Key Skill: Hiking with horses
The dearth of campsites and fire rings on this loop speaks to the scarcity of backpackers, but the 68-mile Virginia Highlands Horse Trail is popular among riders, and you’ll overlap it twice for nearly seven miles total. Horses are big, unpredictable and sometimes skittish of new sights, sounds, colors, and smells; hikers should yield the right-of-way. There’s more to it than you might think. Here’s how to do it right:
Yield the trail. Step as far as you can off the trail—and downhill, if possible (about 15 feet is ideal). Horses tend to charge uphill when spooked, so you’ll be out of the way in case anything does go wrong. As the rider approaches, ask quietly and calmly if you’re OK where you are, and then stand still until the horse is 15 feet past you.
Wear gaiters. Horses on trails produce (at least) three things: dust, mud, and loose rocks. To keep debris out of your shoes and protect your ankles, opt for mid-cut boots and strap on low gaiters for an additional barrier (we like Outdoor Research’s Flex-Tex Gaiters: $35, outdoorresearch.com).
See This: Wintergreen
Also known as Eastern teaberry, wintergreen is a small, low-growing, shrubby plant with waxy, oval leaves and white, bell-shaped flowers that turn into red fruits. Its leaves produce a strong, menthol-like scent when they’re crushed or bruised. The red fruits are edible and have a minty flavor, too. To make wintergreen tea, collect leaves early in the day in order to allow ample time to let them steep for maximum taste. Cut leaves into pieces (to release oils) and seal them in a water bottle with treated water. Let steep for five hours, then bring water to a boil and serve. Bonus: The tea is purported to relieve mild aches (and reduce flatulence, a real plus if you’re having dehydrated beans for dinner).
Best view on the trip? Easy. Comers Rock, but you have to go off-route to get there (see right). From the intersection of the Little Dry Run and Virginia Highlands Horse Trails (mile 2.8), stay straight on Little Dry Run Trail to the .4-mile Comers Rock Trail, leading to the 4,080-foot peak. From the remaining platform of the circa-1931 fire tower, take in sweeping views of the Iron Mountain range and beyond. Fifty miles to the west—beyond Hale Lake, Bald Rock Ridge, and Canadays Ridge—lies 5,729-foot Mt. Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. To the south, the terrain drops away 1,500 feet into the patchwork fields of Elk Creek Valley, before climbing to the peaks of North Carolina’s Amphibolite Mountains. To the east, see Perkins Knob and Horse Heaven (both are on this route) and the dark ridges of the Iron Mountains fading out of view at the New River.