Trip Report: Grayson Highlands

Trip Report: Grayson Highlands

I had to wait for Memorial Day weekend to make this trip happen, seeing as it’s a good six-plus hours from Baltimore, at nearly the most southwestern point of Virginia. I had been wanting to go here for quite a while, after hearing about the wild ponies and seeing photographs of the high-elevation mountain balds.

I did this hike with DC UL Backpacking, a Meetup group I first went out with in 2013. I wanted to do more backpacking, but not necessarily alone. This group appealed to me because the group sizes for any given trip were small, and the organizer was especially communicative in the interest of safety, making sure that before I went out on a trip, I was sufficiently equipped with proper gear and an expectation of what I was in for. I was also drawn to DC UL because of the distances covered in any given weekend. This group pretty much goes big or goes home, and I’m always very nearly the slowest hiker in the group. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m truly the slowest hiker (probably), or I just don’t like people hiking behind me and I take a lot of photographs (maybe), or a little bit of both. At any rate, I don’t mind sweeping (being the last person) if it means I get to hike with DC UL. I just have to make sure I know the route in case I truly end up separated from everyone else.

This particular trip was about 27 miles over three days with 14 people. This was considered a “low mileage” trip, as the other DC UL trip planned for Memorial Day weekend was an 84 miler, and 27 miles in three days is pretty reasonable for an intermediate hiker.

Views starting off toward Mount Rogers.

The route started out at the Grindstone Campground in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. There is a fee for day-use parking, and it’s honor system, so read the instructions at the entrance to the campground. The hike begins via an access route to the Mount Rogers Trail. It climbs slowly over six miles before the hiker takes a spur trail to reach the summit for the last mile or so. Mount Rogers is the highest point in Virginia, with an elevation of 5,410 feet. Unlike some higher-elevation peaks, there is no view, only a USGS marker on a rock in a grove of trees. The hiker should not get her hopes up.

Mount Rogers peak marker, a.k.a. the view.

Coming back down the spur trail, we connected with the Appalachian Trail, continuing along a ridgeline bald where we saw our first wild ponies, and hordes of campers already set up for the night. For the duration of the hike, we had to go through many fence openings. The fences are set up so that people can go through, but not livestock or ponies, an effort at containment for the grazers. We continued along the trail, finding a nice spot for our evening rest just past the Thomas Knob Appalachian Trail shelter.

Our first wild ponies of the hike.

After sunset, the sky let loose with a downpour and a tirade of thunder and lightning. Thankfully, we were all in our tents by then. The storms continued on and off through the night, and in the morning, it was nice to see that everyone had made it through unscathed.

Shelter for the night, looking toward North Carolina.

The second day’s walk started again in pony country, winding through Rhododendron Gap and then Wilburn Ridge. The views were especially gorgeous because of large rock outcroppings along the trail. The rain made the trails incredibly muddy and at times it felt as though I were hiking in a stream.

Mother and foal near Rhododendron Gap.
Little Foal in Rhododendron Gap.
The condition of the trail for a good portion of the hike. You only have to get used to it once.
My favorite picture of the weekend even though it came out a little blurry.

The group decided to take a dog-leg loop into the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness via the Bearpen and Kabel Trails to extend the route, despite warnings of “deep mud.” After hiking in the creek for a while, the trail ascends by turn the aptly named “First Peak,” “Second Peak,” and “Third Peak” before descending into Scales. We were all wet-footed by the end of it, but the views were worth it. Coming into Scales, a place that used to be used for weighing livestock, was stunning. The trail wove down a long hillside strewn with wildflowers and cowpies, and long-horn cattle.

Warnings of deep mud as we entered Little Wilson Creek Wilderness.
Through the fields surrounding Scales.

From Scales, it was only another two miles to our camp for the night, at the junction of the Crest and Lewis Fork Trails. This was another wide-open bald, and I could see the fog rolling in over the valleys below. There were also a few ponies.

Rhododendrons along the trail.
More ponies near Lewis Fork Trail intersection.
Mushrooms at the campsite.

On the third day, the group hiked out first on the Lewis Fork Trail and then on the Cliffside Trail before rejoining Lewis Fork Trail again. Eventually, we hit the Fairwood Valley Trail, and finally, the trailhead for Mount Rogers, which took us back to the cars.

On the way back to the cars on the third day in a meadow full of yellow wildflowers.
The sun broke on the field of flowers on the way back to the cars.

This circuit backpack is described in great detail in the book, AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide to 30 of the Best Multiday Trips from New York to Virginia, by friend and fellow hiker, Michael Martin.

This was an excellent backpacking route with very rewarding scenery. I hope to visit again someday. I imagine it would be really worthwhile in the fall.

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