View Full Version : Grayson Highlands/Mt. Rogers NRA trip

09-25-2011, 13:16
At the end of August I took a 3 day backpacking trip in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in Virginia. The draw for heading to this area for a trip was 1) the open views along the highland trails; 2) high elevations meant quite enjoyable temperatures despite the time of year; 3) wild ponies! Since I used several threads from WB to plan this trip, I figured I should add a trip report here as well!

On this trip I also was trying out a few new pieces of gear: ULA Circuit backpack; a Montbell Super Spiral Down 40 degree bag (weighing in at just 1 lb); Superfeet shoe inserts; and Cho-Pat knee braces to help my knees on the down hills.

On Sunday, 8/28 I loaded up the car and spent the day making the 10+ hour drive over to Virginia from Arkansas. I stayed at a hotel Sunday night in Abingdon. The nip in the air as I arrived at the hotel Sunday night was such a strange feeling after leaving the heat and humidity of Arkansas. As my luck would have it (not so lucky for millions of others), Hurricane Irene had just charged up the eastern seaboard and had pulled in behind its path wonderful, cool, dry air. Delightful!

Monday morning I got up early and headed to Grayson Highlands State Park where I would leave my car in the overnight lot and begin my circuit. I stopped in the cute trail town of Damascus on my way and visited one of the great outfitter stores there to pick up a couple items I hadn’t been able to find when I had packed up: some cord to use to hang by food bag, and an extra platypus bottle. The road from Damascus to Grayson Highlands was VERY twisty curvy and so the drive took a bit longer than I expected, but just after 10am I was parked in the overnight lot and getting ready to disembark. Since this was a solo trip (not counting my backpacking dog Betty), I had left a detailed itinerary with a friend along with a time on Wednesday when I should be off the trail and able to check in, and I was also glad to find that the State Park also asked you to complete a card with your plans when you paid for your permit to park overnight.

I had weighed my full pack (with 2 liters water) back at home, and I was just over 22 lbs. This was my first trip using my ULA Circuit pack, but given my lighter load for this shorter warm weather trip, I decided my Osprey Aura was just overkill. Betty (my dog) also had her pack with her food…I think her pack weighed in about 4-5lbs at our start (she carries her own dry kibble, collapsible bowl, and some treats). If we are hiking in dry stretches, I also have 2 .5 liter platypus bottles that I sometimes fill or partly fill and she carries those as well for her own drinking water.

Day 1: 8.3 miles
We set off from the lot on the AT Spur trail. We had probably gone less than a quarter of a mile when we saw our first wild pony in the woods. The fact that I had noticed the 500lb pony foraging well in advance of when Betty finally noticed made me wonder a bit about her observation skills. I’m counting on Betty to notice if something, like say a BEAR, is nearby, and this failure to notice the pony until we were quite close didn’t encourage me! Nonetheless, she did good with the pony encounter in that although curious she was not overly concerned about the pony (no pulling or barking, etc.). I did think the pony we saw was really quite rotund…something which I later realized was some foreshadowing!
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Onward we climbed up out of the woods until we reached the AT proper, and our first breathtaking views of the highlands. We turned right onto the AT and headed north, following the white blazes. We passed by the Wise Shelter which has a very nice looking new privy, and had some snacks while reading the shelter log. Further along past Wise we turned off the AT on the Bearpen Trail which heads out of the State Park and into the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness area. The Bearpen and then Little Wilson Creek trail took us down off the highlands into the wilderness area. These were multi-use trails, meaning horse trail, too. Fortunately it had been dry so the trails weren’t too muddy. The worse part of the horse trails were LOOSE ROCKS. Lots and lots of small, baseball size round loose rocks which were just perfect for twisting your ankles as they rolled out from under your feet. I had more than one scary moment when those dang rocks caused ankle wobbles, but luckily never anything bad enough to cause an injury.
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We passed the Little Wilson Creek and saw a beautiful grassy opening just past the creek which looked like it would be a wonderful campsite, but my plan was to continue 2 more miles further on the Kabel Trail, getting water at another stream, before climbing up on the First Peak Trail and finding a campsite for the night at higher elevation. As we continued on the Kabel Trail, we passed two areas with water across the trail – stream beds that were not running but still had some water in them. These weren’t even on my map, so I felt confident that if these ravines had water then the stream actually noted on the map would be wet. Well, that turned out to be a wrong assumption! I got to the point in the trail where there should have been a stream and it was completely dry! Not even small pools of water like I had passed earlier. After comparing my location on GPS and my topo map and being sure this was my last chance for water before climbing back up to the highlands, I decided I really needed to back track. I didn’t want to tackle 3 peaks with no water, plus I didn’t want to go all the way to the next water source at Scales before finding camp for the night. So, we went ahead and turned back and hiked the 2 miles back to Little Wilson Creek. I decided to go ahead and camp for the night back at the creek, at that wonderful grassy clearing I had seen earlier.

