Prettiest backcountry campsite in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Can hyperbole sell you on a hike? It did for me. While searching for Boots ’n Beer’s next backpacking trip, I stumbled across this enthusiastic description on hikingupward.com: “Can’t make it to Scotland or Switzerland anytime soon to hike those spectacular high mountain meadows? Well, right here in the Old Dominion we have the next-best thing.”
Every hiker in the Mid-Atlantic should hike Cold Mountain at least once. The 360 degree meadow views from the saddle of the mountain are some of the best on the East Coast. And then the zinger that made my heart leap: “At the end of the clearing is one of the prettiest backcountry campsites in the Blue Ridge.” With this information I was sold, and organized an overnight trek to experience a hike full of hyperbole.
Day One – The Brewery
Cold Mountain is about a three-hour drive from here, but Virginia’s scenic countryside down Route 29 south of Charlottesville, as well as the traveling camaraderie, more than compensated for the time it took. Stopping in Roseland, we enjoyed lunch at the Basecamp Brewpub & Meadows which offered some good oak wood-fired smoked dishes and some of the great German craft beers of Devils Backbone Brewing Company. Eating outside in the sunshine and taking in the lush, dark green Blue Ridge Mountains would make most anyone want to call a real estate agent to find a weekend or retirement home there.
Traveling on, we found the last three miles to the trailhead (coordinates 37,758910, -79.188760) to be a very bumpy gravel road that is best negotiated with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. We unloaded our gear and we began our trek, passing the Appalachian Trail and reaching Hog Camp Gap. We continued on the trail about one-third of a mile, arriving at the side-by-side trailheads for Cold Mountain and Mount Pleasant.
After shouldering our backpacks and following the blue-blazed Hotel Trail for less than an hour, we reached a clearing whose beauty caused all three of us to blurt out, “Look, here it is! It is ‘the prettiest back country campsite in the Blue Ridge.'” It wasn’t hyperbole. The clearing was large and covered in beautifully soft grass, and offered many inviting spots to put our tents under the shade of tall, majestic oaks. We were so excited that when we sat around the campfire we promised ourselves to come back to this unique place with children or grandchildren to share a night under the stars.
In the morning we descended along the wooded mountainside into Cow Camp Gap. At Little Cove Creek we gathered with others, like one does at the office water cooler, except here we drank cool water we filtered ourselves from the clear mountain creek. It’s always interesting to chat with others on the trail, and this time we met Appalachian Trail through-hikers who had stayed overnight in the nearby lean-to shelter, as well as an AT hiker from Germany who was given the trail name “Blitz” for the impressive speed at which he moved in order to cover 30 miles every day.
With our water bottles filled, we turned onto the Appalachian Trail which took us to the 4,033 feet summit of Cold Mountain. What a refreshing, breathtaking reward that was to see—an expansive field of deep pink wildflowers amid the green of the grass and trees with a backdrop of a true blue sky that stretched for miles.
After resting for a while, we hiked back to the trailhead. Around midday we enjoyed a beer out of the cooler with a sandwich before stepping onto the Henry Lanum Memorial Trail. Following the blue-blazed trail for about two hours, mostly uphill, we reached Mount Pleasant Summit Trail and used the nearby seasonal spring to fill our empty water bottles.
The trail kept winding its way up the mountain to the saddle between the east and west summits. Having stopped along the way on various outcroppings with views to the east for pictures and to catch our breath, we turned to the westerly summit which required us to scramble seven feet up through rocks in order to reach the top of Mount Pleasant at 4,021 feet.
Wow—the second jewel we were looking for loomed before us, leaving us absolutely speechless. At the summit, the eternal beauty of wave after wave of mountain ranges unfolded as far as our eyes could see. We were simply awestruck by this rare view reserved for the few who reach for this summit high above the Blue Ridge foothills. We sat quietly in total admiration watching nature’s stunning presentation of mountain ridges gradually dissolving on the horizon in the slowly fading daylight.
The night on the ridge with our tents just below the mountaintop offered up forceful winds blowing above us in ocean-like waves, alternating between orchestral strength and the lulling tenderness of a cradle song. We never felt more connected to Earth.
In the morning, refreshed and happy, we returned to the trailhead to wrap up our trip. Among the early morning wildlife we encountered was an owl, and a doe and her “bambi” playfully hightailing along the trail, which were a sight to see. We even saw a beautiful eastern garter snake claiming her right of way on the trail.
For those who are thinking of making these spectacular hikes, the Cold Mountain hike is a 5.5-mile circuit hike with about 1,500 feet elevation gain. It is a very comfortable day hike which can be done in 3 to 4 hours with lunch on the bold of Cold Mountain where you can enjoy a 360 degree view of the mountain ridges.
The Mount Pleasant trail, also at a length of 5.5 miles and an elevation gain of 1,400 feet, is a moderate day hike suitable for families. Both Mount Pleasant and Cold Mountain are located in the Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area which was so designated by Congress in 1994, and all trails are kept in great shape.
By combining these hikes you can enjoy an 11-mile hike or turn it into a most memorable backpacking trip of two or three days.
After hiking this awesome figure-eight circuit hike, we agreed it would be the perfect introduction for first-time backpackers to the wilderness. Boots ’n Beer will offer this grand tour again in fall for the radiant foliage and ideal hiking temperatures, and invite all to join us as we revisit these two jewels in the Old Dominion.
The Natural Bridge
On the way home, less than thirty miles from the Cold Mountain/Mount Pleasant trailhead, in the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley and flanked by the Blue Ridge Mountains, is the Natural Bridge. This is enormous and breathtaking rock bridge and National Historic Landmark is a spectacular sight, and it is not to be missed.