Mount Rogers National Recreation Area: Iron Mountain Loop

This well-trodden route passes fishermen, cyclists, and AT thru-hikers before ascending the quiet, sun-dappled slopes of southwest Virginia's Iron Mountain.
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This well-trodden route passes fishermen, cyclists, and AT thru-hikers before ascending the quiet, sun-dappled slopes of southwest Virginia's Iron Mountain.

Autumn-color insiders head here come October for a 13.5-mile weekend with huge scenery and no crowds. The loop links four trails–Beartree Gap, Appalachian, Feathercamp Branch, and Iron Mountain–on a rugged circuit with a little bit of everything. You'll swoop past views of Virginia's highest peaks, peer over a glacier-carved gorge, then wrap up with a stream-hopping push over Iron Mountain.

Pick up the Beartree Gap Trail beside the kiosk at Beartree Lake and cross the 14-acre, trout-stocked lake via a short dam. Then follow the trail across US 58 to link to the AT southbound at mile .5. You'll work up a sweat ascending the wide path up 3,500-foot Straight Mountain. On top, pan east to see Mt. Rogers (5,729 feet) and Whitetop (5,520 feet), Virginia's two highest peaks. Continue along the ridgeline through mixed hardwoods.

Pass a spur to Saunder Shelter at mile 2.7, a good campsite for late starters. Take a sharp right shortly after to stay on the AT. Pass views into glacier-carved, 1,000-foot deep Whitetop Laurel Creek Gorge. At mile 3.7, begin a switchbacking descent to Whitetop Laurel Creek.

Cross the highway again to pick up blue-blazed Feathercamp Branch Trail and make a 1,500-foot ascent to Iron Mountain's 4,000-foot ridgeline. At mile 8.6, find a tent-perfect clearing, or turn right onto the yellow-blazed Iron Mountain Trail to continue to the six-person Sandy Flats Shelter.

The next day, savor the views and silence along the lightly traveled IMT, part of the AT until a 1972 rerouting. The peak drops its leaves earlier than the lowlands, so by mid-October you'll have unobstructed views of the blazing slopes below. Descend and turn right at Shaw's Gap to close the loop with the Beartree Gap Trail.

Gear Up: Mt. Rogers Outfitters has it all. 110 Laurel Ave., Damascus, VA; (276) 475-5416

Season: Get the best foliage from mid-October to mid-November. In late November, be prepared for snow at upper elevations.

Map: Mount Rogers NRA ($10, natgeomaps.com)

Contact: Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, http://www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/mr/

-Mapped by Amy C. Balfour

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 21.8

Waypoints

IRN001

Location: 36.655325, -81.690211

From the parking area, follow Beartree Gap Trail to the north.

IRN002

Location: 36.656284, -81.689704

Cross Beartree Lake, a trout-stocked pool (the fishermen show up early here).

IRN003

Location: 36.656055, -81.689176

Turn right at junction onto the Beartree Gap Trail.

IRN004

Location: 36.65507, -81.688827

Continue straight; ignore the spur trail to the left.

IRN005

Location: 36.654386, -81.688269

Cross US 58.

IRN006

Location: 36.651197, -81.689181

Turn right and head south on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail (AT).

IRN007

Location: 36.651309, -81.691021

Begin the ascent of Straight Mountain.

IRN008

Location: 36.650318, -81.695239

Take in the views north and south while hiking the spine of Straight Mountain.

IRN009

Location: 36.644698, -81.699786

Cross a small bridge at the bottom of the gap, then continue climbing. In summer, look for rhododendron blooms lining the trail as you ascend.

IRN010

Location: 36.639012, -81.709626

Stay left at junction with fire road.

IRN011

Location: 36.638723, -81.710079

Stay left; watch for white blaze.

IRN012

Location: 36.637183, -81.711652

Pass a spur trail to Saunders Shelter.

