At a lower elevation in the vast recreation area, people had driven up for the day to ski, sled and play in the snow with their children.
I’d been waiting all winter for a decent snow. To me, it’s the best way to experience Mount Rogers in the wintertime: covered in sparkling white.
After the snow had fallen, I waited until the roads were clear and drove up to the mountain. I began my hike at Elk Garden, around 6 p.m. on a clear night, when the moon lit up the snow and the stars shone brilliantly over the winter landscape.
At first, it was a little hard to find the familiar trail in the snow, the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail hidden across an open meadow. I veered off the trail a few times, following footprints into hip-high snowdrifts.
Once I reached the woods of the Lewis Fork Wilderness, it was easy to stay on the path, a trail already trod down by hiking boots and the blazes visible on the trees.
In a place that’s lush green at other times of the year, it was a world of black and white and gray, the shadows of the trees cast like lace across the snow. The only sound came from the roar of the wind and the eerie wind chimes of dangling, frozen leaves.
I could see the tiny lights in the distance: the houses and towns below, then the distant ridgelines, the faraway ski slopes of North Carolina and more lights on the ridges beyond.
With the temperature at a comfortable 30 degrees, I hiked at a steady pace - fast enough to keep warm, but slow enough not to breathe too heavily; after all, it was a four-mile climb in the snow.
Higher up the mountain, the trail dove between evergreens still heavy-laden with frozen snow, their branches bending down over the trail in arcs that made it feel more like sneaking through tunnels than following a well-worn path.
Up out of the woods, along the side of Mount Rogers, I was face-first into a roaring wind - so fierce, I was sure if I pitched my tent on the snow there I would blow away with it during the night. But the view is even more incredible on a clear night than it is during the day.
Four hours after I left the parking area, I arrived at Thomas Knob and the three-sided log shelter where I decided to camp. The other hikers staying there were the first creatures I’d seen all night. The roar of the wind only got louder, and I was awakened several times by the crash of falling trees. The temperature dropped during the night, and by morning I knew that the old down sleeping bag I’ve had since high school is due for replacement.
I warmed up with a hot breakfast cooked on a backpacking stove and put on my frozen boots, eager to get back on the trail so my toes would warm up. I began the day with the obligatory trek to the unimpressive summit of Mount Rogers, Virginia’s tree-covered highest peak.
On the trail were a few tracks of snowshoes and ice cleats through what could have been a picture of the cold North Woods.
I hiked back down by a different route, across open country on the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. The wild ponies that inhabit the area were visible across the meadow, grazing in the snow. It was another place with blazes hard to find on rocks in the blowing snow.
I sunk into a few more snowdrifts as I gradually navigated my away across the wind-blown mountainside and got down to a lower elevation, where people had driven up for the day to ski, sled and play in the snow with their children.
If there are two things to be said about winter on Mount Rogers, the first is that it’s beautiful. The second is that exposure to the elements is harsh and can even be deadly to those who are unprepared. Any camping trip there in the colder half of the year should be planned with much care.
There are several access points to Mount Rogers; trail maps can be purchased from the Mount Rogers Recreation Area headquarters and from local outfitters. In the wintertime, the parking areas along state-maintained highways provide the easiest access because less snow remains on the roads.