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Grayson Highlands Backpacking: A.T. – Pine Mtn Loop

Posted by on March 27, 2011

Feral Pony in the Grayson Highlands

I made my first backpacking trip of the year on a loop starting in the Grayson Highlands State Park (at the Backpackers Overnight Parking area).  I’ve done this exact trip a couple of times before, and as always I’ve found it to be a great hike if you’re looking for a short, relaxing loop for a one or two night trip.  See the exact route that I took in the Hike Planner below.

I got a very late start on Friday evening and only hiked a couple of miles before dark… heading north on the A.T., and camping at Little Wilson Creek.  This is a beautiful grove next the stream that can accommodate a lot of tent sites.  I must have slept well because I woke up the next morning surrounded by a troop of Boy Scouts.  I never heard them come in and set up.  They told me that they arrived around midnight.

Day #1 Campsite Next to Little Wilson Creek

Views of Wilburn Ridge from Stone Mountain

On day #2 I decided to make it a lazy day and not get in any hurries since my entire loop was only 12 miles, so I slept in and didn’t get back on the A.T.  until 11:00 a.m.  Soon, I found myself on the windy Stone Mountain, giving me wonderful views of Wilburn Ridge.

Eventually, I passed by “The Scales” (an old corral with a nice privy), and then made the climb up to Pine Mountain.  When the A.T. connected to the Pine Mountain Trail, I took a left on this blue-blazed trail, which at one time was the old Appalachian Trail.

Day #2 Campsite on the Pine Mountain Trail

Vista Near My Campsite

This is another nicely maintained trail with wonderful views, and even though it was only 2:00 p.m., I decided to find a nice spot with a view and set up camp.

This turned out to be a cold, windy night… well down into the 20’s I think.  And getting out of the sleeping bag the next morning was difficult.  But after finally getting started, I continued my climb up the Pine Mountain Trail to Rhododendron Gap.  It was here that I ran into my first Feral Ponies of the trek, and it was also here that I left the Pine Mountain Trail and got back on the Appalachian Trail, crossing the wonderful Wilburn Ridge.  Soon after, I descended down from Grandview Peak, passing through “Fatman Squeeze”, and making my way to back into the State Park at Massie Gap.  Not long after I got back on the A.T. Spur Trail and retraced my steps back to the car.

This is such a wonderful loop with awesome views, numerous campsites, and the wild ponies are also a neat added attraction.

Feral Pony at Rhododendron Gap

View from Rhododendron Gap

Vista Near Grandview Peak






Great Loop for beginning backpackers looking for a lot of “wow!”.



Virginia State Park, Appalachian Trail, A.T. Shelter, Feral Ponies, Amazing Vistas, Southern Appalachian Balds




From Interstate 81, take exit 35 (Chilhowie), turn onto route 762 Whitetop Rd. (at the bottom of the exit turn toward the Hardees). Continue on 762 for approximately 11.5 miles, then take a left on Route 600 (Whitetop Road).  Follow this road for approximately 8.0 miles, then take a left on Highway 58.  Follow Highway 58 for 7.5 miles, and then take a left into the Grayson Highlands State Park on Route 362.  You will soon pass through a toll gate, where you will need to pay $3/night (I think).  Follow the signs to the “backpackers overnight parking” area.


