I recently came across a picture from Grayson Highlands I had taken a few years ago. It reminded me how beautiful that area is. Grayson Highlands is a 4502-acre park in Southwest Virginia not too far from Damascus and very close to Virginia’s two highest peaks Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain. The adjoining Jefferson National Forest has over one million acres. Grayson Highlands has many wonderful hiking trails including the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Horse trail. It is a landscape like I have never seen before. It has rugged alpine peaks, fir forests, expansive mountain meadows and balds as they are called. In the 1970s ponies were introduced to help maintain the balds and in 2012 long horn cattle were also added. The cattle are removed during the winter months. The ponies and cattle definitely add to the alpine atmosphere of this place. I got to thinking this would be a great place for a spring backpacking trip. Maybe a hike along the Appalachian Trail with wildflowers, fir forests and ponies
The first person I thought of was Emily. I met over Emily a little over 10 years ago when she worked at a nursery I shopped at. Over the years we have become friends and more recently started backpacking together. Somehow ever hike we take becomes an epic adventure. More often than not they include a night hikes. I have come to enjoy the different prospective and deep connection to nature that a nocturnal hike provides thanks to her. Emily’s immense knowledge of the natural world, common sense, and fearlessness are unparalleled. She is a great friend and a true joy to hike with.
Savannah is Emily’s dog. She is the greatest hiking dog ever the vanquisher of all evil. She is a beautiful Japanese Shiba inu who loves to lead the way! I feel much more confident in our night hikes with her with us.
We were driving the back-roads of Virginia talking, enjoying a beautiful spring afternoon blindly following the GPS voice, when without warning, Veronica the GPS voice told me to take a turn that did not exist. I looked at the map, I drove down the road a bit. looked up and down the road, I looked at the map again, the turn still did not exist. Time to take navigation into our own hands and make our own plan. Miss Google sassy pants in her sexy English racing voice was insistent with her recalculating demands but we carried on. Recalculated would become the theme for the weekend. When we arrived at Grayson Highland state park a sign at the parking lot proclaimed “absolutely no parking without reservations”. I tried calling the park. After going thru a whole menu of pressing 1 for English, pressing 2, for this pressing 89 for that, I was finally in touch with a very rude lady who informed us if had not made reservations before five we would not be parking here! Recalculating! We ended up driving a little over ten miles to park at Elk Garden. I had the perfect loop hike planned that had started and ended at the overnight parking lot. But one of mine and Emily’s greatest strengths is flexibility. We recalculated! And we ended up here at Elk Garden Trail-head.
Walking into the sunset
The shadows were already quite long as we heaved our packs on to our backs and along with Savannah our fearless companion, we began our adventure hiking over rolling pastures and with flush of robins at the forest edge we were walking into a beautiful sunset
The horizon was chewing on the day and the tentacles of darkness were overtaking the remains, as we headed deeper into the forest. The still naked branches of the forest trees became dancing silhouettes in the moonlight. The trail varied from a smooth gentle path to extreme rocks. At one point it seemed as if a very angry god had grown tired of placing rocks and had dumped all the leftover rocks of the world here. Even with the rock obstacle course we had clicked thru the miles this evening. The world is so different at night peaceful but sometimes a little scary. At one point on our uphill journey wading through underbrush about knee deep, wet leaves brushing our legs as we walked. Emily was about two feet in front of me, Savannah on a leash in front of her. We were chatting about the details of life solving the universe problems. when all of the sudden a rustle in the night? It was up in front of us where Savanna was. She lunged, the leash went tight, barking growling! Bewildered and suprised Emily let out a scream! Not knowing what was going on I screamed also, hoping to scare our attacker off! (I hope it was more of a loud primal growl to scare off man or beast) After a second Emily turns to me with a look that says. What are YOU screaming/growling at? It was merely a mouse or some other small unseen creature, after a good hard laugh we continued on up the mountain.
