Grayson Highlands State Park is located in the southwest area of Virginia in some of the highest elevations the state has to offer. The Highlands have a nice alpine feel to them being over 5,000 feet high and near the two highest peaks in Virginia – Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain. Wild ponies roam this area and provide a great photo opportunity combined with the amazing scenery. I decided this would be the perfect hike to take a few of my friends who were backpacking for the first time.
The trails in the area are abundant. The iconic Appalachian Trail runs through the state park, with a trail system in the surrounding area covering hundreds of miles. We decided on a combined trail loop that allowed us to spend plenty of time in the Highlands, as well as covering trails in the neighboring Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
We left Ohio at 1 pm on Friday (October 26th) and completed the 6 hour drive, arriving to Virginia in the evening hours. Since we arrived after dark, we were less motivated to rush to the trailhead given we would be night hiking regardless. We decided to have dinner at the last diner in town before heading up the backwoods, mountain roads leading into the state park. We check in at the front gate ranger station and paid $12 to park at the overnight backpackers lot for a 3 day, 2 night trip. The state park rangers working the front gate made us aware that there was a bear advisory near Thomas Knob shelter. The area was closed for camping for several months leading up to the trip due to some nuisance bears, and although the camping ban was lifted there was still cause for concern. I decided not to inform my companions that I intended for us to set up camp that night near the Thomas Knob shelter.
When we arrived to the backpacker’s lot at Massie’s Gap, it was around 38 degrees and there was a misty rain coming down. Apparently, a 40% chance of rain for Friday and Saturday really meant that it was going to 100% rain the entire time – with varying sized droplets. We were not warm or dry from this point on.
The first night, we hiked through the Highlands under the moonlight. The wide open alpine areas reminded me of some of the night hiking I had done earlier this year in the Uintas. We hiked the 3.5 miles towards Thomas Knob shelter, opting to stop a tenth of a mile prior to the shelter and set up camp on one of the open ridges. Even with the foggy mist, it was a beautiful camp spot, and one that I would have expected to see for miles under different weather conditions.
The next morning, we got a slow start. We did not have lights off in camp until about 2:30 am, so with the rain coming down at daybreak, we all stayed nestled in our tents much later than we normally would have. We got up around 9 am, made some coffee, packed up, and hit the trail at 11 o’clock. The temperatures had dropped enough that the rain was “freezing” cold, but not cold enough to turn it to snow (which we would have preferred). The fog that was noticeable the prior night persisted that morning. I knew from the start we were likely in for a long day.
We hiked through the afternoon, stopping for 10-15 minutes at a time for bio breaks and snack consumption. Once you leave the open spaces of the Highlands a good portion of the hike is through rugged, rocky terrain with tree cover. At about 4 pm, we decided to huddle and discuss our objectives for camp that night. We had covered about 10 miles at that point (13.5 total), and none of us were in the mood to set up camp in the rain. Even though we all had rain gear, we were completely waterlogged (including my iPhone). We made to decision to march on to Wise Shelter. The shelter was located on the AT near mile 16.5 of the loop. Our goal was to try and get there before it darkness fell, and once we reached the shelter, we would make the decision if we wanted to put headlamps on and night hike the rest of the way out, or sleep overnight in the shelter.
As we approached The Scales around mile 14 of the loop, we saw some other poor souls taking cover under the bathroom that is located near that trailhead. One of them was wearing shorts, and both were wondering if there was any place to take cover at up ahead. Clearly, they were operating under the same conundrum we were – the elements were pretty exhausting. At that moment we saw a sign that read 5.5 miles to Massie’s Gap. I jokingly (only like 25% joke) said “wouldn’t it be nice to sit in the heated car tonight and gorge on fast food”. Without debate, all of us immediately came to agreement; we were going to get the heck out of the rain and into a temp controlled car.
We reached Wise Shelter at around 6:30PM. There were two thru-hikers setting up their sleeping arrangements for the night when we got there. The three of us were getting out headlamps and adding some layers while chatting with them hearing about their story. And boy did they have a story. The two of them (male and female) had met on the trail. They had hiked the AT going northbound and they came to realize they really, really liked each other. After reaching Maine they both decided that they were going to then complete the AT going southbound…that’s love right there. I love my wife, but I couldn’t imagine being in those conditions, hiking together for 4500 miles! I have to tip my cap to them.
The last couple miles were slow going. I had a nagging knee issue from the half marathon I had completed the previous weekend. We reached the car at 9pm that night, feeling utterly exhausted, but hugely accomplished.
Overall, I somehow didn’t manage to scare my companions away from backpacking. I told them if they could enjoy a trip like this, then they were definitely cut out for the backpacking life. I look forward to heading back again when the weather is a bit more favorable.