From the parking area, you will see an a sign indicating the “A.T. Spur Trail.  Follow this blue-blazed trail.  After 0.8 miles of ascending, you will come to the junction on the Appalachian Trail.  Take a right (heading north) on the A.T., following the white blazes.  You will begin descending down in to the Little Wilson Creek valley.  After about 2.5 miles you will pass by Wise Shelter on your right.  Wilson Creek (where I camped) is about 0.1 miles past this shelter.  From Little Wilson Creek, continue on the A.T. heading north and in about 2.5 miles of steady climbing you will reach the grass-covered Stone Mountain offering wonderful vistas.  Continue another 0.5 mile and you will reach “The Scales”, and old corral where there is a decent enclosed privy.  From the Scales ascend for another 1.5 miles to Pine Mountain, where you will see a junction for the blue-blazed Pine Mountain Trail.  Take a left on the Pine Mountain Trail.  You will eventually come to a small spring that crosses the trail.  If you take a left at this spring and walk down up ridge for a couple hundred yards you will come to a fenced spring that is very nice to draw water from.  This is also very close to where I camped on the 2nd night.  Continue on the Pine Mountain Trail (which is a total of 1.9 miles long), and you will reach Rhododendron Gap, where you will reconnect with the Appalachian Trail.  The big rock at Rhododendron Gap is worth climbing as it offers wonderful views.  From here, get on the A.T., still following the north white blazes.  You will soon cross Wilburn Ridge, which I think is the highlight of the trek with amazing vistas.  In a couple tenths of a mile you will begin descending, and go through the “Fatman Squeeze”… a natural rock formation tunnel.  After another couple miles of descending you will come back into the state park at Massie Gap and soon complete the loop at the A.T. Spur Trail.  Follow the Spur Trail back down to your vehicle.  The entire trip is about 12 miles exactly.


Gear & Tips:

Basic backpacking gear.  Weather can change dramatically on the grass covered peaks, so take extra clothing and colder rated sleeping bags than expected.  There are numerous campsites all along this loop.  Here are some with water sources: Wise shelter, Little Wilson Creek grove, wooded area while ascending Stone Mtn, The Scales, wooded area while climbing Pine Mountain, numerous areas on the Pine Mtn Trail, Rhododendron Gap (only in good weather), and some nice spots after the descent down off of Wilburn Ridge.


12 miles.



1 or 2 night trip.  Can also be done on a long day-hike, with a about 7-10 hours.

Loop, with short out and back on a blue-blazed trail.

Rating (1-5):

4.5 – Grand views from many different locations.


Rating (based on a 1-50 scale):


Crossings (one way):

A few (very easy).  Bigger streams have bridges.


Only if you want to climb the numerous rock outcroppings.

Weather can change dramatically on the grass-covered, exposed ridges.  Check forecast for high winds or thunderstorms before attempting to camp on exposed ridge-lines or peaks.







44 Responses to Grayson Highlands Backpacking: A.T. – Pine Mtn Loop

  1. Shonna McNasby

    Thanks for the great information! My husband and I will do the loop with one overnight. Where would you recommend camping about halfway through the hike? (Or am I over thinking it and there’ll be plenty of good choices?)

    • Bill Fuller

      Sorry for late reply on this, Shonna. I somehow missed your post. I imagine you’ve already done this hike, but if you haven’t let me know and I’ll send you some more info.

      • B

        My husband and I are thinking of a one night as well. Wouldn’t mind knowing the answer to the above question. Thanks!

        • Bill Fuller

          There are a lot of good campsite options on this loop. If you initially go north on the A.T. like I did then the first good site would be at Little Wilson Creek, just a few hundred yards past the shelter. There’s a nice, flat grove there and of course a good water source, but this would leave you with the majority of miles left on the second day. There’s also some good sites on your right about a mile past Little Wilson Creek when you head into the woods. There’s water there too with some nice streams crossing the A.T. The Scales would also be a good option as this is about the halfway point. There’s a privy at The Scales so there’s the convenience of that, and a piped water source. The only thing I don’t like about that location is it can be crowded and there’s a road there. However, about a mile (or less) past The Scales there some nice spots in the forest right before you start the climb up to the Pine Mountain Trail. Again… there are streams there too crossing the A.T. so you can’t miss it. Then, once on the Pine Mountain trail you’ll cross a small stream in a grassy area. If you bushwack across the grassy field at that point (going upsteam) there’s a fenced-in spring with a great water supply next to the horse trail. Then, just a few hundred yards on up the trail there’s a nice spot in the woods before you start your climb up to Rhododendron Gap. Finally, there’s good spots all around Rhododenron Gap, especially if you want to continue north a mile or so on the A.T. from Rhodo Gap toward Thomas Knob. As you can see there’s lots of options, especially starting north on the A.T. Once you get past Rhodo Gap and get on Wilburn Ridge your campsites become a little more limited (with no water), but there’s still options. You won’t have trouble finding a good campsite at about any location on this loop. Just remember, you’re not supposed to tent camp in the State Park, but you will only in the Park boundary on a few miles of this trip. Hope this helps!

