BACKPACKING GRAYSON HIGHLANDS STATE PARK, VA

A quick note that many parks and wilderness areas are currently closed. This was a trip from 2019 and is posted to highlight a beautiful area and provide inspiration and ideas for when it is safe to travel. Please follow any national, regional, and local guidelines.

Research and Planning

Known for its wild ponies and trails lined with rhododendrons, Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia has been on my list to scout for quite some time. 

A friend also wanted to check out the park and we hastily put together a plan. It was all pretty last minute, but luckily I had some information from looking into a trip a year prior.

Backpacking Grayson Highlands State park

We’re both solid backpackers and while we packed all the right gear, the route was a bit up in the air.

In the midst of our last-minute planning, we realized you have to pay for overnight parking, which luckily can be done online.

To give you an idea of how scrambled this was, we secured parking at 11 pm and left the next morning at 8 am. 

Part of the difficulty planning was that the park seemed complicated at first. It abuts Mount Rogers Recreational Area and most backpacking routes weave through both. We had trouble finding detailed information all in one location.

It turned out that the area is actually easy to navigate and it’s almost impossible to become lost in the park or Recreational Area.

Arriving at Grayson Highlands State Park

We were the week of Thanksgiving and with few visitors, the park staff and Visitor Center hours were limited. While the Visitor Center was closed, there were maps in the main entranceway. 

Grayson Highlands State Park in the winter

Throughout the park, there are clear signs and the Backpackers overnight parking lot is easy to locate. 

As we were getting ready in the parking lot, another backpacker shared that the winds were bad.  We decided to reverse the route and go counterclockwise, keeping the wind at our backs. 

This wound up being the best decision we could have made and probably saved the trip.

Day 1: The Journey Starts

Where to Camp

Backcountry camping is not allowed in Grayson Highlands, however, you can camp overnight in Mount Rogers Recreational Area. This is why it’s important to know the boundaries.

The Wise Shelter on the Appalachian Trail is inside the park but there is mixed information on whether or not you can legally stay there overnight. 

It honestly doesn’t matter because the shelter is only about 50 feet from the border of Mount Rogers Recreational Area, so there is legal tent space just around the bend.

As you hike, you’ll find yourself going through fences separating the two entities. Don’t assume a fence is a boundary-crossing, instead, look for the clear signs that mark every entry into the park.

Setting up Camp

Heading out, there was snow on the ground, which is pretty exciting to those of us that don’t live in the mountains. Thanks to our decision to reverse the route, the wind remained at our backs the entire time.

Hiking over a snow covered bridge

We arrived at our first camp early, but due to the winds and the distance to the next camp, we opted to stay in the area. 

It was cold and a little boring, but at least the shelter nearby offered protection from the wind. 

So what do bored backpackers do to pass the time? Well, after inspecting the bear locker, hiking around the area, checking out the two privies (Yep, two. I love you Virginia), and taking some photos, it was 4:30 pm and seemed like a reasonable time to eat. 

After dinner and storing the food, we hunkered down.  As the evening progressed, the winds started to pick up from the west.

I had been expecting the usual mountains with steep climbs and some means of natural shelter against the winds. What I didn’t realize is that Grayson Highlands Park is pretty much at the top of the mountain. You’re walking along the top and upper ridge so it’s relatively flat with little shelter.

Another exciting thing about Grayson Highlands are the wild ponies which we hadn’t seen yet. In the morning, I noticed a hoof print in the snow nearby so I’m pretty sure one of them paid us a visit.

Day 2:  Ponies and Views

Starting Out

It was a whole lot brighter and warmer with the sun shining and the winds dying down on day two. I could feel my toes so life was looking up.

One of the best parts of the trip was that we pretty much had the park to ourselves. The only people we ran into were a couple of South Bound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and two local hunters heading back to their camper. 

It was relaxing not having to fight for space or continually pass people or move over. I had time to look around and really observe the area.

Looking at the bare trees, you could tell heavy winds come from the west frequently. The branches grow towards the east, looking like the wind is blowing even when it’s not.

It’s a little weird.    

Trees with branches permanently growing to the east

We got off the Appalachian Trail to pick up the Crest Trail, an old roadbed with good views. 

Realizing the Pine Mountain Trail, which is more of a hiking foot trail, was literally twenty feet away, we moved over. 

The two trails pretty much ran in parallel so it was mainly a difference of scenery.

Wild Ponies

I had been a little disappointed we hadn’t run into the wild ponies yet.  The local hunters assured us they were further up the trail and given our route would definitely pass them.

As we rounded the trail just before Rhododendron Gap, three of them were off grazing. They were smaller than I had imagined with thick winter coats and clearly accustomed to the cold weather. 

Grayson Highlands ponies

The ponies didn’t appear to pay attention to us, but I swear they were keeping an eye out.

I’m pretty sure if I had opened my pack, they would have run over for food. Familiar with humans, they tolerate photos taken from a distance.

Mount Rogers – The Highest Peak in Virginia

We arrived at the Thomas Knob shelter fairly early, but not too bad. 