IRN013

Location: 36.634815, -81.716319

Turn right onto the second spur trail to access Saunders Shelter, a good campsite for late starters.

IRN014

Location: 36.637777, -81.713251

Saunders Shelter. Turn around, return to Waypoint 13, and bear right at the Y-junction.

IRN015

Location: 36.633963, -81.71559

Tackle a long series of switchbacks that descend the mountain.

IRN016

Location: 36.630286, -81.718723

Turn right at the junction with Virginia Creeper Spur Trail to continue on the AT. The Virginia Creeper Trail and Whitetop Laurel Creek are frequently visible to the left.

IRN017

Location: 36.633179, -81.728969

Pass a potential camping spot on the left.

IRN018

Location: 36.644943, -81.736436

Cross US 58. Look left for the sign for Feathercamp Trail.

IRN019

Location: 36.644935, -81.736634

Pick up the Feathercamp Trail. Ahead, pass two possible campsites on the right (close to US 58).

IRN020

Location: 36.645886, -81.736264

Stay right and continue on the blue-blazed Feathercamp Trail (AT veers left). The trail will cross Feathercreek Branch at least 10 times as it ascends Iron Mountain.

IRN021

Location: 36.662039, -81.713461

Pass a clearing for a campsite.

IRN022

Location: 36.664021, -81.711051

Turn right onto yellow-blazed Iron Mountain Trail.

IRN023

Location: 36.663057, -81.707908

Turn left to reach Sandy Flats Shelter and to continue on Iron Mountain Trail. Turn right to use the privy.

IRN024

Location: 36.66304, -81.707572

Sandy Flats Shelter.

IRN025

Location: 36.663111, -81.707209

Cross Bushwacker Trail.

IRN026

Location: 36.665092, -81.703094

Cross FS 90 and continue straight ahead on the yellow-blazed Iron Mountain Trail.

IRN027

Location: 36.677971, -81.681869

Shaw's Gap: Turn right and walk a short distance beyond the clearing to merge onto the Beartree Gap Trail at the signed junction.

IRN028

Location: 36.677583, -81.681901

Turn right onto Beartree Gap Trail at a marked junction a few steps to the right of Shaw's Gap. The Beartree Gap Trail is marked by yellow diamonds.

IRN029

Location: 36.664319, -81.691153

Turn right to continue on Beartree Gap Trail at the marked junction with Yancy Trail.

IRN030

Location: 36.65461, -81.693317

Cross wooden footbridge.

IRN031

Location: 36.654455, -81.693268

Cross FS 837 and pick up trail on other side. Follow back to the parking area.

Beartree Lake

Location: 36.65628, -81.689637

Junction of AT and Beartree Gap Trail

Location: 36.651197, -81.689068

Appalachian Trail South

Location: 36.651102, -81.689615

Saunders Shelter

Location: 36.637768, -81.713144

Junction with Virginia Creeper Spur Trail

Location: 36.630269, -81.718583

Rhododendron Bloom

Location: 36.630924, -81.719398

View of Virginia Creeper Trail

Location: 36.63101, -81.72384

Wooden Bridge Over Small Cascades

Location: 36.632707, -81.726459

Trail Register

Location: 36.644457, -81.7365

Feathercamp Trail Joins AT

Location: 36.644935, -81.736575

Feathercamp Branch

Location: 36.650621, -81.732503

The Feathercamp Trail Doesn't Stop for Trees

Location: 36.657928, -81.719602

Campsite

Location: 36.66205, -81.713326

Sandy Flats Shelter

Location: 36.663057, -81.707468

Iron Mountain Trail

Location: 36.668669, -81.697844

Shaw's Gap

Location: 36.677953, -81.68173

Beartree Gap Trail

Location: 36.665702, -81.689069

Wooden Footbridge

Location: 36.654614, -81.693258

Looking Back at Footbridge

Location: 36.654532, -81.693295

Return to Fishermen's Lot

Location: 36.655118, -81.690248