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Grayson Highlands Weekend

posted Jun 12, 2012, 4:31 PM by Justin P
This weekend, Sandy and I headed to Grayson Highlands for a weekend of camping, hiking, and fun in the Virginia Mountains. We left Friday in the late morning and stopped in Sparta for lunch, arriving at the park just before 3. We checked in and set up camp at the group site and while waiting for the others to arrive, we did a short hike. We parked at the Massie Gap parking area and headed down to the Cabin Creek Trail. We spotted some beautiful flame azaleas headed down the trail. At the junction, we forked to the right and headed down to Cabin Creek. A sign indicated the trail continued to the left and a falls overlook was to the right. There wasn't much of a trail heading to the right, more of a climb over rocks and bushwhacking through thick vegetation. Foliage and branches blocked most of the views of the creek and falls, but we did manage to get out onto some rocks in the creek to get some pictures. We continued up for a while, bushwhacking until it got too thick to continue, then headed back down to the trail and continued along the creek. The main falls, a pretty little 25' cascade that splits into three, is about midway down the trail. But even here, it required a bit of careful planning to rock-hop and bushwhack to get to a good spot for a photo of the falls and creek. We finished up the loop and made the climb back up and to Massie Gap. Before heading back to camp, we left the park to stop at a gas station and pick up some last-minute supplied and stopped at Sugarlands Overlook on the way back for gorgeous views, then returned to the campsite. By now, most of the rest of the group had arrived; we cooked dinner on the campfire, then went to bed. We would need as much rest as we could get for the challenging hike the next day.

After breakfast, we got ready for our hike to Mount Rogers. We carpooled from the campsite to Massie Gap and started hiking just after 9. We followed the Rhododendron Trail up from Massie Gap to meet up with the AT and followed this trail southbound to the border of the state park. At the gate, we saw the only wild ponies of the trip - a small herd of about six. Of course, we had to stop and greet the ponies and get some pictures, then continued on into Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. We continued along the AT across Wilburn Ridge stopping at a few rocky areas to climb up and enjoy the wonderful views of the surrounding mountain landscape. Perhaps my favorite thing about the Grayson Highlands area (well, except for the ponies of course) is the exceptional views over the meadows to the surrounding forested mountains. The grazing ponies and unique geology of the area help keep the vegetation limited to grasses and smaller bushes. Throughout the area, fields upon fields of wild blackberries were growing, but unfortunately, had not produced berries yet. We continued on to Rhododendron Gap and continued along the AT into Lewis Fork Wilderness. Shortly after passing Thomas Knob Shelter, a spur trail leads up to the summit of Mount Rogers. About half way up the trail, we crossed the "inverse treeline", where the open meadows changes to a wonderful "enchanted forest" of red spruce and frasier fir. At the summit of Mount Rogers, we stopped for lunch, then headed back down the mountain. We stopped again back at Rhododendron Gap and climbed up the rocks here for more fantastic views. The rhododendron were clearly past peak bloom, but many were still flowering. Also, in certain places the petals had dropped along the trail giving the appearance of a pink carpet along the trail. Absolutely beautiful! From here, we took the Pine Mountain Trail through more rhododendron forest, a few open areas, and then into a transitional mixed hardwood-evergreen forest to Scales. And from here, we followed the Scales horse trail back to the campground. A total distance of more then twelve miles. We shuttled drivers back to their vehicles at Massie Gap then had dinner at camp, and a few of the most hardcore hikers, myself included, left more an evening hike along the Twin Pinnacle Trail. We parked at the visitor center and hiked the trail first to Little Pinnacle and then Big Pinnacle where we stopped to watch the sunset over the mountains. It was a bit cloudy, but we still managed to get some great views of the sun setting. We finished up the loop and then back to camp just before it really got dark. I took perhaps the most refreshing shower of my life before heading to bed. I was quite surprised by the quality of the showers at the campsite here - private showers with warm water and even massage shower heads. After getting back to camp, I fell asleep almost instantly about getting in the tent.

Sunday morning, we woke up and broke camp, but wanted to get in a few hikes before driving back home. From the campsite, we headed to the Wilson Creek Trail, which starts just across the street from the group campsite and the camp store. The trail begins with a moderately steep climb down to Wilson Creek and follows the creek upstream. Although the foliage was thick with rhododendron and other plants, we were able to find a few nice places to climb out onto the rocks and enjoy the view of the stream tumbling over rocks and boulders. Although the trail sign claims a waterfall on the creek, it was hard to find one specific "waterfall"; rather the entire length of the creek along the trail is constantly cascading as it makes it way downstream. This also made for a moderately steep climb as the trail heads upstream. After about a mile or so, the trail made a very steep climb back up and met up with the horse trail leading back to the campsite. Then, we moved our car to the Massie Gap parking area. Since we hadn't seen many ponies the day before, we tried our luck again and followed the Rhododendron Trail up to the AT and went as far as the gate to leave Grayson Highlands State Park and enter Mount Rogers NRA. Still no ponies. But it looked like storms would be rolling in soon, so we had lunch on a rock, before heading back to the car and making our way back to Raleigh.