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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As we walked by, doing our best to leave them alone, they lined the trail and only came closer as we drew near.
Since the ponies were introduced to help maintain the balds, the park does it's best to keep them in through a series of fences and gates we had to weave in and out of and close behind us along the trip.
We left the Grayson Highland State Park and entered the Lewis Fork Wilderness in the Mount Rogers National Recreation area. The Mount Rogers summit is a popular overnight and day hike, so while it wasn't as packed as the state park we still saw our fair share of fellow hikers here.
As the hike went on into the afternoon, the wind out on balds and exposed, rocky ridges intensified, howling along the trail with us.
The weather soon picked up too, as the clouds lowered onto the peaks bringing mist and, at times, a light rain with them. We had to watch our footing on some of the scrambles between the open meadows.
The mist cover also made navigation tricky as it blanketed the mountains. Even with our experience and maps we still found ourselves off trail once on the hike, catching it soon enough to adjust. But if you're planning to take a similar venture, make sure to come prepared for what Mother Nature will throw at you!
When not on the balds, the hike had some fun rocky sections including one little cave to squeeze through. The squeeze reminded me of the rocky challenges on my home turf in Harriman State Park like the Lemon Squeezer on the AT or Elbow Brush and Cat's Elbow elsewhere in the park.
These rocky sections also highlighted the wonderful trail work throughout the section. The work crews put into the stone steps and general maintenance of the trail throughout the park and wilderness area was apparent and made for an incredibly pleasant experience even in the rain and wind.
We made it into Thomas Knob shelter fairly early and after eating lunch and chatting with a day hiker, we decided to stop for the day and head up Mount Rogers tomorrow morning. We considered tenting, but the wind and rain made that feel really undesirable, so we opted to shelter instead.
Thomas Knob Shelter is fairly large and has an upper attic section as well, though the ladder leading up to the attic is in a bit of disrepair, the top rungs are off making it a wobbly on and off at the top.
Despite the ladder, we claimed a space in the attic, set up or pads and bags, and proceeded doing a few camp chores during a break in the weather. Namely, getting water.
Water is a short steep way down behind the shelter. It's listed as .1 miles, but seemed to me to be a very generous .1 miles. It's difficult to complain though, the piped spring was flowing well for us in late December and has a beautiful view that's definitely worth the descent and subsequent climb back up.
We lazied about, ate dinner, dropped our food and smellables in the shelter's bear box, then dozed in and out of sleep as other hikers straggled in. In all the hecticness of the holiday season it was nice to get out and take and pause in the wilderness.
We slept in a bit the next morning and had a slow exit out of the shelter with some hot, instant coffee! The wind raged throughout the night and we had front row seats to the symphony up in the attic. It whistled and whirled against the metal roof, sending pine branches brushing and tapping across it.
The weather this morning though proved a bit more pleasant. Still clouded in and cold, but with sun visibly breaking through by the time we got started. The Mount Rogers summit is a half-mile side trail off the AT, with the junction only a short jaunt from Thomas Knob Shelter.
We made quick work of the Mount Rogers summit trail which, in the morning light with the clouds and mist, was an ethereal, atmospheric summit that felt more at home in Vermont's Breadloaf wilderness than southern Virginia. The elevation gave the forest some alpine elements, but it was still shrouded in dense pine groves with smell of pine following us the whole way up. All along people had said that there was no view at the summit, but seeing the forest up there was worth the climb and that was certainly our experience as well.
Doubling back to the parking lot this morning, the sun broke through the cloud cover in bright, blue gaps. Going both Nobo and Sobo on the AT through here spoiled us with all the vistas and landscapes the section has to offer.
The break in the weather brought out even more people and ponies and we decided to try our luck going to down the orange blazed Horse Trail North to connect to the AT Spur Trail and dodge some of the foot traffic in the state park.
The wide, gravel horse path made for a quick hike back to the lot. As a note, on the day of your exit you're supposed to be out of the backpacker's lot by noon. Since we were running a bit tight on that deadline we quickly changed into some dry clothes we left in the car and then headed on down the mountain.
The Grayson Highlands certainly lived up to J-Dub's hype. The wild, unpredictable weather only added to the scenery and experience. While the ponies were certainly fun to see, the landscapes that really stole my heart: sweeping, amber meadows dotted with reds, browns. and stubbornly green rhododendron below (and sometimes shrouded by) gray-white clouds. A dreamscape of texture and color in the winter.