Monday, March 12, 2018

AT In VA: Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers NRA

AT in VA: Grayson Highlands Backpack Trip – Massie Gap to Elk Garden
 4/8/17 & 4/9/17 – 8 miles

Recovery time following the Patagonia trip and uncooperative spring weather kept me from getting on a trail until early April (not that I was trying very hard).  Then a church friend, Beth, asked for recommendations for backpacking on the Appalachian Trail.  Her daughter MC was fired up to go for a multi-day trip during high school spring break.  Beth had camping and backpacking experience but hadn’t been out in some years, and I wondered what she was really up for in order to spend time with her daughter. I suggested Carvers Gap to Overmountain Shelter, a great five-miler out for an overnight.

Next I talked to MC: she’d heard about Grayson Highlands in Virginia and wanted to check it out. Excellent idea! I asked if I could go along, but I was only available for an overnight.  I think MC was a bit disappointed at the abbreviated idea but said okay.  I was very excited to get back out on the trail and to introduce this iconic section of the AT to newbies.

Grayson Highlands State Park is located in Grayson County, VA.  It is next to to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and is part of Jefferson National Forest.  Only about three miles of the AT passes through Grayson Highlands and the real star of this area is the larger Mount Rogers NRA, as the AT traces over its open grassy balds and winds over, around and through its stunning rock outcrops. There are several loop backpacking options as well as passing through via the AT. Grayson Highlands is renowned as the only section of the AT where hikers can encounter wild ponies.  Not so wild, really, as the ponies seem to view human visitors as harmless or as sources of salty snacks.

As plans were pulled together, I got to wondering if MC would enjoy having another young person along in addition to us two “old” gals.  JM, another high school student from our church, was someone that I knew enjoyed hiking and backpacking.  He had participated in an Outward Bound trip out west and MC had participated in an Outward Bound trip in NC.  They had both traveled with the church youth group on a multi-day Machu Picchu trek in Peru. JM was eager to go to see Grayson Highlands and everyone gave a thumbs-up.  Things were coming together! 

Until I looked at the weather forecast (uncooperative, remember?)  We had planned for a Friday-Saturday trip, but warnings of extremely low temperatures and snow flurries gave us cold feet (pun intended), so we shifted to Saturday-Sunday in hopes of warming up.  On the three-hour drive up we talked about all things backpacking, from future plans to gear to food.  I tried not to show my dismay when JM announced that about the only food he was carrying was a package of bagels.  Hmmmm…experienced?  Well, nobody died of starvation on an overnight hike.

We met our shuttle driver in the town of Damascus.  He followed us to Elk Garden where I dropped my car and then drove us to the Grayson Highlands backpackers parking lot at Massie Gap.  Here we go!

Harkening back to my Girl Scout background, I decided to “lead from behind” and let the kids make most of the decisions. First puzzle:  which one of several trails do we take from the parking lot? MC and JM guessed on the trail to the extreme left (Rhododendron Trail) which circled around but eventually got us to the AT connection.  AND – ponies!  Check off that box on the list of reasons Grayson Highlands is so awesome.

This girl is expecting a foal – does this look comfortable to you?

At the turnstile the AT leaves Grayson Highlands.  We are hiking southbound.

Entering Mount Rogers NRA, signing the backpacker register. 

Beth was outfitted with some borrowed equipment, wearing her son’s hiking boots and carrying his backpack, a bit overloaded. [We were all a little heavy, carrying extra water because there is no source until tomorrow.] She was the ultimate good sport, though, no complaining, hiking very slowly but cheerfully.  The kids sprinted ahead as I walked with Beth, chatting at first and then concentrating as the grade got steeper and the rocks got bigger.  Lots of peeps out on the muddy trail.  The backpackers we talked to all commented on the brutally cold previous night, fingers crossed for tonight.

What’s that in Beth’s backpack? In anticipation of meeting AT thru-hikers, we brought a little trail magic – plastic Easter eggs filled with candy! We gave them all away within the first hour.

Bluebird sky, little patches of snow and rocks, evergreens mixed with scrubby bare trees – heaven really is here on earth.

Fat Man’s Squeeze passes through a short rock tunnel between boulders where the average height backpacker must turn sideways and bend the knees. The ground was covered with a layer of ice that looked like thick glass.  There is a bypass around the Squeeze, but we braved it and went through

Coming out the other side of Fat Man’s Squeeze.  In hindsight, it wasn’t the smartest choice, but no one got hurt so it was fun. 

At Rhododendron Gap, Pine Mountain Trail intersects on the right as the AT turns left and passes through a long rhododendron tunnel. [Note: Rhododendron Gap is off-the-charts spectacular in bloom around mid to late June.]  Less than half a mile further, on the left-hand side of the trail, campsites began to appear tucked into the low trees.  I knew from previous trips that the landscape would then open up to an expansive grassy field where we could choose a fine tenting spot.  My friends were delighted and we hurried to get tents set up. 

JM’s home for a night under the stars

My setup under scrubby trees – Beth and MK pitched their tent nearby.  There are no reservable sites in MRNRA and responsible campers spread out to minimize their impact, but it is good leave no trace etiquette to use fire rings that are already established.

We had a couple of hours of daylight in which to cook, eat, clean up and hang up our food bags.  During that time more campers arrived, more tents popped up, yet it didn’t feel crowded in the immense open field.  I silently applauded as a family hiked by with a preschooler carrying her own backpack. 

Getting ready to cook supper

Hanging bear bags (pony bags?) was our biggest challenge with the scarcity of trees

Campfire 101 – is this the Outward Bound method?

Every day like this is a gift, a unique combination of weather, companions, energy, gratitude. 

Temperatures dipped into the 20’s during the night.  None too warm in my 15-degree bag, I worried about my friends.  We got up early – moving around was the quickest way to warm up.  We nixed going to the trouble of a hot breakfast, broke out the energy bars (I think JM had one bagel left?) and got on the trail.  The hike out to our end point at Elk Garden was about 5 miles, longer than yesterday, but we were motivated to hustle.  

A pony with our frosty morning view

The AT passes the side trail to the summit of Mount Rogers, the high point of Virginia. MC and JM ran up and tagged it while Beth and I sat down at the junction and heated water for oatmeal and hot tea. With renewed energy, we tackled the remaining miles.

All in all, another successful outdoor adventure, and Grayson Highlands delivered with its outstanding scenery and the ubiquitous wild ponies.  I suspect if we had known the temps would drop so low, the trip might have been cancelled.   That’s how you learn what you can withstand and what you want to adjust for the next time out. 

And I’m going out again tomorrow.

(Traditional Navajo Prayer)

As I walk, as I walk
The universe is walking with me
In beauty it walks before me
In beauty it walks behind me
In beauty it walks below me
In beauty it walks above me
Beauty is on every side
As I walk, I walk with Beauty.


Laura Meier said...

What a gift this is Sharon. Thank you so much. Love this!!

Irrelevant Opinions said...

so fascinating!

Kevin Tipps said...

So grateful to see this post. We are going to Grayson Highlands in October....thanks