Grayson Highlands State Park and surrounding areas - October 13-15, 2007


We decided to go to Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia and spend the weekend for our 3rd anniversary.  We finally made it to Grayson Highlands SP after a long drive from Greenville, SC up I-26, I-81 and then the smaller Highway 58 (curvy for all who get carsick).  When we arrived that Saturday it was about 1:30 in the afternoon. The skies were clear, it was around 75 degrees and there was a slight wind.  VERY NICE hiking and backpacking weather!!! 

Warning:  If you don't have much gas, do NOT go through the little town of Damascus on 58 without filling up.  There's pretty much no gas for the next 20 miles or so.  After stressing about running out of gas for around 30 minutes, we found a little service station, filled up and proceeded to Grayson Highlands front office.  We paid $8 for 2 nights of overnight parking.  We were informed that there had been a statewide ban on campfires enacted just the night before, and that if we got caught with a fire, we would be fined $5000!!!!!  It was already not looking good for Rose's smores endeavor.  After driving a couple of miles through the park and seeing many great places to pull over and take pictures, we arrived at the Overnight Parking Area.  We got our gear ready and checked the map to find the quickest route to the wild ponies!!!  We could've taken Massie Gap trail but instead we decided on going back up to the main road so that we could use the restrooms before hitting the trail.  BAD IDEA!!!  Those pit toilets were insanely nasty!  After being scared half to death by the funk in the bathrooms, we hit the Rhododendron Trail. 

 

Within minutes of passing into a gated area we saw a wild pony on our right.  We stopped to take a couple of pictures and then saw a group of people up the hill a ways with about 4 or 5 ponies hanging out with them.  On our way up to see what all the fuss was about, we saw another pony eating Cheetos on the side of the trail!!!  When we got to the top of the hill there was a guy there feeding the ponies carrots... which you're not supposed to feed the ponies anything... but hey, it's better than Cheetos!  We got a couple of pictures with the ponies before they tried to eat our backpacks!  Those ponies are hungry, and Kenneth's backpack is orange, so they must've thought it was a big carrot. 

After hanging out with the ponies for a few minutes, we got back on the trail.  As we headed up the trail we began to see more and more rocks.  Rock boulder formations in the background, rock outcrops in the distance and rocks all over the trail.  The higher elevation we got to, the better the leaves looked also... most of the bushes in the area were bright red and the maple trees were bright yellow and red.  This mixed in along with the normal green scenery was awesome. 

After passing through another gate and leaving the wild pony grazing area, we got on the VA Highlands Connector Trail.  We would later realize that all orange-blazed trails were horse trails and were VERY rocky and not easily hiked on foot.  We followed the signs towards the Appalachian Trail... in less than a mile we were on the AT.  Once we saw the familiar white blazes, we new we were on the right track.... we would pretty much spend the whole weekend on the AT.  We headed South on the AT towards Mt Rogers for around 3 miles until we got to Rhododendron Gap.  Along the way we passed through some cool rock caves. 

     

Once we reached Rhododendron Gap we hung a left to stay on the AT and probably hiked another mile before passing Thomas Knob, a shelter that came equipped with outhouses.

After passing the shelter we came to a fork in the trail.  The AT kept going to the left and a trail going straight up the mountain headed towards Mount Rogers, the highest mountain peak in Virginia.  We took the Mt. Rogers spur trail and headed north!  The air was MUCH cooler as we continued climbing for a little over a mile.  We passed through some old growth forest areas where everything was covered with moss. 

When we reached the top, we could see our breath it was so cold!  There was pretty much nothing there except for some rocks piled up and a couple of waypoint markers installed in two rocks probably 50 feet apart from each other.  There was no view, as the top of the mountain was all wooded, but there was a sense of accomplishment being 5,729 feet above sea level on top of Virginia's highest mountain.

After hanging out for a few minutes, we headed back down from the summit and got back on the AT.  We headed north on the AT back towards Rhododendron Gap and Pine Mountain Trail (where we'd planned to hike the next day).  On our way back down the mountain we were looking for campsites, since it was already around 5:30pm.  Most of the good ones were taken as there were a lot of people camping along the sides of the trail.  Once we got back to the trail intersection, we had to make the decision of whether we wanted to press on and hit the Pine Mountain Trail to try and find a campsite or whether we should just find somewhere right around that area.  After talking with some people coming off of Pine Mtn we decided it'd be much safer to stay where we were at, since they said there were pretty much no flat spots, and it was all rhododendron the whole way.  We looked around and Rose spotted a flat area out in the open with a killer view.  We knew the wind would be fairly strong there, but we didn't have much choice.  We set up camp and got supper stared... red beans and rice, pre-cooked bacon and a Star Crunch... yummy.  That night we would sleep somewhat restless considering coyotes howled all night long.

