Do you ever have a memory of a place that is just so wonderful, you hesitate to return out of fear that the reality will be a disappointment? Twenty years ago, I visited Grayson Highlands and I was awe-struck with the views – completely unlike anything else I have experienced in the east. And to top it off, wild ponies wander the landscape. Unfortunately, the area is just outside the radius of doable for a long weekend from Cincinnati. But when COVID cancelled our Grand Canyon plans, a Virginia trip rose to the top of the list.
The campground is a very interesting mix of primitive and luxury. Forty sites feature water and electric, but they are some of the least level sites I have ever experienced. I was forced to use every trick I know to maximize my levelers and I still fought with water pooling in one corner of my shower the entire time. Like Natural Tunnel State Park, about half of the sites were for a specific reservation, while the other half ensured you would have a spot which you could pick out upon arrival. We were lucky to find two adjacent sites at 4pm on a Monday.
It should also be noted that arriving at Grayson Highlands is a bit of an adventure. Route 58 is the JEB Stewart Highway, but I think this takes liberties with the definition of highway. In fact, several signs warn that the 58 to Volney should not be attempted by trucks over 38 feet in length. This did give us pause and not just because we were not sure where Volney was. Compounding the problem was a complete lack of cell service once we left Damascus. Our confusion and hesitation lead us to an encounter with a very friendly highway patrolman. The bottom line is 58 is very winding , but the only option for getting to Grayson. The approach from the other side didn’t seem any better. Just take it slow and ignore the 55mph speed limit. We were fine with our 22 foot trailers, and frankly, the Grayson campground is not designed for trailers much longer anyway.
The highlight of any trip to Grayson Highlands is without doubt the hiking around Massie Gap. This area is named for the unique high-elevation habitat and the views from this area is truly spectacular. The maintenance of these subalpine balds is the responsibility of the famous “wild” ponies. Of course, feral is a better adjective, but about 100 ponies inhabit the area. And even then, these wild animals are very accustomed to pets and snacks from hikers. One should NEVER feed the animals, despite their persistent begging that borders on aggression. In other words, hikers should be prepared to be approached. Signs warn of keeping distance, but I found the attempt to be futile. Surprisingly, leashed dogs are welcomed on the trails. Blue was certainly not interested in making friends with these large creatures and that evening, I witnessed her fur rise on the back of her neck in sleep. I can only guess what fearful ponies she was fighting in her doggie dreams.
I am not 100% confident of which trail we hiked in the area. I think we set out on the Rhododendron Trail, but the social and pony trails make way-finding a little difficult. Fortunately, we could see for miles and navigate where we wanted to go. We exited the state park into the neighboring Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and climbed a nearby unnamed (?) peak, following blue blazes. Overall, we covered a little over three miles in our trek.
On day two, we explored the Twin Pinnacles Trail from the Visitor Center. This 1.3 mile trail summits two peaks, for amazing vistas. The remainder of the trail traverses a unique area covered with red spruce and yellow birch. Interesting lichens and ferns competed with the snakeroot and goldenrod on our late September hike.
We ended our exploration of the park with the Rock House Ridge Trail. This was an easy 1.25 mile trip through the lower elevation forests. Not as breathtaking as some of the high altitude views, but it is a pretty walk that ends in the homestead area.