Rip & Go: Iron Mountain Loop – Mount Rogers National Recreation Area
Lose the leaf-peeping crowds on this quiet ramble above Virginia's loftiest canopies of color.
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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)
Key Skill: Loading a pack for varied terrain
This mountainous loop has more ups and downs than a roller coaster. Keep your shoulders and back happy by properly loading your backpack. The gear gurus at Mount Rogers Outfitters in Damascus do this:
1. Keep pack weight under 35 pounds. Water is plentiful on this circuit, so only pack one quart at a time.
2. Load your sleeping bag in the bottom, keeping heavy items above your hips for optimal weight transfer.
3. Add your tent and clothes you won’t need during the day. Then put food, cooking gear, and water higher in the pack, close to your back to create a stable center of gravity. Keep the weight centered on your hips.
4. Pack raingear and extra layers on top, and don’t lash heavy stuff like bottles on the outside of your pack. They’ll sway and throw off your balance.
5. Put sunscreen, headlamp, and snacks in the lid pocket for easy access.
6. Hunters are most active in October and November. Tie a blaze-orange bandanna to your pack’s lid.
In 2004, Virginia established The Crooked Road, a 253-mile “bluegrass trail” celebrating the state’s musical heritage. (The name plays off of old bluegrass slang for a noodling fiddler who takes a tune “down the crooked road.”) This road twists through the Mt. Rogers NRA along US 58 and passes museums and concert venues. Bluegrass originated in this region when the banjo and fiddle music of coastal slaves and settlers moved west, following the Revolutionary War, and mingled with the music of Scots-Irish and Germans traveling south. Head to the Carter Family Fold (carterfamilyfold.org) in Hilton, Virginia. Johnny Cash played his last gig here, and there’s a jam nearly every night of the week. crookedroad.org
See This: Wild Turkey
In October and November, turkeys cluster in groups of five to 20 to feed on bugs and worms as they fatten up for winter. Flocks are particularly plentiful along the Iron Mountain Trail. To spot likely habitat, look for disturbed ground and upturned leaves in small clearings in the brush, says William J. Cober, a Forest Service recreation manager. Thanksgiving’s favorite fowl is harder to spot in spring, when the birds set out solo for mating season.
Due to massive budget cuts, Virginia recently closed 18 of its 42 highway rest areas, saving the state $8.6 million. Most are on I-81, the main artery leading to the Mt. Rogers area–so go easy on the coffee. There has been a huge public outcry, and politicians have made campaign promises to reopen them. But the state also plans to axe the number of air-pollution inspectors who oversee emissions from 5,000 sites statewide. Discuss: Which would you cut: potties or pollution control?
On The Menu
On the road
Peanut butter and apple wedges on a bagel
Enloe’s Tuna Couscous
Iron Mountain Cheese Grits
Mixed nuts, trail bars, chocolate
Enloe’s Tuna Couscous
Recommended by one-pot-cooking thru-hikers
3/4 cup couscous
2.6-oz. packet of tuna
Pinch of salt and pepper
Soy sauce to taste
Boil 1 cup water. Add couscous, remove from heat. Let sit for five minutes, then add tuna, salt, pepper, and soy sauce.
Iron Mountain Cheese Grits
Cheddary breakfast with a kick
3/4 cup instant grits
1 cup water
1 1/2 ounces sharp cheddar
Pinch salt, pepper
Boil water. Remove from heat, then add the grits and diced cheddar. Stir, then cover and let sit for 3 minutes. Season to taste and enjoy.
The Grocery List (Aisle # in Nearest Store Below)
1 package bagels (1)
1 tuna packet (2)
2 chocolate bars (3)
2 energy bars (3)
1 pack soy sauce (4)
1 jar peanut butter (4)
1 box instant grits (4)
1 package mixed nuts (9)
1 block cheddar cheese
1 apple (produce)
Pack salt, pepper
Grab a homemade chicken salad on wheat at Wild Flour Bakery, 10 miles west of Damascus on US 58. They make soups and breads from scratch daily, using locally sourced produce. 24443 Lee Hwy, Abingdon, VA; (276) 676-4221
Nearest Grocery Store
736 N Beaver Dam Rd; Damascus, VA; (276) 475-5570