What constitutes a tough outdoor challenge varies greatly by person. Everyone has differing visions of what constitutes an extremely tough—yet realistic—challenge. But generally with regards to outdoor sports, the longer the distance, the higher the mountain, and the more difficult the terrain, the tougher and more adventurous things become.
The Appalachian Mountains often get overlooked when people think about epic, hardcore adventures. What many don’t realize is that when comparing the mountain chain to the Rockies, Sierras, or Cascades, the Appalachians actually have more elevation throughout the range than the mountains out west. In fact, the old, eroded Appalachians are so scrunched up with ripples and wrinkles that the amount of terrain needs to be examined on a closer level. These micro features create some of the gnarliest, steepest trails; some of the toughest, runnable whitewater creeks; and some of the most technical, bullet-hard rock faces in the nation.
Southwestern Virginia, like the much of the Appalachian range, contains a lifetime’s worth of extremely tough outdoor adventures that are on par or surpass anything out west. Below you will find a brief introduction to seven of the toughest challenges found in Southwest Virginia.
Standing at 5,729 feet, Mount Rogers is the highest peak in Virginia and the fourth highest peak east of the Mississippi. Although calling this a peak is a bit of a misnomer—as it’s probably better described as a high-elevation knob. No matter what you call it, making the approximately 9-mile, out-and-back hike starting from Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park is a challenge. Hikers follow the Rhododendron Trail and Appalachian Trail, passing through windswept plains with hearty alpine-esque shrubbery and large exposed rock formations, wild ponies, and possible erratic weather. Many compare the terrain to the famous Scottish Highlands.
Hidden Valley is a sandstone crag located just north of Abingdon, Virginia. Although Hidden Valley has a storied past going back more than 30 years, it only recently was officially opened to the public. The routes here are similar to what you’d find at the climbing mecca of the New River Gorge. Expect about 200 established single-pitch routes that are mostly clip-ups, but there are a handful of high-quality trad lines as well. (And there’s still some open projects and room for more development.) Thin face climbs, aretes, roofs, and even a few slab climbs are all found at the crag.
The Seven Sisters Trail, located on Little Walker Mountain just outside of Wytheville, Virginia, is a hidden gem that packs a huge punch in a relatively short distance. The 4.8-mile ridge trail is aptly named for its seven peaks that it covers. Trail runners looking for a hard hill workout with a heavy dose of backcountry adventure should tackle the Seven Sisters Trail loop. Start at either the trailhead off of the Scenic Byway or use the Stony Creek Nature Trail (a 1-mile spur trail that intersects the western end of the Seven Sisters Trail) found inside the Stony Fork Campground. Trail runners can create an approximately 10-mile loop with five hard trail miles and five easier road miles on the minimally trafficked Scenic Byway.
The Iron Mountain 100k is organized by Shenandoah Mountain Touring, which also hosts the Shenandoah 100, one of the most popular ultra-distance mountain bike races in the nation. Simply put, these guys have their act together and put on great events. The Iron Mountain 100k, although not as big as the Shenandoah 100, is one of the best mountain bike races on the East Coast. The June race uses the classic Iron Mountain Trail (formerly part of the AT) along with a handful of other amazing trails found in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. This race is well-supported with four fully stocked aid stations. Expect gnarly downhills, big climbs, and wilderness riding along the challenging 62-mile course.
The Virginia Creeper Trail is best known as a beginner-friendly rail trail popular with cyclists. However, for hardcore runners out there looking to rack up some serious miles, the 34-mile trail is the perfect challenge. It runs from Abingdon to Whitetop Mountain and is perfect for a high tempo workout—whether you complete the entire length of the trail or not. The multiple access points, ease of refilling water and food, and availability of bathrooms make this a perfect location for those looking for a no-hassle. ultra-distance run.
Grayson Highlands State Park, located within the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, has a lifetime’s worth of established bouldering routes. In fact, there are more than a thousand problems there. One challenge many boulderers like to set for themselves is to complete a 100-point day. Boulder problems are rated from V0-V16 and based on a problem’s rating, you earn points. For instance you would need to complete 5 V5s, 10 V3s. 20 V2s, and 5 V1s to reach a total of 100 points. No matter how you slice it, this power-endurance day is not an easy task.
Grayson Highlands State Park is the perfect destination for backpacking in Southwestern Virginia, and many options of loops are available. Using the Appalachian Trail (in addition to others), you can create a 20-mile overnighter that will have you hiking through rhododendron tunnels, traversing windswept plains with wild ponies, crossing rocky creeks, and climbing high-elevation knobs. Plan for crazy weather swings and expect cold temperatures at night even in the summer. If possible, plan to take in the stars at night on one of the open plains. It’s a backpacking trip you’ll never forget.
Written by Joe DeGaetano for RootsRated in partnership with Abingdon and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image provided by Mark Peterson