  2. Alicia

    Hi Bill, Was hoping to do this hike next weekend, first weekend of November. My friends and I live in Asheville and are going to make the drive for a 3 night hiking/ camping adventure. I was so excited to find this page & your website during my search! It is usually just my boyfriend doing a 15-20 mile, 3 night hike every Fall but decided to invite some friends this time around. I feel pretty confident that we are going to have to cut down a few miles to make it do-able for our levels of fitness- not that 15-20 is alot:). Any advice or more information would be very much appreciated. Thanks again for giving all of the details above, we will try to follow pretty close to what you outlined & hopefully we will see some ponies!

    • Alicia

      Just saw your last comment, great advice. Will we know when we are in the State Park? Is it closely marked? I also forgot to write before that we will also be hiking with my dog who is always leashed, and he carries his own pack. Just want to make sure that we are not going to be in danger of setting up tents in the park unknowingly. Thanks! Alicia

      • Bill Fuller

        I sent you a longer email, but basicaly the State Park boundary ends just past Wise Shelter at a fence. Then you won’t be back into the State Park property until you descend all the way down off of Wilburn Ridge. At that point, there’s a sign and a gate there desiginating the boundary. Have fun!!!

        • Alicia

          This is so great Bill, thanks so much!! Your email was super informative and we will definitely take your advice and look at the Nat Geo Maps. We did Roan Mountain in TN last year from Carver’s Gap up to Big Hump and it would have been helpful to have a map then as well. Think we might also try to make it up to Mt. Rogers this trip, depending on our pace. Thanks again so much for your advice and helpful blog. Your photographs are amazing and put mine to shame! Can’t wait to see some ponies:).

  3. Jason

    Thansk for the great trail info, do you by chance have a link to a site with a good map of this area?

  4. Zach

    Hi Bill,

    Like everyone else before me has said, this is a great overview of the hike! I’ve been to Grayson Highlands before, but never to camp overnight. I’ve noticed on the national park website they say backpackers must register even if they are coming from AT. I was wondering if you had to pay a parking fee for the parking area you specified? Also, the loop seems pretty simple and straight forward. Would you recommend a map, or would I be just fine taking the appropriate turns at the trail intersections? Are fires permitted along the loop? I understand a lot of my questions would be answered with appropriate research, but I thought I’d ask you first!

    Thanks for all the help,


    • Zach

      Oops, just noticed your statement above about the $3 per night fee.

    • Bill Fuller

      Hey Zach. Thanks for the compliments. The loop is pretty straightfoward, and there is signage at most intersections, but a map is not a bad idea. The Nat. Geo map of Mount Rogers (#786) is good and it has a 1:30,000 scale of the Grayson Highlands area. Yes, you have to register. There’s a registration gate that you’ll go through, and it’s rarely manned, so just fill out the little form and drop it in the box with your parking fee. There is no tent camping allowed in the State Park area, so no fires except at the shelter. Once outside of State Park boundary, I’ve tent camped and built fires all along the A.T. and Pine Mtn Trail. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with. Hope you have a good hike!

  5. P.J.

    Nice website. I am planning to do this hike in Late May. What are the average night temps for that time of year? Any info on maps, etc. would be greatly appreciated. Your photos are great.

    • Bill Fuller

      Thank you! The lowest nighttime temps you’ll probably see in late May would probably be in the 40’s, but I would always check the forecast. Natgeo has a great map of the Mount Rogers area (#786).

  6. Madeline

    Hey Bill,
    I just wanted to comment and thank you for posting this hike. My boyfriend and I did this route this past Memorial Day weekend. I have a bad leg and can’t handle extremely strenuous hikes, so this was the perfect amount of hiking for me! We ended up staying 3 nights, following the same route you did, but stayed an extra night at Rhododendron Gap and doing a day hike to Thomas Knob and Mount Rogers the next day.

