, a 67 acre open air museum, where you’ll learn the story of settlers to this area over one hundred years ago. Stop by the visitor’s center and the restored 19th-century living history farm and tour the 1894 one-room schoolhouse April-October.
The Appalachian Trail starts here between the visitor’s center and the school house. Follow the A.T. south, away from the road and into the woods and begin to climb Glade Mountain through a lush forest with frequent access to the tumbling waters of Vaught Branch. At 1.6 miles, you will cross U.S. Forest Service Road 644, and in another 0.3 miles, arrive at Chatfield Memorial Shelter for a mid-hike break. At 3.3 miles, find yourself at an opening with expansive views to the west, down the Great Valley and across to Walker Mountain. After taking in the view, return to the Settlers Museum the same way you came and reward yourself with dinner and drinks in Marion.
5. Elk Garden to Deep Gap | Troutdale, VA
Why You Should Go: Scenic overviews of vital ecosystems and long-range vistas in the shadow of Mount Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak.
Elk Garden is a high mountain gap named for the eastern elk, which once roamed this region in conjunction with bison, mountain lions, and (even earlier) mastodon and musk ox. Elk Garden today is a broad, open meadow forming a key point along the Appalachian Trail. The AT heads south from this point towards Whitetop Mountain and north towards Mount Rogers and crosses through the Lewis Fork Wilderness along Smyth and Grayson Counties.
Once you park at Elk Garden, head north to the gate to start this section of the Appalachian Trail. Approximately .3 miles in, you’ll encounter the summit of Elk Garden and the Appalachian Balds. Mountain balds are a unique habitat in Southern Appalachia. Today, balds such as those seen here are still maintained by herds of ponies and cattle. In fact, you might even encounter part of Mount Rogers’ famous wild pony herd, keeping the balds open along stretches of this hike. If you do, be respectful and avoid feeding or otherwise disturbing the ponies in any way. A little over a mile into your hike, you’ll notice small, trickling streams. The water here will flow to Whitetop Laurel Creek, through Damascus, Virginia, and on to the Holston River – a tributary of the grand Tennessee River. Take note of these crucial headwaters that help form our major rivers and waterways.
Continue to follow the white blazes of the A.T. to Deep Gap, at 1.9 miles from the Elk Garden Trailhead. Deep Gap is another important ecological spot for headwaters and tributaries, which lead into the New River. Just 700 vertical feet above you and to the east is Mount Rogers. Here you’ll find a short connector to the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail which allows an alternate return route parallel to – but just south of – the AT, ending back at Elk Garden if you want some variety to this hike. Otherwise, turn around here to finish up your great day hike on this section of the Appalachian Trail.