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Destination Spotlight: Grayson Highlands

The first time I experienced it.. It was February and 15 degrees. I was standing on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, next to a tree that had caught my attention. A tree that I had discovered was also a man’s final resting place. A man that I had never met, yet just happen to share my birthday. He was exactly one year older than me, but his life had ended the fall before my visit. I stood there in the place where his ashes had been scattered, with tears freezing on my face. I looked out at the view and immediately knew exactly why this place had been chosen. This place on the Appalachian Trail, this place with breathtaking views, this place with wild ponies roaming the hills… This place – Grayson Highlands.

I have returned since that cold winter day, in different seasons – yet each time has been just as beautiful as the first. It’s one of the most dream like places in our area. A dream like experience that everyone, at least once, must experience for themselves.

Looking west from Massie Gap in February.
Looking west from Massie Gap in February.

 

How do I get to Grayson Highlands?

Head north from Wilson, VA and you will find this marvelous place near the convergence of Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The park lies next to Mount Rogers Recreation Area, an area that is part of the Jefferson National Forest just within an hour from the well known trail town of Damascus, Virginia. Park at the Massie Gap trailhead once you’ve arrived at Grayson Highlands State Park and begin your journey to the views, the ponies and the 2.8 mile section of the Appalachian Trail.  The balds are visible directly from the parking lot and you can hike from there or the overnight backpacker’s lot nearby. The Rhododendron Trail and the Appalachian Spur Trail will take you to the top.

A small friend observes visitors from the ridge.
A young friend observes the visitors. (Parsons)

Once you arrive at the top, you can just spend time with the ponies in the Massie Gap area, explore Wilburn Ridge where you’ll get 360 degree views, take the AT north or south to the destination of your choice or hike out to Mount Rogers – the highest point in Virginia with an elevation of 5,729ft. There are many options to choose from once at the Massie Gap parking area, so it’s best that each person plan for the journey that they wish to have. Keep in mind though, the weather in the area can differ greatly from day to day and even hour to hour – so be certain to check the forecast for all destinations and gear up for any possible conditions.

Panoramic views with wild ponies.
Panoramic views and wild ponies. (Parsons)

 

When should you visit?

Grayson Highlands is a fantastic place to visit year around. With each season – some beauty stays, yet other beautiful moments make their way into the show. Snow in the winter and life returning in the spring. Rhododendrons, Mountain Laurels, Blueberries and warm sun in the summer. Come autumn, the views burst into reds, oranges, yellows and shades of gold. The ponies? They love it year around as well.. So, when should you visit? During every season.

Rhododendron blooming in June. (Parsons)

 

Enchanting trails, a waterfall and fly fishing…

Most people that travel to Grayson Highlands State Park area visit for the views, the ponies, the AT and the adventure of reaching the summit of Mount Rogers. However, the park has many beautiful trails to explore. Once in particular is the Cabin Creek Trail. Cabin Creek is a 1.9 mile loop but is absolutely beautiful. Cabin Creek Trail, though not the only in the park, is a Special Regulation Wild Trout Stream area that contains both wild rainbow and native brook trout. You’ll also find relaxing and charming water areas including a corner waterfall. Other areas in the park that are also designated are Big Wilson Creek, Wilburn Branch, Mill Creek and Quebec Branch.

Waterfall on Cabin Creek. (Parsons)

 

An outdoor playground for everyone:

There are so many fun and exciting ways to explore Grayson Highlands – and surrounding areas, that putting the details for all in one article would be impossible. However, the area offers something for everyone – plan your trip around what you love to do. A few options for activities include: day hiking, backpacking, fly fishing, biking, camping, horseback riding, and even bouldering!

Enjoying the wildflowers in Spring. (Parsons)

 

Don’t miss Damascus:

Stop off in Damascus, Virginia. Explore one of the most charming trail towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shop local. See what Appalachian history you can find, you’ll find Grandma Gatewood’s AT shoes in one local shop. Grab coffee or something light to eat at Mojo’s Trailside Cafe and Coffeehouse, before heading to Grayson – you won’t be disappointed. Ride the Virginia Creeper, especially in the autumn months. Stop in and fill up on a Mom and Pop’s type meal at the Creekside Cafe – before you say goodbye to an area that you will someday return.

Grandma
Grandma Gatewood’s A.T. shoes on display. (Parsons)
A mural in Damascus.
A mural in Damascus. (Parsons)

 

Rock/Creek’s Reminders:

  • Make sure you are prepared for a variety of temperatures while venturing into higher elevations. Sun protective clothing is a great option for during the heat of the day and a light jacket is mandatory in the likely event you encounter cooler-than-expected temperatures, wind, or rain.
  • The standard selection for hiking footwear is still wool, though some people do prefer synthetic options.  Cotton is not ideal in the backcountry, primarily due to it’s poor moisture management properties.
  • Extendable trekking poles are an invaluable tool when hiking long miles or steep terrain.  They increase your balance significantly and decrease fatigue on the lower body.
  • Plan out a nice lunch spot in order to ensure that you take time to fully  sit enjoy the scenery.
  • If you are going to be hiking past water sources, there is no need to carry a gallon of water. Instead, carry a water filter and refill as necessary. Never drink unfiltered/untreated water!
  • Invest in a reliable headlamp that never leaves your pack. Make sure the batteries are charged! You’ll eventually be glad you did.
  • Pack a first aid kit capable of treating a variety of issues you may encounter while in the backcountry; blisters, cuts/scrapes, stings, and common aches/pains.
  • Leave a note telling where you are going, which trails you will be hiking, which trail head you have parked at, who you are with, and when you expect to be back.
  • No matter how many times you have been on a trail, carry a map just in case.
  • Take your phone and either turn it off or put it on airplane mode to conserve battery life. Put your phone in a zip lock bag or a waterproof container. If you really want to get fancy, invest in a Spot.For more friendly advice, come by one of our locations, or give us a call at 1-888-707-6708 (Toll Free).  Helping people get outside is what we love to do!

 

Panorama in June.

  • Jamie

    Beautiful pics.