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 (1) at Beartree Lake and cross the 14-acre, trout-stocked lake via a short dam. Then follow the trail across US 58 (2) to link to the AT southbound at mile .5 (3). 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 (4), 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 (5), begin a switchbacking descent to Whitetop Laurel Creek. Cross the highway again to pick up blue-blazed Feathercamp Branch Trail (6) and make a 1,500-foot ascent to Iron Mountain’s 4,000-foot ridgeline. At mile 8.6, find a tent-perfect clearing (7), or turn right (8) onto the yellow-blazed Iron Mountain Trail to continue to the six-person Sandy Flats Shelter (9). 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 (10) to close the loop with the Beartree Gap Trail.
From Bristol, VA, take I-81 north 16 miles to US 58. Head east, following it 16.7 miles to the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area entrance at FS 837. Turn left and go .2 mile to the no-fee parking lot.
Mt. Rogers Outfitters has it all.
110 Laurel Ave., Damascus, VA; (276) 475-5416
Get the best foliage from mid-October to mid-November. In late November, be prepared for snow at upper elevations.
Mount Rogers NRA ($10, natgeomaps.com)