A moon light picnic
As we make our way past the threshold of the forest and onto a bald . A reverent wind swirls around, caressing the skin causing hairs to stand on end, as we enter the cathedral of the midnight pony. The moon with its soft innocent face illuminating the charcoal night with a graceful ease. Before us a panorama of an electric blue, grassy dell, right out of a western movie appears before our eyes. A feeling of awe and splendor rips thru my heart. We had entered a new church, the church of the wild and spectacular. And for the altar of this new wild church, two grand rocks each the size of moving trucks almost perfectly rectangular. They Stood high up on one side overlooking the valley just as Pride rock in the movie Lion King. We climbed up to make our offerings and to receive our sacraments. Which is code for we ate our dinner before finding camp. While the sentinels of the night, pillars of rock standing sentry to a herd of 5 wild pony’s grazing around us. As we hike past the herd the stallion that was standing guard several feet away from the herd decided we should have a escort to go by his family. he came towards us with a very authoritative look. I spoke calmly and gently to him and he let us pass but if we stopped to look back, he would move forward just enough to let know, to keep stepping! We decided to find camp along the tree line. Our goal was to find a spot were we could still see the sunrise over our valley. After a few tries, walking into dead-ends we find the perfect spot. It was almost 11:30 before we got camp set up. It was a long day but WOW! After hours of tossing and turning (I never seem to sleep well the first night on the trail) the best sleep comes with dawn.
A new day
The “who cooks for you, who for cooks for y’all ” call of the barred owl had given way to a melodious reveille from a mocking bird directly over my tent. Today’s tune a very catchy “pretty bird, pretty bird.” After he is joined with the rest of the band, I reluctantly roll over and peek out the door of the tent. The eastern sky’s darkness stained with tangerine, tell me I can afford just a few more moments in this cozy bag. Eventually, in the battle of warm sleeping bag vs sunrise pictures, the promise pictures are victorious. As I made my way out of the tent Emily stretched and yawned also and climbed out of her hammock.
We were ready to explore a world transformed by dawn, we came out of our sanctuary tucked in the tree line and onto the bald that we had eaten on last night. The sun’s golden rays, a Quinacridone Gold now spilling across this unworldly bald, illuminating the nooks and crannies of the large rocks mingling with the curious mounds of moss giving birth basket ball sized rocks
The ponies had grazed around the bald thru out the night, at one time coming very near our camp. Now they were on the opposite side of the valley. The same five we had encountered the previous night including the protective stallion. We took the opportunity to explore, taking a multitude of photos. Emily spoke of how one rock formation reminded her of Stonehenge. Sure, enough it was a group of very large boulders in a somewhat circular pattern with a fire-pit in the center. This is where we decided to have breakfast. I fryed spam and eggs over easy on tortillas and a cup of hot coca.
This is one of those moments in life you do not want to end! Up on a mountain setting at Stonehenge having a sunrise breakfast with great friends! Savannah even made friends with the stern stallion.
Miles before the storm
As lovely as this valley is, we have miles to put behind us before tonight’s camp. Even before we get packed up the clouds have begun to pepper the horizon. Still, it is a beautiful morning as we head up the mountain. Our first stop a spring flowing out of the bald.
It amazes me how this cold and delicious water, magicaly bubbles and flows out of the ground! We each fill up our water bottles before disappearing into the forest, firs and spruces are abundant. After an hour or so of hiking we make it out of the trees and back out on to a bald. Followed shortly by rain drops splatting on my face. Soon entire armies of rain drops are attacking me along with the rumble of thunder. High up on the ridge of a bald is not the best place to be during a thunderstorm something about lighting and imminent death worry me. At one point we seek shelter in a glade of firs. Looking at the map, it shows we are very close to the Thomas knob shelter. We take this opportunity enjoy eating a few oranges and to build up the courage needed to make a dash for the shelter.
