Breaking Virginia's Tree Barrier

Virginia's Iron Mountain Loop nearly breaks treeline in the east.
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Virginia's Iron Mountain Loop nearly breaks treeline in the east.

Iron Mountain Loop

Virginia

To break the tree barrier in the East, you either have to go far north to the mountains of New Hampshire and Maine or south to the very first of the towering balds you come to: 5,729-foot Mt. Rogers and the tundralike plains of Grayson Highlands. Compared to the typical Mid-Atlantic forests and thick summer air on lower slopes, the crown of Mt. Rogers at 5,729 feet is a distinct world of spruce, fir, and brisk air. Experience it all, and maintain your hard-won altitude, on the 57-mile Iron Mountain loop.

What the 20-plus miles of former Appalachian Trail on Iron Mountain lack in big, sexy views and steep climbs, they make up for in fields thick with tall grass and wildflowers and woodsy pockets of privacy between knobs like Round Top and Flat Top. A few hundred feet off-trail near Rush Creek's headwaters, old-growth hemlocks tower-a near miracle, given that timber from these mountains once fueled iron-ore furnaces for Confederate weapons.

While Iron Mountain is the centerpiece of this loop, the 35-mile stretch of AT you hike in between is no slouch. You'll traverse a gorgeous plateau of Virginia high country studded with craggy granite outcrops and sliced by deep gaps thick with rhododendrons. Elsewhere, the forests are thick with yellow birch, red oak, and sugar maple. On the highest ground, Frasier fir and red spruce-flora particular to opposing sides of the Mason-Dixon Line-peacefully intermingle.

Where: 360 miles (61/2 hours) southwest of Washington, DC. The eastern trailhead is 5.9 miles west of Troutdale on VA 603. The western trailhead is on Forest Road 4038 south of the US 58 and VA 91 junction in Damascus.

Maps:The Mount Rogers National Recreation Area map ($4.25) and a free pamphlet, West End Circuit Trail, are available from the Forest Service (see below).

Trail Info: Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, (540) 783-5196.