In theory, we could have completed the loop in 1 to 2 days, but if you’re dead set on a weekend of camping, you want your weekend. 

Having some time, we opted to hike to the top of Mount Rogers, against the advice of others saying it was treed in and not exciting.

They were right.

The peak of Mount Rogers

I can honestly say I don’t feel any bragging rights about standing at the top of the tallest mountain in Virginia. 

The top has no view. The only means of knowing you reached the summit is a survey marker.    

It’s not worth it, but let’s face it – you’re going to do it anyway.

Thomas Knob Shelter

Thomas Knob shelter has two levels with a fully enclosed upstairs, like an attic.  Now, this is how you live on the trail! Shelters with attics are a yes in my book.

Unfortunately, while we had initially escaped having the ponies follow us, a fellow hiker opted to eat some potato chips on the trail and created a pony parade. 

For some reason, the ponies stopped at the shelter, even though the hiker with the potato chips kept going.

Three ponies wound up hanging out at the shelter, just staring at us.  One turned sideways and tried to make like he wasn’t looking at me, but he was. 

They stayed for hours.  Just standing there and staring. 

Needing water, I headed out ignoring the creepy ponies. 

There was a good source nearby and the bear locker was a convenient yet decent distance since there have been some bear issues in the past. 

Spectacular Sunset

Sunset over the mountains behind the shelter was absolutely amazing.  My camera didn’t really capture the colors well. 

Even though the photos have some yellow, the sky was actually completely orange.  It lasted for a long time and was a great ending to the day. 

Sunset at Grayson Highlands state park

Day 3:  The Views Continue

Sunrise

In the morning, I headed out to get our food and stopped in my tracks. The view was amazing.   Sunrise looked a lot like the previous night’s sunset.

Starting out as an orange glow, it faded to a bit of pink, then a light yellow before dawn broke. 

Sunrise at Grayson Highlands looked a lot like sunset

Even now, I look at my pictures and, if they weren’t time-stamped, I would be hard-pressed to pick out sunset from sunrise.

Grayson Highlands State Park is definitely a special place. 

A Different Look

Hiking through large open, barren spaces and scrambling over rocks, I felt like a new settler exploring the area, years ago.  The landscape was exciting and yet felt foreign. 

The beauty of Grayson Highlands is in how barren and rugged it looks

Overall, I wish the hike was longer, but given the weather, it’s probably a good thing we opted for the shorter loop. 

I now have a really good feel for the area and will definitely be coming back to explore it further. 

Impressions on Grayson Highlands State Park

Grayson Highlands is a lot more rugged than I thought. 

Originally, I pictured something similar to the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, like Carvers Gap to 19E with steep climbs, wooded trails, and some balds.

I didn’t expect to see stark fields, open trail, and the myriad of rocks to scramble. 

Imagine a wide bald area, miles in radius, at the top of a mountain. Other mountains are nearby with trees, yet the one you’re standing on appears bald.

This unique landscape offers high elevations with nothing in the way of your spectacular views.

Everywhere we turned, there was a photo opportunity. 

The uninterrupted views at Grayson Highlands

The open fields, the trees leaning to the east from years of westward winds hitting them, the ponies out in the fields, the mountain views off in the distance, Grayson Highlands is a special place. I get it now.

A Little History

Grayson Highlands State Park was established in 1965 as Mount Rogers State Park. This playground is now approximately 4500 acres. 

The park is adjacent to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, part of Jefferson National Forest. 

Fun fact: Several areas of the park are actually named after early settlers. 

Massie Gap is named for Lee Massey who lived in the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Wilburn Ridge is named after Wilburn Waters, a famous bear hunter and wolf trapper. 

Besides hikers, the park attracts fishermen and has also garnered fame amongst bouldering enthusiasts.

The ponies have existed in the mountains since the 1940s which is prior to the National Forest taking over the area.  The Wilburn Ridge Pony Associate formed in 1974 to take ownership of the ponies and help manage them. 

Things to Note

If you’re backpacking, you do have to pay for overnight parking in the backpacking lot.  You can do this online through ReserveAmerica. 

The area has had bear issues for the past few years.  The main cause was improper food storage which led to the installation of bear lockers. 

This is not the area to push your luck.  Store your food and anything with a scent in the lockers.  If not for you, then for the next campers coming through. 

The issue appears to be getting better, but only through continued diligence will this area remain safe.

Most trails are not blazed, but they are easy to follow and there are plenty of maps online and via multiple apps. 

We didn’t have any issues with the ponies but a few locals told us some of them are prone to kicking and biting.  Heed the warnings and don’t feed or try to pet them. 

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed Grayson Highlands.  It was more rugged and had a mountain waste-land feel to it.  It’s bare and exposed and different. 

I’m surprised that this incredible landscape is less than four hours from the Raleigh-Durham area. 

If you do go in the summer, bring sunscreen.  You’ll find yourself exposed to the sun for long periods of time.  Bug spray is also probably a good idea. 

The park can become crowded in spring and summer.  If you’re an experienced backpacking or hiker, it’s doable in winter.  Just make sure you have the right gear. 

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