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Mount Rogers National Recreation Area

Noted for its 400 miles of hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and horse trails, including part of the Appalachian Trail, Mount Rogers NRA includes 117,000 forested acres. Included is its namesake, Virginia's highest peak at 5,729 feet. Nearby White Top is the state's second-highest point at 5,520 feet. Most of the land, however, flanks Iron Mountain, a long ridge running the area's length. Ranging the extensive upland meadows are wild ponies, introduced to keep the grasses mowed.

Not all of this expanse is pristine; as part of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, it's subject to multiple uses such as hunting and logging. Nevertheless, you'll find three preserved wilderness areas and plenty of backcountry to explore, with mountain scenery that's some of the best in Virginia.

Access Points & Orientation -- Access roads from I-81 are U.S. 21 from Wytheville, Va. 16 from Marion, S.R. 600 from Chilehowie, Va. 91 from Glades Spring, and U.S. 58 from Damascus and Abingdon. S.R. 603 runs 13 miles lengthwise through beautiful highland meadows from Troutdale (on Va. 16) to Konnarock (on U.S. 58).

Information -- Because the area is so vast and most facilities widespread, it's a good idea to get as much information in advance as possible. Contact the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, 3714 Hwy. 16, Marion, VA 24354 (tel. 800/628-7202 or 276/783-5196; www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/mr).

Fees, Regulations & Backcountry Permits -- There is no charge to drive through the area, but parking fees of $3 per vehicle apply to specific recreational areas, payable on the honor system. Except for the Appalachian Trail and some others reserved for hikers, mountain bikes are permitted but must give way to horses. Bikers and horseback riders must walk across all bridges and trestles. Hikers must not spook the horses. Fishing requires a Virginia license. The "leave no trace" ethic applies: Leave nothing behind, and take away only photographs and memories.

Visitor Center -- The area headquarters is at 3714 Va. 16, about 6 miles south of Marion (take Exit 45 off I-81 and go south on Va. 16). Exhibits describe the area, and there's a bookstore with maps and other publications for sale. The center is open Memorial Day through October Monday through Friday from 8am to 4:30pm, Saturday from 9am to 4pm. The rest of the year, it's open only Monday through Friday from 8am to 4:30pm. It's closed on federal holidays.

Seasons -- The area gets the most visitors on summer and fall weekends and holidays. Spring is punctuated by wildflowers in bloom (the calendars published by the Blue Ridge Parkway are generally applicable here), while fall foliage is at its brilliant best in mid-October. Cross-country skiers use the trails during winter. Summer thunderstorms, winter blizzards, and fog any time of the year can pose threats in the high country, so caution is advised.

New River Trail State Park

The exceptional New River Trail runs for 57 miles between Galax and Pulaski. The trail follows an old railroad bed beside the New River, which, despite its name, is in geologic terms one of the oldest rivers in the United States (it predates the Appalachian Mountains). The river flows toward the Mississippi River, on its way carving the New River Gorge in southeastern West Virginia, the best white-water rafting spot in the eastern U.S.

The park's headquarters are at Foster Falls State Park, a restored mining hamlet on Foster Falls Road (C.R. 608), about 20 miles northeast of Wytheville, or 2 miles north of U.S. 52 (take Exit 24 off I-77 and follow the signs). From April through November you can enter the trail here daily from 8am to dusk. Parking costs $2 per vehicle during the week, $3 on weekends and holidays.

Other entries to the trail are at Shot Tower Historical State Park ; Draper, near Exit 92 off I-81; Allisonia and Hiwassee, both on C.R. 693; Barren Springs, on Va. 100; Austinville, on Va. 69; Ivanhoe, on Va. 94; Byllesby Dam, on C.R. 602; and Galax, on U.S. 58. There's also a branch trail to Fries, on Va. 94.

Foster Falls River Company (tel. 276/699-1034) rents bicycles, canoes, kayaks, and inner tubes at Foster Falls. Bikes cost $5 per hour or $18 per day. Canoes and kayaks start at $7 an hour or $30 per day. Tubes go for $18 per day. The company also provides shuttle service between the key points along the trail, so you don't have to walk, ride, or paddle back to your car.

The adjacent Foster Falls Horse Livery (tel. 276/699-2460) rents horses and has guided horse and pony rides along the trail starting at $20 per person for short rides.

For more information, write or call New River Trail State Park, 176 Orphanage Dr., Foster Falls, VA 24360 (tel. 276/699-6778; www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/new.shtml). The office is open Monday through Friday 8am to 4:30pm.

While in this area, you can stop at Shot Tower Historical State Park, on U.S. 52 near Exit 5 off I-77, which features a stone shot tower built about 1791. Molten lead, poured from the top of the tower, fell 150 feet into a kettle, thus cooling and turning into round shot. The lead was mined at nearby Austinville, birthplace of Stephen Austin, the "Father of Texas." (There's a monument to Austin at the New River Trail State Park in Austinville.) Admission to the park is free, but parking costs $2 per vehicle during the week, $3 on weekends and holidays. The park is open daily from 8am to dusk.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.