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The Peak: 5,729 feet
There’s no view from the top of Mt. Rogers, thanks to a thick stand of fir trees, but the 118,000-acre Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area includes the three highest peaks in Virginia, 400 miles of trail, herds of wild ponies and, as the Forest Service likes to brag, a greater diversity of plants than the rainforests of Brazil. In spring, giant rhododendron paint the mountain purple; in fall, the color scheme shifts to red and gold. The hike is rugged but easy to follow; any confusion stems from the signs warning hikers not to “molest the ponies.”
Nearby Damascus is a blessing for hungry hikers. The so-called “friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail” hosts a weeklong festival each May that lavishes food and entertainment on anyone carrying a pack. The Trail Days event kicks off with a town-wide yard sale and moves quickly into nonstop bluegrass, country, and gospel performances; slide shows and lectures; the occasional wedding; and good ol’ southern feeds. Ken Fritz, owner of Cowboy’s General Store, picks blueberries on Mt. Rogers for his signature 8-inch pancakes ($2.59 for three). The fire station puts on a legendary barbecue. And gear manufacturers repair packs, poles, and boots free. If you come, make reservations early, and prepare for a scene that’s part Dead show, part Mayberry, and part outdoor retailer convention (www.damascus.org).