Hike the Highest Peaks in Virginia

Hiking the highest peaks in Virginia should be on every adventure-lover’s bucket list. We’ve packed a 3-day itinerary with sweeping, panoramic views, delicious food to sustain your energy, and some tips along the way to help you reach the summits. And bonus points if start crossing off hikes on the Smyth County Chamber of Commerce Five over 5,000 Challenge!

Day One: Hike to Whitetop Mountain

Start day one on the easy side. Whitetop Mountain is the second-highest peak in Virginia, measuring in at 5,518 ft of elevation. It’s also accessible by the highest navigable road in Virginia, which will take you nearly to the summit.

Hike to the second highest peak in Virginia, Whitetop Mountain. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corporation.

Get your day started with some home-cooked breakfast at one of Smyth County’s top breakfast spots. You’ll want to make sure to have footwear appropriate for the hikes ahead of you, and appropriate clothing for the weather. Remember, the weather on top of the mountain is often 15-20 degrees cooler than at the base, and often windier. Consider hiking poles for Day 2 of your itinerary to summit Mount Rogers.

After you’ve geared up, it’s time to head out! Start your route through Chilhowie at Exit 35, the gateway to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, and the easiest route to Whitetop Mountain. On your way up to Whitetop Mountain, you’ll see a gravel parking lot to your right. Keep driving to the end of this road to reach the summit of Whitetop Mountain. Alternately, you can park in that lot without driving to the summit, and explore to both sides of the Appalachian Trail which dissects Whitetop Mountain. Start off on the section of the AT connected to the parking lot where you’ll be surrounded by old growth forest on your way to sweeping panoramic views and mountain balds. White blazes mark the trail, and you’ll see camping spots dotting the trail. Just a short distance away, you’ll find a side trail that will take you to the mountain meadows atop Whitetop Mountain. 

Sweeping 360 degree views from the Appalachian Trail hike from Whitetop Mountain to Buzzard Rock. Photo Courtesy of Sara Saavedra

After you can claim summiting the second highest peak in Virginia, you won’t want to leave without taking an easy hike to Buzzard Rock. Return to the parking lot, and cross the gravel road to the southern portion of the Appalachian Trail. This 1 mile hike is family friendly, and easy for all levels of hiking experience. This hike offers changing terrain, starting along an open stretch of wildflowers and expansive views from the ridgeline of farmlands and valleys below. Shortly, you’ll be encompassed by enchanting fern-lined forest with small streams trickling down below. The sky opens up just past this to an open, grassy bald with Buzzard Rock in the distance. You’ll be treated to an outcropping of boulders to explore and a 360 degree panoramic view with Mount Rogers in the distance. This is perhaps one of the most stunning views on the Eastern shore, and not to be missed.

Now that you’ve worked up your appetite, head back into Chilhowie and treat yourself to dinner at The Riverfront Restaurant or Papa’s Cafe.

Hike from Whitetop Mountain to Buzzard Rock on the Appalachian Trail
View from Buzzard Rock. Photo courtesy of Sara Saavedra.

Day Two: Summit the Peak of Mount Rogers

You need to prepare yourself for this next hike, and we recommend carving out an entire day to reach Virginia’s highest peak. At 5,728 feet, Mt. Rogers stands a couple hundred feet above Whitetop Mountain. Unlike Whitetop Mountain, however, the only way to the top is on foot.

Reserve a picnic lunch catered by The Farmhouse Market to pick up on your way to your hike to Mount Rogers. You’ll be thrilled you prepared with food for your hike, and don’t forget plenty of water! This hike brings you back to the Appalachian Trail, beginning at Massie Gap, located in Grayson Highlands State Park.  

Rhododendron on the Appalachian Trail in Smyth County VA

Grab your pack and start your hike to Mount Rogers on the Rhododendron Trail, which leads through an open meadow, and may offer your first glimpse of the wild ponies of Grayson Highlands. From there you’ll hike the blazed Appalachian Trail, eventually arriving at Wilburn Ridge – an elevated ridge of boulders and rocks, descending down the dense forest, passing Rhododendron Gap Trail, and arriving at the Thomas Knob Shelter. Many hikers have turned back at this point…but you’re so close to bagging this summit, the Mount Rogers Spur Trail is just half a mile away! 

Some folks are disappointed that the tree line blocks any view from Mount Rogers, but once you’re prepared to take a look around, you’ll appreciate that the beauty lies in the enchanted forest around you. The thick spruce-fir forest will remind you of moss-covered scenes from the Pacific-Northwest, with a soft silence that is a nice reward after hours of hiking. 

You deserve a beer and some greasy food after one of the best hikes in Virginia. Dreaming about the famed Dip Dog Stand on the way down the mountain will give you a second wind to complete your hike to the highest point in Virginia. Voted the best hot dog in Virginia by People.com, you should definitely add an order of onion rings to complete the experience. Finish off the day with a nightcap at 36° Fifty Brewing and grab a growler to take back to your room. You’ve earned it.

Day Three: Picnic at Skull’s Gap and Hike Elk Garden

Want another chance at seeing the wild ponies and enjoying sweeping views all the way into North Carolina? Day 3 is the perfect ending to your summit bagging trip after ascending the two highest mountain peaks in Virginia. By now, you’ve become familiar with the route from Chilhowie into the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. This time, grab some lunch from one of Smyth County’s restaurants to go, and stop on your way to Elk Garden at the Skull’s Gap Overlook. Here you’ll enjoy a breathtaking view of Smyth County, with no hiking required. 

Wild Ponies and Longhorn Cattle in Elk Garden Virginia

Press on after lunch to Elk Garden, where you’ll head west, again on a new section of the Appalachian Trail. This scenic 2.3 mile out and back hike has rocky outcroppings and expansive mountain balds. You may see roaming cattle in addition to ponies. Birders also love Elk Garden to catch a glimpse of northern returns in the Spring.

This easy day will leave you with plenty of energy to catch a show at The Lincoln Theatre and dinner at one of Smyth County’s independent restaurants.

Choose Your Smyth County Adventure!

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