Hiking through Elk Garden was not on my itinerary at all during my trip through Virginias Cumberland Valley. One of my favorite parts of traveling are the, “happy accidents," we encounter throughout the journey. We came across the Elk Garden Trailhead while exploring the area near Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, driving down Whitetop Rd towards Highlands Pkwy. Call it dumb luck or fate, but as soon as I saw the Appalachian Trail sign and hordes of hikers, I immediately pulled over.
Elk Garden is a 2.3 mile out and back trail, but it is also a popular pick-up and drop off spot for several other incredible trails. First and foremost, its a stop along the 2,190 mile long Appalachian Trail. As we are only a few miles from a small town and expressway, many people use this as a jumping point to section hike the AT.
Follow the Appalachian Trail west and it’ll lead you to the summit of the 5,525 ft Whitetop Mountain, the second highest peak in the state. Head east along the Mount Rogers Trail to reach the summit of the tallest peak in the state of Virginia at 5,729 ft. Follow the Mount Rogers Trail a little longer and it’ll lead you into Grayson Highlands State Park.
The gravel parking lot was packed with activity on this bright and sunny day as hikers headed off in different directions. Raising the lock off the farm gate, we entered the meadow at the base of the bald knob. The first thing that catches your attention here are the animals freely roaming around the trails. A herd of cattle grazed on wildflowers and short grasses within feet of us, completely oblivious to our presence.
A fellow hiker, noticing our enthrallment with the cows, mentioned that we had just missed several wild ponies stroll by. This area is known for its abundance of wildlife. Although the eastern elk, for which the area was named after, have long gone extinct, whitetail deer, black bears, and even the odd wild turkey are frequently sighted here.
In the 1970’s wild ponies were introduced into the area to prevent reforestation of the grassy, bald mountaintops that provide sweeping views of the surrounding wilderness. Now, on any given day hikers may come across a herd freely roaming the slopes of Mount Rogers and Grayson Highlands State Park.
The only other place to see such a sight would be on Virginias eastern shore in Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Just remember that these are still wild animals and should not be approached or fed.
Climbing towards the top of the knob can be strenuous due to the steep incline and rocky terrain. As you get closer to the summit, the landscape opens up as far as the eye can see.
The views here are jaw dropping no matter which direction you look. On a clear day like today, we could see all the way into North Carolina. The rocky outcroppings make great places to stop and have lunch while enjoying the scenery.
From the peak of Elk Garden, the trail continues into a forested hillside and remerging onto several bald knobs for the entirety of the hike. Look up and you might catch a glimpse of red tailed hawks patrolling the skies above. Do this hike in the early morning hours to see thick clouds of fog hanging low in the valleys. Its truly a sight to behold!