MMR09: Whitetop Mountain
Elevation: 5520 ft.
At 5520 feet, Whitetop Mountain is the second highest summit in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the highest point that can be accessed by vehicle. The road winds through a variety of habitat, including eastern and northern hardwood forests, open meadows, mountain balds, birch-and-spruce forests, and northern red spruce forest. Whitetop Mountain is an excellent area to watch for unique wildlife any time of the year. As a birding spot, it has doubly seductive power: this is a fantastic venue for finding “northern” migrants in the summer and it is very easily accessible.
Wildlife watchers should park in the parking lot and walk the last leg of the road that curves to the top of the mountain. A word to the wise: don’t expect the scenery to match the quality of the bird-watching; there is no panoramic view from the top of the mountain, and for many who make the effort to reach this apex in expectation of seeing something spectacularly scenic, it could be an anti-climatic moment. But birders won’t be disappointed—they will have more than their fair share of good views of good finds. In the summer, chestnut-sided warbler, black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco, blue-headed vireo, and black-throated green warbler can easily be spied in the red-spruce forest on the peak of the mountain. The lucky wildlife watcher might hear calls from flocks of treetop-hopping red crossbill. More easily heard and seen are red-breasted nuthatch and brown creeper. After getting a fill of summering songbird-covered spruce forests, return towards the parking lot, but veer right onto the short trail that leads into mixed hardwood forests. This trail meanders through woodlands, and accesses an overlook, then loops back through open meadows and mountain balds before terminating in the parking lot. These woodlands are good places to find golden-crowned kinglet, veery, and hermit thrush. More open areas produce abundant numbers of eastern towhee, and American goldfinch. Common raven can be seen cruising over the fields.
Birders might also want to explore Whitetop Station, the highest point on the Virginia Creeper Trail, and a good driving tour just south of Whitetop Mountain, in the Town of Whitetop. Return to US 58 via Rt. 600/Whitetop Road, and head west just a short distance. Before crossing Whitetop Creek, turn left on Rt. 754. Taking a right on Rt. 753, then left on Rt. 755, and finally, right on Rt. 726 brings this driving loop back to US 58. A look in the woodlands by the pond can produce views of warblers, thrushes, and flycatchers. Occasionally, alder, willow, and least flycatchers can be present.
From the entrance to Grayson Highlands State Park, return to US 58 West. Follow US 58 West for 7.6 miles to Rt. 600. Turn right on Rt. 600 and follow it north for 1.6 miles to the left turn onto FR 89 heading to Whitetop Mountain. Follow this road for 1.6 miles to the top of Whitetop Mountain. Use caution driving this road, especially during winter months.