When the Appalachian Trail was rerouted through nearby Grayson Highlands State Park in the 1950s, solitude returned to the Iron Mountains. Result: a special stash of unmarred hiking for in-the-know locals who patched together this 16.4-miler. From Little Dry Run trailhead (1), head into the wilderness area along Little Dry Run. Climb 800 feet in three miles, in the shade of oaks, hemlocks, and rhododendrons. At mile .7 (2), the route zigzags over the rocky streambed, which is usually dry except for early spring (hence the name). At mile 2.8, the trail intersects the orange-blazed Virginia Highlands Horse Trail (3). The unnamed gap here makes a good first night’s camp, if you’ve started on Friday evening.
From here, continue straight on Little Dry Run Trail for an optional 2.7-mile ascent of Comers Rock. The next morning, continue east, descending through maple and hemlock, interrupted occasionally by small meadows of shin-high grasses and Queen Anne’s lace. Cross US 21 (4) and the ankle-deep East Fork of Dry Run, turning right at mile 5.6 onto the gravel CC Camp road (good camping nearby), then twisting an immediate left onto Dry Run Gap Trail (5). You’ll meander along the base of a dry ravine before turning left onto the yellow-blazed Iron Mountain Trail (6). Climb switchbacks .5 mile to reach a ridge with blown-open views north and south in winter.
After two brief-but-steep climbs, turn left onto the Divide Trail (7), plunging 700 feet in .7 mile. On your descent, keep your eyes peeled for black bears drawn to the blue and blackberries of this deep, wooded valley (in June). Cross the CC Camp road again at mile 10.3 (8) to rejoin the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail, leading to 3,873-foot Horse Heaven and its idyllic grassy campsite (9) (pack in water). Close the loop: Descend nearly 1,300 feet in four miles, linking to Henley Hollow Trail (10) at mile 14.8. Follow the faint tinkle of cascading water back to the trailhead.
Get there From Roanoke, take I-81 69.5 miles south to US 11. Head 3.2 miles south to US 21, which leads 13 miles to Little Dry Run trailhead on the left.
Gear up SunDog Outfitter, 331 Douglas Dr., Damascus, VA; (866) 515-3441; sundogoutfitter.com
Permit None required
Map USGS quad Speedwell ($8, store.usgs.gov)
Season May for blooms, June for berries, Nov. for fall colors
Trip data backpacker.com/hikes/1305456