That night I actually had to zip that 40 degree bag up all the way to stay warm (although I did leave the fly of my tent rolled all the way up, so I only had mesh around me…I could have been warmer in the tent if I had rolled the fly down). I suspect the temps overnight were n the 50’s…nonetheless, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t count on this bag all the way down to 40 degrees (I’m very cold natured though, so I always need a warmer bag than most). But how refreshing to need to SNUGGLE to stay warm camping out in August!

Day 2: 7.2 miles
Day 2 dawned with overcast skies, or perhaps just fog/mist that had filled the lower elevations. I had breakfast and packed up, this time leaving Little Wilson Creek with enough water to last me over the 4 peaks I would climb on the First Peak trail before coming to the next water resupply. It was a quick easy hike back along the 2 miles of the Kabel Trail that I had to retrace the day before. Not far past the dry stream bed where I tuned back the day before, we came to the First Peak trail. I felt some warm spots on my feet so I took the time for some foot maintenance before starting the climb. Not far from the first peak (aptly named: First Peak) we played peek-a-boo with a deer through the trees. First, Second and Third Peaks which are all in the wilderness area are tree covered, so although the sky had cleared to blue as I rose in elevation, it wasn’t until I left the wilderness area and reached the fourth peak (Stone Mt) that I was able to take in the breathtaking views. We emerged from the wilderness area (through a fence stile) and onto the open peak to see mountains and clouds all around us…AT LOWER ELEVATION. It is so wild to see the clouds in the distance, but to realize they are lower than where you are standing. There was a perfect large boulder right out in the open which was the perfect place for lunch, airing out and sunning my feet, and just soaking up the sunshine.
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After a leisurely lunch and just relaxing for awhile on this boulder, we packed up to continue on across Stone Mt and then down to Scales where the First Peak trail would meet back up with the AT, as well as the Crest Trail. Walking across and down Stone Mt. we saw several longhorn cattle, but luckily not too close! I guess they don’t really bother hikers, but I like to respect any creature that big (especially with long sharp pointy things on their heads).
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We descended down to Scales (an old cattle weighing station which has pit toilets and a water pump) and met a couple of hikers who were doing a loop in the opposite direction. We chatted awhile before they pushed on up the First Peak Trail I had come down, and after I refilled my water bladders, we started climbing back up away from Scales on the other side on the Crest Trail. The views were just amazing! Blue skies, puffy white clouds, mountains in all directions. It was a steady climb, but my legs were feeling good. On the way up, I realized there were some longhorn steers coming down the trail. So Betty and I detoured a bit off the trail and let them pass (there really didn’t seem like enough room for all of us!)
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This section of the Crest Trail was really fantastic and I just loved the wide open views. We took one nice rest break under a rare shade tree, but otherwise the hiking was good. About 3pm we reached a spring that was at 5000 ft. As I was filling my bladders, I kept thinking I heard something further up and over the ridge we were still climbing, but I couldn’t quite make it out. So with bladders full, we struck out again. My plan was to camp on a mt somewhere along the trail. It was just up the trail from the spring we reached a crest where the trail leveled off and there was a nice copse of trees…and also a small group of wild ponies.
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The late afternoon light was gorgeous. It took me a few minutes to soak up the scene before me. There were a few ponies just off the trail close to where we were, but I also saw a few more further down the trail under the shade of a few trees. I heard a weird noise again, and tried to place it. I realized there was a small pony lying on the ground…no wait, that’s not a small pony…that’s a foal. Wait, that’s not just a foal…I realize the red-brown mare standing near this foal actually still has the afterbirth hanging out of her. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. This is a newborn foal! A brand spanking new baby foal!
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I slowly moved off the trail and back into the shade of the copse of trees. I then basically sat on a rock for an hour and watched this tiny foal learn how to stand and then walk! It was the most amazing thing to have stumbled upon! It took probably 45 minutes for the little brown and white pinto foal to finally manage to get all four spindly legs under it. It then started walking awkwardly, sometimes falling back down. By about an hour and 15 minutes the whole herd actually headed off the mountain top, with the little foal in tow. Of course, most incredible: if I hadn't backtracked 2 miles on Day 1, I would not have been at this part of the trail on Day 2! My water mis-hap actually put me on top of this mountain literally MOMENTS after this foal was born!!!!
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The growing shadows and reddening landscape was gorgeous. But it was definitely windy up on this peak at about 5100 ft! While watching the foal I had pulled out all my clothes from my pack (a wool shirt, a light fleece and a wind shirt) and was still a bit chilly since I had been sitting still in the shade to watch the ponies. I walked around a bit once the ponies moved off just to enjoy the views (and warm up), and then set up camp. I was in a small group of trees which offered some but not a lot of protection from the wind. I used the tent as a wind break for cooking supper, and Betty went ahead and snuggled inside the tent. By the time I ate it was dark…and hiker bedtime!
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Day 3: about 5 miles back to car
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Morning dawned and the blustery winds had finally lessened in the wee hours of the morning. Sunrise was really neat- there was a lot of low misty clouds that were dissipating as the sun rose and broke through. It was beautiful!
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I packed up and continued along the Crest Trail, and climbing up to Wilburn Ridge (even higher – 5400 ft) where I met back up with the AT. Here I took the AT north again up and over the Wilburn Ridge which was even MORE breathtaking than the Crest Trail which hardly seemed possible. The views were so wonderful and the sun and temperature so perfect that I took several long stops on the rocky outcroppings to just keep soaking it all in.
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Only towards the end of Wilburn ridge as I was nearing the State Park again did I see a few day hikers. We saw just a couple more wild ponies along the way. We made it back to the AT Spur trail which completed my big loop.

