Sunset Overlook -- 3,950'

Mount Jefferson State Natural Area

Mount Jefferson State Natural area, located in West Jefferson of Ashe County, is one of those places in the mountains I had visited previously but for some inexplicable reason never went back to. Established in 1956, the 1,100-acre park largely centers on its namesake peak which rises dramatically (over 1,600-feet) from the valley surrounding it. A paved road reaches all the way up to the summit ridge where a small picnic area and a couple short loop trails provide access to the main overlooks atop the peak…namely Luther Rock and the summit itself. In addition to the facilities at the summit another footpath, the Mountain Ridge Trail, allows those who would like a bit more challenge in their ascent of the peak the option of hiking Jefferson from the park office near the lower entrance. As I hadn’t visited the park in over twelve years, I felt I was overdue for a return visit and quickly decided to make the complete climb from bottom to top along with the adjoining loops at the summit. It would give me a much more complete feel for the entirety of the Natural Area and allow me to hopefully discover some things I might have missed in my previous visit so long ago.

My hike would begin at the park office across from the park entrance sign. The start of the Mountain Ridge Trail begins just behind the sign. After a quick stop inside to pick up a current map I started up the trail as it makes a moderate ascent up the slopes adjoining the park road. The forest surrounding me was typical of these elevations, a mix of northern hardwoods alongside more southern species, and was underlain by a rocky floor covered in ferns and low shrubs. The path intersects the road for the first time at only a bit over a half-mile into the hike at the Sunrise Overlook. Facing south and east, I discovered this wasn’t the best of viewpoints (perhaps it would be better in winter) and I quickly resumed my climb. At around the mile mark I turned to make a side trip down a short spur trail to the Sunset Overlook which offered my first real taste of the eye-candy this mountain had to offer from its slopes. Returning to the main trail I continued uphill until, at about the mile-and-a-half mark I reached one of the finest viewpoints on the entire mountain, the Jefferson Overlook (so named because the town of Jefferson is visible in the valley far below). This is an amazing spot. The jaw-dropping panorama seen here takes in almost the entirety of Ashe County and the beautiful Amphibolite Mountain Range which lies within its boundaries. After a good breather and plenty of pictures it was time to head uphill again. From the Jefferson Overlook the route gets a bit confusing. I discovered that the Mountain Ridge Trail, as yet, doesn’t fully connect to the summit picnic area without a lengthy road-walk. As I strolled uphill from the overlook, however, I noticed the makings of a path leading up a broken ledge which looked promising. Taking this scramble path I soon discovered blazes on the trees marking what I assume will be, in the near future, the trail extension which will connect the Jefferson Overlook and the summit. Sometimes my explorer-nature pays off! Following this unofficial future extension of the Mountain Ridge Trail it wasn’t more than a few minutes before I arrived at the picnic area near the summit.

An obvious and very wide path leads uphill from the picnic area to the summit. Wanting to save the top for last I, instead, decided to turn right soon after leaving the picnic area to complete the two short loops along the summit ridge first. These loops offer easy hiking as their routes maintain a fairly level grade as they follow along and just below the main summit ridge. Near the far end of the second loop I reached another short spur trail out to a sub-peak of Jefferson named Luther Rock. Luther Rock is the other standout overlook on Mount Jefferson. Its vantage point high atop the mountains steep northern slopes provides dramatic views which, once again, encompass most of the surrounding Amphibolite Mountains as well as the high peaks of Virginia far to the north. There is also a small viewpoint a bit further out along the ridge at Luther Rock which offers still more views but to the south and east instead, taking in the Valley of the South Fork New River and the Blue Ridge beyond. After Luther Rock I turned back to follow the main trail up along the top of the summit ridge, passing another nice overlook, before reaching the short service road which heads a few dozen yards up to the summit. I discovered things were not as I remembered them from 12-years ago up there. For one thing there was a radio tower I didn’t remember, and for another there was a noticeable lack of a view. I later found out from a park ranger that around the time of my previous visit the tower had yet to be built but the summit had been cleared some in preparation for it. Thus was why my memories of the spot were so different from what I experienced this trip. So the summit was a bit of a let-down. The tower is an eyesore, as all towers are, and the forest has quickly re-covered the top of the mountain. There is a very limited view to the north to be had but you’ll probably have to stand on your tip-toes to even see that. After the summit all there was left to do was retrace my steps back down the mountain.

Overall this was a very pleasant park to spend a morning hiking in. The trails are well-made and not nearly so difficult to travel as one might expect considering the steep terrain of the park. If I had one complaint it would be that the paths don’t ever wander all that far from the park road so traffic noise frequently intrudes on the peacefulness of the forest. If you ever find yourself visiting Ashe County (and I highly recommend you do!) this is certainly a place you’ll want to put on your list for a stop. So, without further adieu, I present to you Mount Jefferson State Natural Area…as always, ENJOY!!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:   36.393515, -81.467926

Route Type: Lollipop w/ spur             Difficulty:  HARD  (Petzoldt Rating:  8.00 )

Mileage Hiked:  5.7 miles                     Hike Duration:  2:45

Trailhead Temp:  70'F                          Trail Traffic:  25-50 people

Min. Elevation:  3,700'                           Max. Elevation:  4,683'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,150'                     Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  202'

Trails Used (blaze color/shape):  Lost Province (blue triangles), Mountain Ridge (red circles), Rhododendron TRACK (red circles), Spur (white diamonds), Summit (green diamonds)


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