>>> Cold! The kind of cold you read about in books…
Why were we up so high freezing again? Oh yea, the wild ponies…
Grayson Highlands State Park, known for the wild ponies that roam the vast grassy balds high up in the Virginia mountains.
You may be asking, “How does a Virginia location get included on 828Vibes?”
You can easily include a fun day of hiking this unique state park while you’re staying in the 828 near Boone.
Grayson Highlands State Park
At just a little over an hour north of Boone, NC, this state park located in the mountains of Southwest Virginia is full of fun little adventures. Grayson Highlands is located in the mountains of Southwest Virginia about midway between Independence and Damascus (VA). The 4,800-acre park offers plenty of hiking trails, many that provide access to the Appalachian Trail and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. This grand recreation area includes nine trails that originate within the park, leading to breathtaking mountain peaks, beautiful waterfalls, and high, grassy balds with grazing mountain ponies.
Nature’s Weed Eaters
The wild ponies roam 1,500 acres of contained area within the park and bordering Forest Service land. The large mountain open areas were manmade from extensive logging late in the 19th century. While during the first half of the 20th-century cattle ranching kept the balds maintained, once the state park was formed in 1965, the cows were no longer present to eat the grasses and small shrubs. In 1975, to maintain the mountain’s open areas, the U.S. Forest Service released the ponies. The herd has grown to approximately 150 and is monitored and maintained by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association.
Camping and Overnight Horse Stables
For overnight stays, you can reserve primitive and RV campsites, and even overnight horse stables. There are also bunkhouses and Yurts. plenty of hiking trails, access to the Appalachian Trail and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
Expecting to see snow, and hunting for a winter adventure, we got both in spades back in February when we piled every sleeping bag we owned into the back of Big Green. We looked at the weather…and still…we didn’t let our common sense get in our way for this quick weekend trip.
Honestly, I believe I did recognize I was seeing 9-17-degree weather…but it was like my brain was blocking out what that really meant.
Friday night we drove from Franklin to West Jefferson, NC (3hrs 25min) and spent the night Jeep camping in a Walmart parking lot.
It was…interesting cold the first night. Maybe we’d made a mistake?
We survived the 13-degree weather as well as being awakened a couple of times by pickup lights as it seemed to be a cool hangout spot for local teens. I actually stayed warm getting exercise by sitting up a laying down to see where the lights were coming from.
The next morning (Saturday), we shot over to a Bojangles to thaw out and grab some breakfast. Thank goodness for black coffee! We still had 35 minutes to go so we departed Jefferson to get this adventure kicked off.
At about 10 am we entered the park and stopped a nice park ranger to get a little information about the park. Then we headed to the parking area at Massie Gap where we were surprised to see some of the wild ponies right in front of us grazing in the field. The cold weather had likely driven them down the mountain seeking shelter amongst the short pine trees and munching on the grassy meadow.
I jumped out of the Jeep and the wind tried to push me back in. Debra and I looked at each other and for a split second…doubted our sanity. WOW… the temperature said 11 degrees but with the wind…it definitely had to a lot less at that early morning hour.
Man, was it cold! Why were we doing this again?
Once bundled up (we thought), Debra and I passed through the ponies in the meadow and headed up the Horse Trail North toward Mount Rogers for a good hike. Once we cleared the tree line we became more exposed to the wind.
The wind… imagine if you are in a NASCAR race car doing 200 miles an hour around a big track…and then you decided to stick your head out the window…without a helmet on.
Yep, we decided we needed to rethink our clothing. We headed back to the Jeep to get masks and pocket warmers for our gloves…and possible3 more jackets on each of us. LOL.
After we got warmed up a little in the Jeep and put on scarves and inserted hand warmers, we then decided to tackle a different hike, this time up through the snowy woods to Big Pinnacle (ele. 5,040+ ft). It was great. The Twin Pinnacles Trail, which leads from Massey Gap to the top of Big Pinnacle, was covered with frozen snow causing a crunching sound with each of our steps. The tall laurel bushes, granite boulders, and the mountain itself that surrounded us knocked the wind down. This made the air temp not feel like extreme north Alaska. The steeper section of the mountain trail had a series of large flat rocks used for steps to access the top. These very slippery spots made you consider the best path to follow along the yellow painted tree branches that kept you on Twin Pinnacle Trail. Watch the video below to see this spectacular view you witness as you breach the rocky top of Big Pinnacle!
When we returned to Big Green we snacked, warmed up, and prepared for a final hike of the day, hitting the Cabin Creek Trail to get to the waterfall. The entrance to this trail is across the small open area near public bathrooms. As we headed downhill, the trail carried us back and forth across the icy-edged creek. The crossing had several large rocks in them you could use to hop across the swift stream. Again, these rocks were often ice-covered so we approached them carefully and set our path to the other side. We crunched on through the snow, carefully maneuvering around icy patches. The path is listed as a 1.5-mile difficult hike (see trail key). The Cabin Creek Trail waterfall was surrounded by walls of icicles where the water runs down the banks when it’s much warmer. The short hike is well worth the trip.
Dispersed Camping in Big Green
After we finished up the day at Grayson Highlands State Park, we headed down Highway 58 near Damascus, VA, where we found ourselves a great dispersed camping spot on the side of the highway just inside the National Forest. We cooked dinner on the two-burner stove, hung out around a campfire, and watched the movie, Dunkirk. It was a super cold night (14 degrees) overnight again but 83 sleeping bags in the back of the Jeep kept us warm.
SNOW @ ROUGH RIDGE on the BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY
On Sunday morning Debra and I drove back to the Boone/Linville area to hike up to Rough Ridge on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Normally, in the warmer months, the hike from the Rough Ridge Lookout parking lot to the top for photos is just 1/2 mile. But due to the winter season, the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed to vehicles. So we parked at Beacon Heights parking area and walked the BR Pkwy for 2 miles to the Rough Ridge Lookout parking lot and then went up to Rough Ridge.
Rough Ridge runs along the side of Grandfather Mountain and provides beautiful summit views of it and the famous Linn Cove Viaduct. After parking at the Rough Ridge Overlook parking lot, the hike to the scenic views on Rough Ridge is a .05 miles spur of the Tanawha Trail. Along this path, hikers ascend to Rough Ridge across jagged and rocky terrain, under a dense green canopy of shady trees, traversing wooden span bridges, and boardwalks. The boardwalks, stairs, and cables along the trail are there to protect the extremely fragile ecosystem, so please observe the signs along the way. At the boardwalk and the summit you will find breathtaking long-range mountain views and the viaduct. Midway through this short hike, you come across the rock ledge where many visitors sit on the very edge of a rock that gives the illusion that they are thousands of feet up.
I completed this short hike last summer and got great photos when everything was green. But here we are in the winter with snow around us. The temperature on Sunday was a little warmer, in the mid-20s, which allowed us to wear a little less gear. It was a very different season to visit such a beautiful mountain top and the pictures were still great! After our photography session, we opted to follow the Tanawha Trail back to Beacon Heights, which was about 4 miles and very beautiful.
It was a great weekend, even if with the cold. If you are in the 828 and looking for adventure nearby Boone, it’s not hard at all to find lots to do individually or with your family. But also, since you’re not that far away, go see where the wild ponies roam freely in Grayson Highlands State Park.