    We also met another couple on the trial who had a a print-out of your “Hike Planner” and they were doing the *exact* same hike as us! We ended up hiking the rest of the day with them and camping together by Rhododendron Gap. We had a blast with them and wanted to thank you for providing a commonality that gave us an opportunity to make fast friends.

    Being from Atlanta, it was hard to find information about Grayson Highlands online and we didn’t know anyone personally who we could ask about this loop. So, your blog was the perfect find and you helped us tremendously. We had such a blast. The route, weather,and ponies were gorgeous. We had some crazy stories to tell our friends back home about longhorned cows running through our campsite just as we were making dinner.

    We can’t thank you enough! We wish you well in the rest of you hiking endeavors! :)

    • Bill Fuller

      Glad I could help, and I’m happy you had a good time. It truly is a wonderful place.

  7. Tim Blaikie

    Hey Bill,

    I just wanted to let you know my girlfriend and I did a hike yesterday from the parking area into Wilson Creek and setup camp there for the night. Beautiful hike by the way and loved every minute of it until we had about a 400lb black bear walk right into our camp at dusk and we slowly backed out and it ran off with our dog’s backpack (I guess it smelled his food). Then 30 minutes later it came back again and walked right into our camp like we weren’t even there. By this point my girlfriend was so freaked out that we had to pack everything up and leave because she was scared. It was quite intense for sure because I had never experienced that before. I just wanted to let you know and I called the ranger station to let them know as well. It was definitely one for the memory books! :-)

  8. Mark

    Thanks Bill! My girlfriend and I did this yesterday and really enjoyed it. Good moderately rigorous route and distance. Lots of different landscapes and sites to take in. Just want to add two “heads up” notes, which may be attributable to only my inability to pay attention. First, after passing Wise Shelter and crossing Wilson Creek there is a point where you are facing up a steep uphill meadow with a wide gravel trail. That trail seems like the natural direction to go but actually the AT splits to the right just as you start up that hill. There is a very worn sign that points up the hill for the Scales Trail, and AT to the right but we missed while we were looking down watching our step since its a tad rocky there. Also the white blaze for the AT is on a metal post obscured by foliage and the blaze on the rock beneath it was didn’t catch our attention in the bright sunlight that day. The Scales Trail does reconnect to the AT and is actually shorter but just wanted to point that out(we backtracked after about 20 minutes of not seeing any white blazes). Second, when the Pine Mountain trail reconnects to the AT, the only AT sign immediately at that point says Appalachian Trail with an arrow to the *right* and no indication of north or south. After some thought, I figured that coming in below Massy Gap, we would have to turn *left* to be going north again. Then 10 paces later to the left, after coming around some rocks, there was indeed another directional sign that points you back to the Grayson Highlands with north and south indicated for the AT. But for a moment before then, we were a bit concerned that we may be putting in more miles to the next sign to clarify our direction for us and had we followed that first AT arrow it would have been an exhausting day and we did not have overnight gear.

    • Bill Fuller

      Glad you had a good hike, Mark. Yes… that area just past Wise Shelter is a little confusing, along with a couple other areas. I wish the signage were a little better. I’ve never taken the Scales Trail at that point near Wise Shelter, so I’ll have to try that.

  9. Jenn

    Thanks so much for this information! A group of us are planning to do this loop next month and I was wondering if you had any input on good camping areas for night #2 that would leave us with fairly minimal hiking on our 3rd day. A couple of us have hammocks and I was nervous about all of the open balds/ridges and finding somewhat protected sites with trees (and hopefully water sources). I was thinking somewhere near Rhododendron gap? I’ve never been to this area so I wanted to have a good plan for the group if possible. Again, GREATLY appreciate your summary!

    • Bill Fuller

      Yes Rhododendron Gap would be good, but Thomas Knob might be better. There’s a good water source there and a nice little spruce forest to camp in if you’re heading south on the A.T. toward Mt. Rogers. Have fun!