On the way out of the park I stopped at the visitor center and told some rangers there about my experience with the newborn foal, and they said they had never heard of anyone ever getting to see such a thing in the wild like that! But they confirmed the ponies give birth all the way into October. What an unforgettable trip!

Okay: gear review:
• ULA Circuit: I felt it was a little risky bringing this pack as it was my first overnight trip with it, and wasn’t sure if any unexpected issues might develop. Well, no worries at all: the pack was fantastic and super comfortable. It also didn’t feel too hot on my back (the Osprey pack seems to have a more ventilated design), and I found the shoulder straps very comfortable. While the lighter weight of this trip’s load certainly may have been a factor, in my Osprey my collarbones tend to get sore, but I had no such issue with the Circuit. I was also a little worried about not having the convenience of the lid pocket for odds and ends, but found I was able to use all the great huge mesh pockets and not really miss the lid. Plus the hip belt pockets are a million times better on the Circuit. So HUGE thumbs up on the Circuit. I’ll still need to see if I can use it with heavier gear for winter hiking or longer trips with more food, but this pack really proved itself to me on this trip!
• Superfeet: I had tried these once before but never liked them. I then found out I hadn’t been sized correctly for them, so these were my first major hiking with proper sized inserts. I think I liked them…I think they helped my feet and my knees, although in some ways it was hard to tell since I also used…
• Cho Pat Knee braces: I have a really hard time with descents on my knees. Until I get my knees stronger, these braces are supposed to help…and they did! (I know for sure because I actually took it off for part of the last downhill and then realized I needed to put it back on!). My knees still ached on the down hills, but I felt these braces really helped keep the pain more manageable. I will NOT be doing any long backpacking trips without these knee braces any time soon!
• MontBell Super Spiral 40 degree bag: I really do like the super stretch design. I had to actually get in and zip up the bag (as opposed to just using it as a top quilt, but with the stretchy design, I was able to have Betty inside the bag near my feet (I would unzip a few inches from the bottom to let it vent, and Betty is so warm it’s fine to have it unzipped a bit at the bottom. Although I felt a little chilly falling asleep (I slept in capilene/wool), my heavier bag would have been overkill. The 1 lb sure is nice! Not sure I would trust it all the way to 40 though, although maybe if I also had my down sweater, it would be ok.

Photo Album Here:

Tipi Walter
09-25-2011, 14:04
Thanks for the trip report. I just finished a 19 day trek thru the same area but I started and ended at the Mt Rogers NRA headquarters, about 30 miles away. You can find it here on Whiteblaze Trip Reports. On my trip I also did the Bearpen trail and camped by the big "tooth" rock on Stone Mt to the left of the trail. I also pulled the Little Wilson/Kabel and First Peak trails, and loaded up my water on an early source on the Kabel. I had three liters and found an excellent campsite somewhere in a gap before the last peak on the First Peak trail---grassy and level---but I decided to keep going.

Near the top of the mountain above Scales I detoured off the First Peak trail and did an overland bushwack across Stone Mt which shortly put me back on the AT where I camped. I'm surprised you didn't mention the turds and damage the horseback riders do to the trail---I saw alot of it.

Where you camped on the Crest trail I know well as it's a pasture for long horned cattle and is very close to the water spring. And that shot of your dog stretched out on Wilburn Ridge shows the third peak (going north) and the big windy gap between the two peaks on Wilburn Ridge. It's my favorite spot and so I had to camp there.