Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers

I traveled down south to visit my family for the holidays this year. Typically, J-Dub and I do a few day hikes in places like the Linville Gorge or off the Blue Ridge Parkway, but this year I brought my winter gear so we could do an overnight. We headed to the Grayson Highlands and Lewis Fork Wilderness in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area to hike all 5,729 feet of Mount Rogers, Virginia's highest peak

We warmed up with a few day hikes in the Blowing Rock - Boone area including a touristy stop to The Blowing Rock itself.

Man holding a coffee looks back from a wooden platform. A sign warns in bold, red letters, "continue at your own risk"

It cost $7.00 to enter the grounds, but was well worth it for the vista. They have a small trail down the ridge to explore (at your own risk) and a little museum with local history too.

For a more challenging hike, we did an in-and-out of Grandfather Mountain's Calloway Peak. This was a steep, cold, summit through a fantasy land of frost rimmed pines and wind gusts of over 30mph. The winds on the exposed peak itself made it so we didn't linger too long, but still long enough to take it all in before heading back to the parking lot and the cushy, heated bathrooms at the trail head!

Our Grayson highlands adventure began by navigating the Virginia State Parks website. The site and the partnering Reserve America (which we had to use before in the Smokies for our Big Creek site) don't have the simplest user experience. Through some trial and error we discovered that the best way to get what we needed was to make aggressive use of their filter tools.

Grayson Highlands State Park itself doesn't allow camping winter camping so we needed to camp on the federal land in the Lewis Fork Wilderness. The reservation we needed was for overnight parking in the state park, so we navigated the site and paid the $15.00 to park one night in the

backpacker parking lot.

Driving up early, we found ourselves winding and coasting along back roads deep into the North Carolina - Virginia border. All along the way were old, high country farms and farmland with one diner/gas station/pizzeria at an intersection of routes and not much else around.

Hiker at the blue sign post for the Appalachian Trail Spur Trail  on a sunny day in Grayson Highlands State Park

Once in the park itself, we stopped into the park office to clarify that everything was copasetic with the online reservation. The backpackers lot itself has a small booth where you get your parking pass and itinerary sheet. Since we had just filled this out the other night, we weren't sure if it'd be there, but the ranger on duty assured us that it was and gave us directions to the lot. Lo and behold, everything was indeed there! Parked and packed we were ready to set off.

The Appalachian Trail Spur Trail connects to the Appalachian Trail (AT) itself and like most connectors is a blue blazed, gradually steep ascent that brings hikers to elevation. Once we reached the AT itself we shed a few layers at the big trail junction, wanting to stay vigilante about sweat and body temp in the winter weather.

Immediately, I was taken in by the landscape. J-Dub had been talking about the park for awhile now and I'd seen photos of his hikes in it, but actually being in there is another thing entirely. In wintertime it's a sweeping moor of earth tones. While pushing 60s and sunny in the foothills below, up here there was a perpetual gray, mist and wind. We could see the horizon line of the clouds and where it broke for sun, but over us was thick gray adding to the winter tones of the park.

Hiker in rainy gear crossing a rocky bald in Grayson Highlands State Park

Even on an overcast day, the park was full of people coming out to see the herds of wild ponies, a famous feature of the Grayson Highlands.

Herd of wild ponies in a meadow on a rainy day in the Grayson Highlands State Park

The ponies seemed relatively unbothered by the weather and crowds, though a few of them clearly liked the attention. One was even rolling around on its back in front of a gaggle of families! While ponies and horses regularly roll to clean their coats and such, it felt a bit like this one was hamming it up.