  10. Jenn

    Bill, just wanted to say “thanks” again for the report! We just got back yesterday and had a wonderful weekend on this loop. The Pine Mountain trail was a bit more that we expected in terms of rocky climbing (as beginners with packs) but it was an adventure and a lot of fun! We did spent night #2 uphill from the spring in Rhododendron Gap. The only negative about that area is the lack of firewood with so many other campers! We probably would have been a bit better off with regards to that between the Gap and Thomas Knob as you indicated. The Wilburn Ridge trail nearing the end of the loop was well worth the amazing view from the top!

  11. Jason

    Did this loop a couple of nights ago as an overnight. From the looks of it we spent our night at the same place you spent your 2nd night. Beautiful views of the sunrise and a nice grassy place to put the tent down. With the fenced in water source close by it’s perfect. The second day up to Rhododendron Gap and onto the ridge was the highlight. We got up and were out of camp by 6:30 and onto the ridge by 7:30. Magical.

    The trails are somewhat slow going not because of the climb but because of the views. The entire loop was a blast.

  12. carol

    We are wanting to do this hike with the shortest leg on the third day. Do you recommend doing the loop in reverse or alter camping sites on your original loop direction? Any suggestions are appreciated.

    • Bill Fuller

      Carol, this is only a 12-mile loop so if you’re stretching into 3 days, and you want the shortest leg on the last day, then YES… do the loop in reverse. What I would do is go toward Wilburn Ridge on the first day. When you get to Rhododendron gap, head south on the A.T., and camp the first night on Thomas Knob (this will add a couple extra miles to the trip). But it’s beautiful camping there, a good water source, and from there you can “day-hike” up to summit Mount Rogers. On Day #2, head back to Rhododendron Gap, then take the Pine Mtn Trail until you reconnect to the A.T. Head south on the A.T. and spend night #2 around Little Wilson Creek. The last day you’ll only have a 3 miles or so to get back to the parking area. Hope this helps.

  13. debbie

    Just wanted to say thank you for all the fantastic information. this will be my first backpacking trip and i am looking forward to it. i was having trouble finding information and feel very lucky to have stumbled on to your site. i will be taking my 16 year old son with me on the trip. should be lots of fun and mother son bonding time. thanks again

    • Bill Fuller

      You’re welcome! Have a great trip, and if there’s anything else I can help with, just let me know.

  14. jong

    Thanks for the info.
    I am planning to go on this trip soon and wanted to ask you some questions before planning/packing.
    Just for clarification (No camp/fire is allowed on GH state park BUT is allowed on the AT trails). For water source you have noted, are they natural spring (boiling needed) or like “faucet”- sorry for this kind of question.

    When do you think is the best time to visit- taking in to account the view, crowdedness, temp, etc.

    This last question might be bizzare: where would be the best chance to see the ponies (Rhododendron Gap?)


    • Bill Fuller

      Campfires are not allowed inside the State Park… even on the AT (except at the shelter… I think). Once you leave the State Park boundary, you can build fires. ALL the water sources are either from natural springs or small streams. I would always filter, treat, or boil the water from all those sources. I think the best time to visit would be when Rhododendrons are in bloom… early June. About the ponies… you can happen upon them just about anywhere along that route. However, they are probably most abundant around the Massie Gap area (close to where you will start and end the loop.

  15. kev

    Have you seen bears there? Also would you or do you bring a bear bag to hang with you? Thanks!!

    • Bill Fuller

      I’ve never seen a bear in the Grayson Highlands, but to be on the safe side, you should probably hang your food, even though I sometimes don’t there. :-)

  16. jeanna

    Hi Bill,

    My sister and I are planning to backpack the last weekend in September, coming up Friday afternoon, until preferrably Sunday around noon (2 nights and 3/4 day). I originally planned on the loop you described above, but then considered something a little longer. Are you familiar with making a loop from the same origination point but continuing past the Pine Mtn, further up the AT to Fairwood Valley Trail and adding Mt. Rogers to the mix? I called the park office, and was not able to gather much information from the park staff. I have hiked parts of the AT before, parking the car in the State Park Overnight Lot. I guess my big questions are:

    -First, have you hiked Mt. Rogers?

