Grand 360-degree vistas from multiple rocky summits, a wide open “southern bald” with more sweeping views, lush forests with multiple shades of vibrant green ferns and moss covered rocks, rushing springs plunging down steep mountain sides, and wild ponies and bears interspersed: This is what Mount Rogers offers, and you will likely see it all on this hike. The unique U-shaped path of the Appalachian Trail in and around the Mount Rogers area is what makes this loop hike so rich. By starting at the Scales Trailhead (or since it is a loop, at Grayson Highlands State Park, which is open in the winter) and using the Crest and Pine Mountain trails to close the “U” into a loop, you can enjoy a full day on the trail without the hassle of a shuttle. This 10-mile loop is challenging due to the length, ascents and descents, rocky-ankle-twisting trail treads, and uneven terrain, not to mention the animal waste.
From Scales (not vehicle acessable in winter), head south on the Crest Trail. After around a mile, there will be a short side trail to the right. You can see the gate to cross through the wilderness boundary fence, where you will cut over to the AT and Pine Mountain Trail. Right after you get through the gate you’ll turn left (south) onto Pine Mountain Trail (blue blaze) toward Rhododendron Gap. Make sure you don’t take the white blazed AT at this point. You will be right on the edge of the Lewis Fork Wilderness. However you decide to loop this hike, do not miss this first section of the Pine Mountain Trail; it is prettier than the Crest Trail it parallels, which will also get you to Rhododendron Gap. Pine Mountain Trail is breathtakingly beautiful as it meanders through the upper reaches of the Lewis Fork Wilderness and Pine Mountain. Make sure you leave plenty of time to take pictures – you’ll want to snap a shot after every turn. After climbing one minor peak and descending into an open gap with great views of Wilburn Ridge you will come to the trail junction with Lewis Fork Trail. Continue straight on Pine Mountain Trail, which re-enters the woods and starts the final ascent toward Rhododendron Gap. Once you get close to Rhododendron Gap, the trail steepens and gets fairly rugged. You can cross back over to the Crest Trail to avoid this (refer to the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map #786), but stay on the Pine Mountain Trail for a more seanic hike.
At Rhododendron Gap you will turn right(ish) to go north on the white blazed AT. There is a mess of three trails coming together here, so make sure you are following the white blazed AT. The AT gets steeper and more rugged as it crosses the first of the three peaks of Wilburn Ridge and descends into an open gap. At the far side of this first Wilburn Ridge gap is the base of the second peak and the Wilburn Ridge Trail junction. It has been a rough, but rewarding mile since you picked up the AT. Take the Wilburn Ridge Trail on the right.
The Wilburn Ridge Trail requires a bit of easy scrambling and high steps up and down. The view from this second Wilburn Ridge peak is worth a bit of knee pain at the end of the day! You can also stay on the slightly easier AT, but you'll miss the view from the top of the second and thirds peaks on Wilburn Ridge as the AT parallels your path from beneath the peaks.
Unless you are there in the middle of the week, you will be sharing the view with a lot of other hikers – especially on any fair-weather three-day weekends. The Wilburn Ridge Trail goes over the next two peaks of Wilburn Ridge, both with fantastic panorama views. The gap between the second and third peak is also pretty. In this gap is the intersection with the Rhododendron Trail. Stay on the Wilburn Ridge Trail, which meets back up with the AT after descending the third peak. Again there are a lot of trails in this area, so make sure you turn right onto the white blazed AT (north) and continue down to the state park.
You’ll soon go through a gate into Grayson Highlands State Park. Here’s where you’re most likely to see ponies! There is a herd here that is very acclimated to humans – they’ll follow you around trying to convince you to feed them, but don’t –it’s not good for them. Still, they sure are cute when they are not biting or kicking! Keep you distnace and watch your kids. Make sure you stay on the AT. Ignore the numerous other trails near the gate into the state park unless you want to take a quicker way back to Scales. Then follow Virginian Highlands Horse Trail (VHHT) for the shortest route back to Scales.
Inside the state park, the AT makes a gradual turn to the east. There are several rock outcroppings in this section, and if you have the time and energy to climb them, they all provide sweeping views of Wilburn Ridge. Once you pass the AT Spur Trail that comes up from the state park campground and intersects the AT from the right, the day crowds thin out. From here you should only see a few people, mostly actual backpackers. At this point you have roughly 4.5 miles to go. Continue descending, cross the Quebec Branch, and reach the Wise Shelter. Shortly you will cross the Big Wilson Creek and then come to the Wilson Creek Trail and finally the Scales Trail after one more unnamed creek crossing. All the creek crossings have easy footbridges, but there is some mud along the trail in this area at the confluence of Wilson Creek tributaries. To cut a mile or so from the hike, you can take either the Wilson Creek Trail to the VHHT and onto Scales, or the Scales Trail back to the start at Scales. If you have the energy and the time, stay on the AT because it’s prettier as it crosses through the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness and climbs to another stunning southern bald on Stone Mountain just to the southeast of Scales.
If you are camping at Scales and have the energy, Stone Mountain's "southern bald" ridge is a great place to watch the sun set.