The Mountains of Virginia

Fauquier County view
Looking towards the Blue Ridge on the western boundary of Fauquier County

The tallest peak in Virginia is Mount Rogers in Grayson County, at 5,729 feet (1,746 meters) above sea level. In contrast, the high point in Washington, DC is 429 feet - lower than the 555 foot Washington Monument.1

Is that tall enough to be a mountain? In Virginia, there are no official criteria for distinguishing a "mountain" vs. a "hill." Local custom determines place names, and the Board of Geographic Names has no formal standards that require the government officials to override common names created by local residents. (Paul Larson at Southern Utah University has suggested "the difference between a mountain and a hill is in vegetation changes. If it is high enough for vertical zonation to occur it is a mountain, but if the same vegetation type covers the entire height of the feature, it is a hill."2)

For many years, Thomas Jefferson and other Virginians thought the the highest spot in the colony/state of Virginia was the Peaks of Otter, in part because Flat Top and Sharp Top stood out as distinct peaks compared to the adjacent ridges.3 Today, we know that Grayson County is the "roof" of Virginia, with the highest average elevation and the highest peaks.4 To a casual visitor, Whitetop Mountain appears to be taller than Mount Rogers. It too stands slightly apart from other places, and the treeless "bald" appearance also makes it more eye-catching than nearby Mount Rogers. However, if the red spruces covering Mount Rogers and blocking the view from the top continue to die off, then there's a chance that the highest point in Virginia will be easier to recognize.

Today, we can identify summits from the 1:24,000 scale topographic maps produced by the US Geological Survey, which show the height of mountains. Age of the maps is rarely important, when checking elevations in Virginia. A topo quadrangle map that has not been updated for 50 years will still have accurate elevation data even though the indications of land use (especially boundaries of urban/suburban development) may be inaccurate.

According to the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), Virginia has about 1,850 features named a "summit" (about 100 over 4,000 feet tall), plus almost 700 records of a "ridge." However, height is a relative feature. In Accomack County, the named ridges are low in elevation, but the slight difference in height above the surrounding land is important enough to be affect the drainage and to be noticed. Bulls Head in Accomack County is a summit - all of 2 feet high.

According to GNIS, there are only two counties in Virginia with named summits above 5,000 feet:
Grayson County
- Mount Rogers (5,729 feet)
- Whitetop Mountain (5,525 feet)
- Pine Mountain (5,525 feet)
- Haw Orchard Mountain (5,007 feet)
Smyth County:
- Buzzard Rock (5,095 feet)

Grayson and Smyth counties, with highest elevations in Virginia
Grayson and Smyth counties, with highest elevations in Virginia
Source: NOAA Global Land One-km Base Elevation Project (GLOBE) database

Where Are the Appalachians?

Links

References

1. "Reno Hill Washington D.C. High Point," About.com - Climbing, http://climbing.about.com/od/mountainclimbing/a/RenoHill.htm (last checked September 1, 2011)
2. Larson, Paul, on Geography Education listserver GEOGED@LSV.UKY.EDU, January 14, 2008
3. "Peaks of Otter," Monticello website, http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/peaks-otter (last checked September 1, 2011)
4. "Mean County Elevation Lists," County Highpointers, http://www.cohp.org/records/mean_elevation/mean_elevations.html (last checked September 1, 2011)


Topography of Virginia
Rocks and Ridges - The Geology of Virginia
Virginia Places