    -Do you know if Mt. Rogers is conducive to backpacking? (Or are we crazy to carry packs on that hike?)

    -Do you know what the overall mileage would be?

    -Per my Nat. Geo. Mt. Rogers map, there are no water sources along the Mt. Rogers Trail.

    -And finally,are the views worth it to add the mileage, or is it better to stick with the Pine Mtn trail?

    Any input you can offer is much appreciated. :)

    • Bill Fuller


      I have hiked the Mount Rogers Trail, and yes… it is fine for backpacking. I think the loop you are talking about would be great, but off the top of my head, I would have to guess at the overall mileage: The AT north from Massie Gap to Fox Creek is about 10 miles, then you would probably have 3 miles on the Fairwood Valley Trail, then 5 miles on the Mt. Rogers Trail, then another 6 or so from Deep Gap back to Massie Gap. So, I’m guessing it’s around 25 miles total, maybe a couple more if you summit Mt. Rogers on the spur trail.

      The views on the route you are talking about wouldn’t be as good as cutting across the Pine Mtn Trail. Basically the A.T. from the Scales down to Fox Creek is a walk in the woods, and then the Mt. Rogers trail is the same… even though you’ll go through some beautiful Spruce forests. The are no specified (mapped) water sources on the Mt. Rogers Trail, but you’ll cross some small streams. And even if those are dry, you’ll have sources at the campground (Mt. Rogers Trail trailhead) and then again at Deep Gap, which is only 5 miles or so. Have fun and let me know how it goes!

  17. Marvin Holmes

    We completed your suggested Pine Mountain Loop hike last weekend. We drove six hours from Ohio to get to Grayson Highlands, and the hike made the drive all worthwhile. We were struck by the diversity along the trail (rocks, deep forest, balds), as well as the beauty of the rhododendrons, as we caught them in peak bloom. Along with that, the ponies really put on a show for us. We absolutely loved the hike. Although we had been on much longer hikes with groups, this was the first that my wife and I had attempted on our own. It was a great starter for us, as we completed it over the course of three days. Thanks for all of your advice – knowing what to watch for along the trail made our hike much more enjoyable.We wondered if you ever do this loop in reverse order – we would have really liked to be able to get in Wilson Creek at the end of the longer hike on the second day. Either way, it is a great track – we plan to go back and share it with friends.

  18. Bill Luisi

    Bill. 4 of us experienced and strong backpackers are considering hiking a portion of the AT in mid October. We have about seven days and we want to do a hike that is both beautiful and somewhat remote. Can you make a suggestion of a route starting in Virginia.

    • Bill Fuller

      I think I would check out the area just south of Daleville, VA. It’s one of the most scenic sections of the A.T. in Virginia in my opinion with Tinker Cliffs, McAfee Knob, and Dragon’s Tooth. Just beautiful!

  19. Tony

    Just as a note to non-VA residents, if you plan to park for a hike the cost has increased from $3 to $12. I was quite shocked but just a note for those coming. Great hike…..

  20. Jeff

    Bill. Any reason this can’t be done in a single day? I’m attempting to take a nice day hike on the AT in every state where it exists. 14 total, I believe. This will be number 4 for me. I try to do extended day hikes. Can this be done in one day?

    • Bill Fuller

      Yes, if you’re a strong hiker, it can easily be done in one day. There are a couple of climbs (up Stone Mtn, and up to Rhododendron Gap), but nothing too extreme.

  21. Joyce

    Hi Bill! Is there somewhere to camp at the very start of this hike? It will be dark by the time we arrive at Grayson highlands and we’d like to just set up the tent and start hiking the next morning. We haven’t been there before so thanks for any tips on where to camp near the start.

    • Bill Fuller

      No, Joyce. You are not supposed to tent camp in the Park. If you go south on the A.T., it would be about a mile before a campsite just outside of the park boundary. If you go north, it would be about 3 miles before you leave the park. Hope this helps.

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