Journal/Blog‎ > ‎

Grayson Highlands Trip

posted Jun 26, 2013, 6:55 AM by Justin P

This past weekend was our big annual trip to Grayson Highlands State Park.  We left from the Triangle area in the late morning and started making our way towards the Virginia highlands.  To break up the drive and get a little hiking in on Friday, we stopped on the way at Rocky Knob Recreation Area off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Normally when I come here, we hike the Rock Castle Gorge Trail, a strenuous 11-mile loop that runs from the gorge up to the parkway and back.  But we didn't have enough time for that today, so we hiked the Black Ridge Trail, a shorter 3-mile loop that stays up on the ridge.  We parked by the visitor center, which was closed, and started out on the trail, coming to a split almost immediately.  Turning left at the split, we crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and joined with the Rock Castle Gorge Trail near the Twelve O-Clock Knob Overlook.  From this overlook, we could see into Rock Castle Gorge below and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond.  Continuing on, the trail follows the much longer Rock Castle Gorge Trail for about a mile, with a few more spots to view Rock Castle Gorge below, before splitting near Grassy Knoll and heading back to the parkway.  Just before crossing the parkway, we crossed through an open meadow with lots of daisies blooming and a view of the chateau/winery in the distance.  Across the parkway, the trail starts heading down gradually through a meadow, where we saw a number of butterflies eating nectar from wildflowers. After a bit, the trail headed into a forested area, crossed a creek, and then headed back up to the parking area, passing a rather large old chimney on the way.  This must have been a big building for such a large chimney, but it's not clear whether it was a home or something else as only the chimney remained.   Back at the cars, we continued on our way to Grayson Highlands.  We set up our tent and had dinner, heading to bed relatively early as we needed our rest for a long hike tomorrow.

Saturday morning, we woke up early, had breakfast, and got ready for a long hike.  We started by leaving two cars at the Massie Gap parking area in Grayson Highlands, then drove to our starting point on Beech Mountain Road (SR-601), about 14 miles from the park in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.  Once we were all ready, we started hiking up the Appalachian Trail.  And up and up.  The first couple of miles of this hike were quite steep as we hiked up towards Whitetop Mountain, gaining about 1500 feet in elevation in less than 3 miles.  The forest was thick during most of this climb, until we reached a clearing near Buzzard Rock.  The exposed hilltop and rock outcroppings provided fantastic views of the mountains in all directions and we stopped at Buzzard Rock to have a snack and enjoy the views.  There were several flame azaleas in full bloom adding a beautiful orange to the landscape.  But we still had quite a bit of ground to cover, so after a bit we continued on, heading around Whitetop Mountain and beyond.  The AT runs along the south of Whitetop and just past the summit, it heads down to Whitetop Road (SR-600) at Elk Gardens.  There is a parking area here with a restroom, so we stopped here for lunch.  Although the area is very open, a large tree provided some shade to escape the sun for our lunch.  After lunch, we continued on through Elk Gardens.  From the parking area, the trail headed up through an open area for a short ways.  Here we saw our first wild pony, who was strangely alone.  Usually, the ponies graze in herds, but this guy was alone.  We got some pictures, although the pony was a little aggressive and was trying to eat the cameras.  So we continued on through Elk Gardens and heading into the forested area around Mount Rogers.  We took a brief rest stop at a spot where a spur trail leads to an open area along the Virginia Horse Trail and then continued to the spur trail leading up to Mount Rogers.  A few in the group made the trip up to the summit of Mount Rogers, but the rest of us took a break at the Thomas Knob shelter.  Some Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies were eating nectar from the many wild blackberries growing in the area.  Strangely, we had yet to see blooming rhododendron.  But that was change soon.  Once everyone regrouped at the shelter, we continued on to Rhododendron Gap.  Although it was later than usual, on account of the mild spring, the rhododendrons were peaking this weekend and were absolutely beautiful.  Approaching the gap, the rhododendron flowers were getting thicker and thicker, until we reached the outcrop and it was pink flowers as far as the eye could see.  We climbed up onto the rocks and enjoyed the wonderful views for a bit, then started making our way back to Grayson Highlands.  Travelling over Wilburn Ridge, many more rhododendron were blooming.  And when we crossed into Grayson Highlands State Park, we immediately saw a herd of ponies, including my favorite, Fabio.  Of course we had to stop and greet the ponies and get some pictures, and then made our way down to Massie Gap to our waiting cars.  We shuttled to get all the cars back and took a very enjoyable shower before eating dinner and heading to bed.  Grayson Highlands is really luxury camping.  The handicapped shower has a detachable massaging shower head with a seat, so I could massage my sore feet in the shower, forgetting for a moment that we were camping.

Sunday morning, we had breakfast, broke camp, and headed back to Massie Gap for one last hike in the park.  From Massie Gap, we hiked up the short, but steep Big Pinnacle Trail to its namesake peak for beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.  The weather this weekend had been absolutely perfect - mild temperatures with highs in the mid 70s and mostly sunny skies.  So the views were incredible.  From here, we hiked along the Twin Pinnacles Trail towards Little Pinnacle.  Along the way was a patch of beautiful flame azaleas in bloom.  We really lucked out with the blooms - the rhododendron and flame azaleas were peaking, though it was still a little early for the mountain laurel.  We stopped again at Little Pinnacle to enjoy the view and then continued on the trail.  Just past Little Pinnacle is a really neat tree whose roots are growing over a rock, several feet above the ground.  From here, the trail loops back around, and then we took the Big Pinnacle Trail back down to Massie Gap.  But we weren't quite ready to leave just yet - one more hike to go.  We hiked down the Cabin Creek Trail to its namesake creek and followed the creek upsteam.  There are several pretty little cascades and waterfalls along the creek.  We stopped and had lunch at the Waterfall on Cabin Creek, a nice 25-foot triple waterfall and then made our way back up, finishing the loop.  It was about 130 when we got back to our cars and started making the drive home.  Being relatively close, we actually made it home at around dinner time.