Trip Report: GQ's Return to Ponyland (Grayson Highlands, VA)

Posted by Jimmy on

What better way to end a summer than to do an epic backpacking trip, DC UL style, over Labor Day weekend!

**Disclosure: During a backpacking trip I took in Grayson Highlands this past May, an incident occurred where a herd of ponies ran through my camp in the middle of the night nearly destroying my muchly expensive cuben fiber shelter (with me in it!). Since that moment, my fondness of ponies grew dim…

Initially, Karan and I had planned on drawing up a backpacking loop in the Hammersley Wild Area (in PA). Quite similar to the one we had done back in February. We thought it would be nice to see the area when it wasn’t negative 10 degrees. However, after doing some further research on the trail conditions (via our resident expert Chris) it revealed that the trails were heavily overgrown and overburdened by ticks & rattlesnakes. Hearing this news, we decided to postpone this trip (possible Nov or Dec outing) and came up with the idea to go to Grayson Highlands, VA. My memory is still rather blurry as to how Karan convinced me to go back there despite a pony incident I had there.

Saturday quickly rolled around and from the Vienna Metro, we piled into Joe’s minivan and started our 6 hour drive south. Along the way, because we were making such good time, we decided for a nice sit down lunch (vice Sheetz lunch) in the downtown area of Roanoake! What a cool little town! After some good food, we were back on the road, and before we knew it, we were at parking lot just outside the Fairwood Valley Trail Head. 3pm, our packs on, we started our hike up the Mt. Rogers trail.

The trail meanders through some lush rhododendrons and a forest full of birch, oak and spruce trees as it ascends up towards Mt. Rogers. After a couple miles, we linked up with the AT and headed north towards Mt. Rogers. Shortly after connecting with the AT, we were offered up with the first grand views of the Grayson Highlands. We all took this moment to take a quick break to take in these wide open views. Some of us pointed out the first set of pony sightings and decided to walk down the open meadow to get a closer look. I opted to stay back as the mere thought of seeing a pony sickened me (author is still bitter from the last trip at this moment).

Jimmy posted on

Many pictures later, we headed back north on the AT and made our way towards the Mt. Rogers spur trail. Once at the spur trail, we took the .5 mile side trip to summit Virginia’s highest peak, Mt. Rogers.

Note: This is probably one of the more boring summits, but I’m always amazed by the scenery offered along this spur trail. It’s like I stepped into a portal to the Pacific North West being greeted by a dense spruce forest all covered in bright green moss.

Once we all summited, we quickly hurried back down and continued north on the AT. Within a mile or so we came upon the spring behind the Thomas Knob Shelter. This was where we would all cache up for the night. At the spring, I was very surprised as to how many people were down there getting water. There was literally a line of people waiting to get water. I knew it was a holiday weekend and that there would probably be a lot of people camped up near Mt. Rogers, but holy cow, I’ve never seen so many folks up there! This didn’t bode well for my confidence about our campsite selection for the night, but I did have some plan b’s and c’s.

All filled up, we again continued north on the AT for another mile where we would find camping for the night. Passing filled up tent sites, one after another, we finally came upon a decently open space for us to set up in. Coincidentally, this was right next to the site that I had stayed before …the site of the pony incident. This time I was a little bit more careful about the location of my set up, as I placed my tent in an area surrounded by small trees. I felt somewhat protected.

After setting up, we all had our dinners, enjoyed the rest of the night, and headed in for bed. Lying in my shelter, I took the time to study the map so that I could plan for any deviations caused by the next day’s forecasted weather. After all, it was supposed rain and thunderstorm all day.

After a restless night, I was woken up by the sound of heavy rain which started at 4 am. It would steadily rain for the next couple hours but as soon as our wake up time hit (6:30), the rain came to a complete stop. Surprised by this, I quickly got out to break camp while there was a pause in the rain. The others did the same, and after a quick breakfast we were all ready to start our day. At this point, the skies looked like they were starting to clear and we became increasingly optimistic that the storms forecasted earlier, had come and gone earlier than expected. Whatever the case was, the scenery all around us was simply amazing. With all the low laying clouds beneath the mountain tops in the distance combined with the partly cloudy skies above, made for it to be the most beautiful I had ever seen it here. I think I took about 400 photos that morning.