The next morning Kenneth woke up early and caught a partial sunrise.  We were facing Northeast and some rock formations were blocking the sun but he still got some nice pictures.

We hiked up to the top of a rock outcrop and got some nice pictures of the area that morning, after having hot cocoa and a granola bar for breakfast.

After taking in all of the views we packed up camp and hit the Pine Mountain Trail.  After we got on the trail we were VERY happy we had camped where we did since most of the 1.8 mile trail is thick rhododendron, bushes and uneven surfaces.  After hiking the distance of the trail we hooked back up with the AT, this time going south again (you'd have to see a map, the AT creates a u-shape in this area and the Pine Mountain trail cuts across and connects the two trail areas).

We hiked 1.5 miles on the AT to a place called "Scales", which is named that because all of the local farmers used to bring their cattle to this area and weigh them on a large scale located in what is now Scales Campground.  When we got to the campground, we noticed they had bathrooms.  YEAH!  No running water, but they were very clean pit toilets.  They also had trash cans so we were able to get rid of some of our trash.  There were lots of people riding horses in the area, and some spots to tie off horses right behind the campground.

There were a couple of groups of hikers there when we arrived... all having lunch before getting back on the trail.  There was no running water so we set out hiking in search of some H2O.  We asked a local cowpoke on a horse if he knew where any water source was.  He pointed us in the right direction and we went searching. After about 20 minutes, we found what was literally a trickle of water.  Kenneth dug out a spot and used our water filter to fill both of our Camelbaks.  The water was kind of funky tasting, but considering we'd been a day without seeing water we felt lucky to have any at all.  Warning:  This trail does not have many streams on it, especially in times of drought like what the area is currently experiencing.  We had lunch and just lounged around for an hour or so.  We soaked in all of the scenery and the 80 degree weather (little did we know we were getting sun burnt).

After taking a relaxing break we could either hit the Scales trail, which was 1.3 miles back towards Grayson Highlands state park or we could've taken the AT to get to the same spot, but which was around 4 miles longer.  Now in relaxation mode, we chose the shorter hike.  After getting on the Scales trail, we found total solitude.  There was nobody around, and now off to our right were the mountains that we had just hiked over and around.  The Scales Trail is beautiful because you are at the base of all of the mountains and can really get a good idea of what you just crossed over on the AT. 

After hiking 1.3 miles we hooked BACK up with the AT one more time, crossed a few creeks (finally, water!) and saw some more good views and beautiful wooded areas.  We headed South again and passed Wise Shelter on our left. 

After hiking another couple of miles we hit the Appalachian Spur Trail, which according to the map would take us back to the overnight parking area and our car.  We decided to set up camp about 200 yards onto the Spur Trail.  We were unsure if we were allowed to camp here, since according to all of the literature we'd read, camping WITHIN Grayson Highlands state park is prohibited.  We considered that since we had been hiking the AT and that since you can camp anywhere along the AT, that we should be okay to camp. 

We set up the tent at a beautiful location that was facing East, so we knew we'd get an awesome sunrise the next morning, and we had a large rock formation blocking the wind so we wouldn't have to deal with that.  Things were looking good, so we set up everything and just took it easy.  It was only around 3:30pm so we sunned some more (more sunburn, but we didn't know then) and just relaxed.  Kenneth explored a large rock formation near the campsite, took some pictures and could see the parking area where our car was located only about 3/4 mile away. 

About an hour after relaxing and laying in the grass, Rose spotted the ugliest, nastiest, scariest spider known to man coming through our camp site.  This thing was crazy looking!!!  It was probably the size of a half dollar, hairy, with big fangs... and to boot it had about 30 little babies on it's back!!!  Kenneth took his hiking pole and placed it near the spider.  It instantly attacked and grabbed onto the pole.  With the spider now mobile, Kenneth took him about 400 yards from the camp, with babies in tow, and released it into the wild. 

After the spider debacle it was sort of hard to relax, so we decided to cook dinner.  We had couscous and country ham.  Rose also got her Smores fix by just roasting her marshmallows over our white gas stove. We turned in early and slept in late (8:30pm to 7:30am!!!) and only woke up a few times after hearing packs of coyotes in the distance.  We arose to a beautiful sunrise.

We packed up and hiked back about a mile to our car.  From there we checked the map and found that at the Ridge campground/stable area there were showers.  We paid $5 each for showers... and it was well worth it!!  After getting cleaned up we jumped back onto Highway 58 and headed towards Damascus and White Top... were were going to mountain bike The Creeper Trail... an old railroad bed converted for bike riding before heading back to Greenville. 

If you'd like to check out our adventure on The Creeper Trail, click here.