The shelter looks like a cake crumb at a Baptist picnic but instead of ants this fury of activity is Boy scouts setting up several tarps among the firs in front of the shelter. the shelter itself full of packs and boy scout stories. A few thru hikers and a large boy scouts troop are all seeking shelter from the storm. We pack into this shelter like sardines in a can. Someone received a weather report calling for even worse storms coming. We decide to wait it out with the scouts. In a few moments we see a movement towards the door I get up to see wicked clouds blowing over the peaks the storm hit hard and fast. But they were more stacked up and were hitting one after another for a few hours every time we thought they were over; another one would hit. Eventually the rain diminished to a drizzle and the boy-scouts left to set-up tents in the woods. They were soon replaced by a thru hiking family that were headed to Maine. Three adults with five kids aged between 10 and 17 their intentions were to stay in the shelter.
This shelter was a double decker that held sixteen people eight upstairs, eight down. The upper level was already full. There was room for two more if we squeezed tight. Me and Emily discussed it and decided against going on to our goal of Rhododendron gap and camping on the bald. Instead we would take the spaces available while they were still available. Recalculating! Notice the theme?
This ended up being a great decision. We sat our packs against the wall in the corner to lay claim to our space. This would be a great chance to slack pack and explore. The normal Mike would be fearful to leave my pack here unattended but the family seemed like family after just a few minutes and Emily was ok with leaving our packs and I trust her intuition of situations. We take off on a hike. It is nice not to be lugging around a 40-pound backpack. We end up being off-trail more than on as we explore the balds and alpine peaks. The rain had cleared but for how long? More seemed to be building, adding much drama to the landscape.
We hiked up and over Wilbur Ridge the massive boulders were a challenge to climb but so much fun and the views from the top made it totally worthwhile!
The rain was building as we headed back. Emily had left her rain gear in her pack and took off in a dash to the shelter. I walked and enjoyed the rain. As I hiked past one of the boy scout leaders he proclaimed sarcastically “nice day out” For me out of a million places I could have been. I could not think of one place I would rather be than on top of this mountain walking in the rain
Back at the shelter with the family. More Recalculating, we had hot meals planned but we decided it would be easier in the wetness not to cook. I had a pouch of tuna and a tortilla. We exchanged trail stories . The family gave me advice for my up coming thru hike. A fleese hoody number one , darn tuff socks number two. and all of their eyes brightened at the sound of Fresh Grounds name. Fresh Grounds drives along the Appalachian trail cooking hot meals for hikers, he is a legend! The mom of the family asked if it was OK for one of the daughters to read. She said just does every night. It was so nice to see the whole family huddled up listening to a book being read and not just as a chore but actually asking for her read more chapters. But Emily and I were both very tired from our long day and dozed off during the story. We were awakened by a crash of thunder before the stories were finished as terrible storms continued to bash the shelter in waves throughout the night. Yes, we were pleased with our decision to stay in the shelter! We were more than a little concerned for the boy scouts in the woods.
The next morning, we still did not have the energy to cook we were too preoccupied with the thought of walking in rain to get off this mountain. It was as bad as we thought it would be. All of the trails had become rushing streams of Icey cold spring water. Emily only had sandals with socks on her feet they were cold! I was concerned for her. But to continue walking was the only choice we had, as rain was forecast for the entire day. Everything about me was wet, my insides were wet, my boots were soaked and four times as heavy as they were dry. It was a cold wet hike off of this mountain.
At one point Emily turned to me rivulets of rain streaming down her cheeks and exclaimed this was the most miserable she had ever been on a trail but yet her gentle smile belied her words as her smile would still brighten the darkest recesses of space, something about ten thousand acres of nature with two thousand miles of trail does this to a person.
None the less all three of us were ecstatic to see the car. Savanna took off in a dead run not stopping till she got to the road! The car and warm cloths never felt so good. The angry river that ran along the road to Damascus was total white water. I have never seen a river this white before! We stopped by Damascus for some hot food before heading home. As I pull up to drop Emily off a small feeling of sadness about the trip being over was overcome with a sense of accomplishment. We had tilted windmills and were victorious! I was already thinking what our next adventure may be. I am thankful for such an amazing hiking team as Emily and Savanna! I say team but nowadays everyone has squads? In that case I am thankful for an amazing squad!