Camping at Grayson Highlands

Grayson Highlands

The Wild West of the East Coast

Are you a hiker? A backpacker? I’m both. And if you’re seeking a playground for your passion – Grayson is just that. Out of all the places I have been to, it is by far in my top 5.

If you’re planning on camping at Grayson Highlands State Park, know that you have to stay in the park’s campground. Camping is also permitted outside of the park in Mount Rogers Recreational Area. Be sure to call ahead and book your parking spot – overnight parking is available if you choose to backpack in and camp. If you are looking for a rustic campground, that is also peaceful, outside of the park, Grindstone will provide just that. There are plenty of first come, first serve sites. Shade was readily available, as well as water sources and nice bathrooms – they even had showers! That being said, I guess I can’t call it “rustic” afterall – the shower setup pushes the site up a notch or two from a true rustic campground. But I wasn’t complaining – after backpacking Shenandoah on the same trip – I most certainly welcomed a shower! Our camp host was super friendly and gave us a map to Grayson Highlands State Park. Be aware – there is no reception in this area – so we were thankful for the map.

Our adventure begins.

We began our adventure on the Massie Gap trail, also known as the Rhododendron Trail. Walking past the rhododendrons, I imagined the spectacular show they must put on during the spring (we were there in the fall, which provided another spectacular show.) We followed along to the AT trail and headed south toward Mt. Rogers. The views started almost immediately. In the distance, ponies dotted the landscape, enticing us to venture through.

Just beyond the gate that leaves the park you’ll find yourself at the most beautiful rustic campsite. There’s enough room here for 3 tents. We enjoyed our stay here that evening and woke up to a gorgeous sunrise over the mountains.

After the sunrise, we packed up and continued down the AT headed to the Wilburn Ridge. You won’t want to miss the Wilburn Ridge summit. It’s very rocky – some places are covered in long angled sheet rock. The blue blazes lead you up the formation. We missed where one was and had to climb hands and feet up a more difficult spot. It was a bit of a rough climb, but we were rewarded with a sweeping 360° view of the surrounding mountains. It was reminiscent of a John Wayne landscape.

The wild west of the east coast. 

When I first saw this place I felt like the wild west had landed on the east coast. The colors were so vibrant; the land was so open and bursting with vegetation – but yet wasn’t covered with trees. The first mountain that caught my eye had what appeared to be wild horses or ponies grazing. Being outside the gate and far away I wasn’t sure which. This particular mountain was speckled with a variety of warm brown colors, a hint of oranges, and green splotches. The entire scene reminded me of a western movie and I was just waiting for cowboys on horses to emerge. We were lucky enough to be there in the fall –  the leaves making it that much more spectacular.

Grayson Highlands

Being that I am a traveling artist, I decided to set up my watercolors to paint the magnificent scene before me. This sweet pony was very interested in my paintbrush. Some of them are friendly and will seek you out. Even though they were brought here, they are wild, so petting or feeding them is strongly discouraged.

The ponies surfaced some history.

Before Grayson Highlands had become a state park in 1965, the mountains were covered in farmland grazed by cattle and a few ponies. In 1974 Bill Pugh, a horse breeder, and another pony owner brought 20 ponies to the park to maintain the grassy balds that were no longer being grazed. Today, more than 100 happily plump ponies graze here. To make sure the number of ponies doesn’t overwhelm the area, there is a Grayson Highlands Fall Festival where a few of the babies are auctioned off. Proceeds from the sale go towards veterinary care for the herd as well as to raise money for local fire departments. (http://www.virginialiving.com/travel/rock-hopping/)

Info for the festival: http://www.ghfallfestival.50megs.com/

We continued to explore and came along a family of longhorns. A mom, dad, and baby. They were far enough away to not be a concern but the dad kept a sharp eye on us. At one point, with some trepidation, we slowly  walked through an entire herd of longhorns. I was petrified knowing how powerful these animals are. All they did was stare at us, their horns curled up, while I stared back in awe. Gulp. They didn’t seem to mind us one bit. We soon ran into a family of fellow backpackers who told us the free ranging Texas longhorns had just been released.

Long Horn Family

Looking for adventure.

Throughout this entire trip, we adventured. The area is incredibly open and offers rock outcroppings in every direction, so we could spend so much time adventuring without getting lost. After our trip, I learned there were a few trails we missed. One in particular being the Cabin Creek Trail that leads you along several waterfalls and one magnificent 30’ high waterfall.

Seems I found another reason to return for more adventure. Once you’ve experienced it, you’ll want to return to camping at Grayson Highlands as well.