Questionable Weather Makes For A Great Day
With the first leg of my trip complete (see Black Mt, KY), I was now headed from Abingdon, Virginia out to Grayson Highlands State Park. It was about 5:00 PM and the sun would be setting soon. My route to the park would be along Rt 58 and I wanted to get there before it got too late. After eating dinner and gassing up the Montero, I was on my way.
Route 58 east from Abingdon is a beautiful, scenic winding road. I felt like I was on a roller coaster ride headed for the park. As the sun was setting the valleys grew eerily dark under the cloudy sky. At 6:15 PM I arrived at the park entrance and proceeded up the road to the contact station. There were no rangers on duty at this time of night, but plenty of signs with directions on filling out self-issuing parking passes and a hikers registration card.
After filling out the required forms and paying my $3.00 entrance fee, I headed up the road toward Massies Gap parking area. It was dark, cloudy, foggy and drizzling a very light rain along my drive to the parking area, so I drove cautiously to avoid any animals crossing the road. To my left I barely spotted a couple whitetail deer in the fog on the other side of the road. I found my turn off to the parking area and there were two very fat deer walking along the road. Wait, those weren’t deer! I took a closer look and realized they were a couple of the wild ponies I’d read about that roam the park.
Wild Ponies at Grayson Highlands
I parked and proceeded to set up sleeping arrangements in my Montero while listening to the radio for any weather updates. I could hear more ponies walking in the pitch dark of the gravel parking area and two of them finally decided I was alright, so they came over to see if I had some food to spare. I told them no and petted them a little and they finally wandered off into the night. These guys stand about four feet tall and are pretty cute and friendly. However, keep in mind they are still wild animals; No feeding or harassing them.
I awoke the next morning a little late and hit the trail at about 8:15 after getting dressed and having some breakfast. The weather was thankfully better than I expected: Cold, cloudy, windy…but no rain! I started up the Appalachian Spur Trail along a small ridge and connected with the AT after about ¾ mile. Taking a left, I went south on the AT to intersect the Rhododendron Trail.
Looking up Wilburn Ridge in The Clouds
There are several trails that cross and/or parallel each other on the way up to Wilburn Ridge, but it’s not hard to figure out which way to go. I followed the Rhododendron Trail up a little ways, then hopped back on the AT. This is where the real fun began! As I started up the ridge, it was very windy and damp. The clouds blowing across the ridge were an amazing sight. At one point it looked like an avalanche of clouds was blowing down off of Mt Rogers, enveloping the landscape until it was no longer visible. I’m definitely going to start bringing a camcorder along from now on, because pictures just can’t capture the full experience.
Following the AT up, I branched off onto Wilburn Ridge Trail which goes over the top of the ridge and rejoins the AT on the other side. The rock scrambling at the top was fun and the views were terrific as the weather slowly began to clear. The rocky, high plains area around here is like no other place I’ve been in Virginia. It was like entering a totally different western state. Once over the top of the ridge I came to a junction of several trails and found I was two miles from the summit now.
A site to behold earlier when the wind was blowing those clouds down off the summit of Mt. Rogers.
From this point it was a nice stroll across to Mt Rogers along the AT with outstanding views and some well placed camp sites I’d like to visit next year. I passed Thomas Knob Shelter and shortly after that came to the marked summit spur trail. The trail through the woods reminded me of the Adirondacks. The moss covered logs and trees seemed out of place after coming up the ridge, and at this time of year too. It wasn’t a very long hike through the woods before I reached the summit of Virginia’s highest mountain. There was no sign, but the USGS marker was still there. The views from the summit were….non existent. Between the dense forest and clouds still covering the summit there were no views to be had. However, this wasn’t a disappointment for me. It’s a beautiful area in the woods up there, totally different from other places I’ve hiked in Virginia. I took a short break to enjoy my surroundings and grab a snack, then started back.
By the time I was half way back, the clouds had mostly lifted and opened up the views to the distant mountains. There were some wild ponies feeding just off the trail along the way, apparently they’re used to seeing people. It was nice being able to see them during the daytime. I’m not sure, but I think they’re unique only to this small region in the state. I stayed on the AT, which skirts around the top of Wilburn Ridge, and got back to the parking lot around 1:15.
Mt. Rogers as seen from Little Pinnacle on Haw Orchard Mountain.
After a long break, I headed up Haw Orchard Mountain from Massies Gap. I hiked up to Big Pinnacle, then took the loop trail around to the visitors center. There were some amazing southerly views of a virtual sea of mountains stretching out as far as the eye can see. I headed back via the rest of the loop trail, over Little Pinnacle, and back down to the parking area. From the visitors center, the Haw Orchard loop trail is fairly short at 1.6 miles. Add another .8 miles roundtrip from Massies Gap to Big Pinnacle for a nice 2.4 mile loop. An interesting note is that Little Pinnacle is 5,089 feet and Big Pinnacle is 5,068 feet. Seems when they named these points they got them backwards, hahaha.
I took my chances with the weather and it definitely paid off this day. A great day that started with very interesting weather and ended with bright sunny skies, the best of both worlds. Oh, and one more thing about those cute little ponies: Watch where you’re stepping on the trails, because all of those cute ponies use them too. Just a warning ;)
Mount Rogers Via Massies Gap
It took some searching, but I found the most comprehensive trail map I could locate for the route from Massies Gap parking area to Mt. Rogers.
Nice Trail Map To Mount Rogers