Jimmy posted on

We finally started hiking and we were all just being continually amazed as to how beautiful the scenery was here. Karan kept asking me, “Are you sure this is no longer your favorite backpacking area in the mid-atlantic?” I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that as there would always be that memory of “the incident” in the back of my head. Ah, well speaking of which, after passing the Massie Gap area, the inevitable pony sightings came to fruition. Well, I guess it was time for me to finally face my foes and to get over these bitter feelings towards them. I started to walk up close to them and out of the blue, a small baby one, stood up and walked directly over to me. It then nestled it’s head against my knee as it wanted me to pet it. Then in order to get my complete attention, it started to rolling around in the grass like a dog. “Ok, ok, I get it… you’re freakin adorable and I don’t hate you anymore!” We had a small talk, and now this chapter in my life has now finally closed. We (the ponies and I) can all move forward with our lives…

**Please note that I do write this in dramatic fashion to have some comedic affect! I’m not actually nuts and did not have a pony vendetta.

With this powerful moment passed, we headed back to the AT and headed north towards Wise Shelter. We regrouped at the shelter and took the moment to discuss our route for the rest of the day. Looking at the time and the distance we had yet to cover, I realized that we were not making the progress I had hoped. In truth, it’s really hard to hike our normal pace when the scenery around us is so gorgeous. With this knowledge, I offered up a vote to the group: Go our intended route through the muddy Bearpen trail or cut off 4 miles and continue along the AT where it heads to the top of an awesome ridge with awesome views. The votes were 4 to 1 in favor of awesomeness.

Once on the said “awesome ridge with awesome views”, we took lunch and a nice little break to lie down and to dry out our gear. Before hitting the trail again, I studied the map once more and pondered if hitting the Second and Third Peaks (via the First Peak Trail) was worth doing. Instead, I was thinking, we can stay here a bit longer and head directly to the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. I offered the suggestion to the group and the decision was made to bypass Second and Third Peaks. This is also the point in time where the “Jin Factor” term was born. Jin Factor: Never do anything according to plan.

We all enjoyed the time on the ridge some more, and then after arriving to the Scales ranch, we joined the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. This wasn’t my most favorite trail and I should have known better as all horse trails are heavily chopped up with lots of muddy sections. Not to mention all the horse crap everywhere as well. Trudging along the muddy sections for several miles, we were then at the Old Orchard Shelter. We regrouped here and then made our final push to our campsite for the night (the intersection of the Cliffside and Crest Trails)

As we approached our camp site, we were welcomed (or not) by several herds of cows. They were all over the place and didn’t seem too deterred by our presence. We managed to set up our tents by a section of trees somewhat protected from these cows. These cows however, were starting to get curious and slowly kept on getting closer to our shelters. Karan and I took turns for a bit standing guard to try and scare them away and prevent them from getting too close. Once we got the fire going and the skies darkened a bit (and with the help of some horseback riders) the cows started to dissipate. After dinner, we all took in the wonderful scenery around us, including a great sunsetty sky, and enjoyed the fire. Tired and satisfied from the day, we all hit the sack at around 8:30.

Jimmy posted on

The next morning, we broke camp amazed to see our shelters still in once piece (there was a constant traffic of cows and ponies running around behind us all night). We then made our way down the Cliffside trail to the Fairwood Valley Trail eventually meeting the parking lot after 3 or so miles. Success! No pony incident was had, we amazingly lucked out with the rain as the only rain was saw was at night when we were all in our shelters, and the company of my fellow backpackers was awesome!

Thanks again for attending and Karan for helping me lead this one. This place is back up to my no. 1 spot!!!

Karan posted on

Nice report, Jimmy. Finally, I got a chance to visit this place everyone keeps talking about. And it was quite picturesque and mesmerizing. Felt quite relaxed up there. I agree :- this is one of the most beautiful areas I've come across in the Mid-Atlantic region so far. Looking forward to return to these amazing lands in the Winter..