Grayson Highlands "Winter" Weekend

4:45 p.m. on March 2, 2017 (EST)
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I have been waiting for a potentially snowy weekend to head to the Virginia high country, but my schedule and the mild winter have prevented that.  With rain and storms coming through, along with high temps dropping from the 60s on Friday to 20s and below on Sunday, I decided it was a perfect weekend to do some exploring of Grayson Highlands and adjacent wilderness areas in Virginia without as many folks as usually frequent this incredibly scenic area.


I started from Elk Garden trailhead on Highway 600 just north of the VA-NC line so I could have a little longer but quiet walk in and drop into that calm mindset without hassling with busy trailheads and lots of people on the popular trails.


From Elk Garden you quickly transition into a forested path along the AT and enter Lewis Fork Wilderness.


Mossy rocks, trees and other formations along the trail seemed like old familiar friends as I recognized a few from my trip last winter down the AT.


One of my favorite sections of this access to Mt Rogers is walking along the AT in the ecotone (transition zone) between the mid-elevation hardwood forest and the evergreen high elevation forest of Mt Rogers.


I got my first glimpse of Grayson Highland's famous ponies on the way past Mt Rogers.


As the sun set behind me, I collected water at Thomas Knob shelter and found a decent campsite in the shelter of the edge of the forest about a half mile further down the trail.


I got a few low light shots of the view from where I ate my evening meal outside the treeline.


That night the winds picked up (not unusual for this area) as a front came through and the temperatures began their pretty consistent descent from the 60's to the teens over 48 hours.


I woke up to almost a completely clouded-in ridge outside the tent (remember this photo for reference later on my exit), thunder and lightning, and steady rain.


Since this was a relaxed wandering trip through the high country, I decided to lounge around in the tent until the lightning stopped and enjoyed some extra coffee. Then I enjoyed a rainy morning hike along a portion of the AT as well as Pine Mountain Trail (PMT) - one of my favorites in this area.  Due to the storms and rain, I didn't see anyone until close to lunch time.


The rain began to lighten and the clouds and mist gradually receded, revealing the beautiful views of this area that reminds me sometimes of my homeland of Scotland.


I love the misty forest along the PMT with moss-covered rocks and beech trees changing to scrub and open views then back again.


Even the highland ponies looked soaked today.


But finally the skies began to open up and the views came with it.


The sun changed the mood of the forest, although I personally love the misty "dreich" days (Scottish description that fits well for the morning).

I headed off trail before the PMT rejoined the AT to do some exploring.  It's always interesting what you can find if you do a little homework with topography and aerial photos before the trip.  Things like...


An old school bus that seems to be used for hay storage now but would have been a nice little hermit shelter.


Nice "shelter rocks" that could allow for future campsites on windy days.


And grand old trees still standing despite the heavy use of the Grayson Highlands area in the past.

So here is where the fun begins...seeing Pine Mountain in the distance and knowing that there are several sheltered but beautiful spots to camp for the cold night ahead, I decided it would be fun to try to get there "cross-country" following horse trails and wandering through the brush.


As usual, it seemed like a good idea at the time.  I even found, on closer inspection of the wall of scrub, a few horse trails I could crawl through, although they are difficult to see below.


Long story short...after an hour or so of scrambling and crawling through thicket and bog, including calf deep wetlands at the upper end of Wilson Creek, I emerged on the Crest Trail a quarter mile later!  Worn out and happy I watered up at a spring and headed a bit east to a camp site I had picked out ahead of time, passing a few horses along the way.


I found a nice spot with some decent views at the edge of the forest but with a sheltered campsite inside the treeline.


I enjoyed brief trips out to the open balds to take some photos and soak in the beauty of the sunset.


However, with wind chills to the negatives I spent a good bit of time nestled in my tent reading and relaxing while cooking dinner.


Like the reading glasses with a balaclava?  I guess you could call this the learned terrorist look!


The next morning everything was frosted over and very pretty.  Here are a couple of photos from the trip back to Elk Garden...

20170226_092453-300x169.jpg  20170226_092758-300x169.jpg

And a few more after it warmed up to nearly 30...


Note the tree below is the same as in my "cloud-in" shot from earlier.  Different angle but you can see the difference 24 hours makes (or even a couple of hours up here).


Back to the forest and more interesting features like a tree that looks like it dove in head-first...


And several mossy rock-covered slopes...


And finally out to Elk Garden and the car in time to get back and clean up everything before dinner!


Slainte mhath!

7:10 p.m. on March 2, 2017 (EST)
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Really cool report Phil looks like no snow this winter heck we hit almost 90deg the other day in Augusta.  Think you could mail us a little of that weather? We would sure appreciate it. LOL nice report 

9:40 p.m. on March 2, 2017 (EST)
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Great report Phil. I have tried to follow the pony trails before, turns out they aren't that concerned with going anywhere...Just rambling around grazing.

8:57 a.m. on March 3, 2017 (EST)
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Great report. Mt Rogers is one of my favorite places to go.

11:01 a.m. on March 3, 2017 (EST)
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I agree...the ponies seem to wander as much as I do...easy trails to's just connecting them to get anywhere that is the hard part. One day I'll quit scrambling through the thickets but I get some wierd satisfaction out of coming out on the other side relatively unscathed. The Ohm pack took several direct hits and came through like a champ...toughest test I have put it through yet!

7:38 a.m. on March 6, 2017 (EST)
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Great photos phil..This winter was a bust for me...I couldn't get away from work,,,I am looking forward to the spring and summer and vacation time...Glad you got out...

2:25 p.m. on March 6, 2017 (EST)
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Very nice!

Oh and I can vouch for the fact that it did get cold there at least once this year:


I camped at the Bear Pen rocks with Tipi back in 2012, good call!

My tent near the rock:Grayson-Highlands-1-2012-156.jpg

Here is Tipi's tent as seen from the top of the rock:


3:26 p.m. on March 6, 2017 (EST)
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Looks like it was a good bit colder on your trip! The Bear Pen rocks looks nice...problem is finding a poo clear tent space with limited work! Lots of pony traffic around there.

3:43 p.m. on March 6, 2017 (EST)
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Shoot, I never saw a poo-free spot anywhere in Grayson. I just try not to let my cookware touch it and pretend it's part of the sod:)

8:54 p.m. on March 6, 2017 (EST)
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I still look for the space with just a couple of "issues" to deal with and camp there. I must admit the older pies burn well in my wood burning stove and save hunting for wood in the treeless areas!

6:32 p.m. on March 8, 2017 (EST)
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Beautiful pics!

10:46 a.m. on March 9, 2017 (EST)
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I reread your report and wanted to say that I didn't meant to imply that you didn't have cold weather. :) I know exactly what sub zero wind chill is like at Rhodo gap.

On my December trip there, that wind was brutal; Tipi uses the term "face-eating" and that fits really well. I also got chased into my tent and had my sleep/shelter system tested pretty well. I remember that the residual water in my cook pot froze solid within seconds of being removed from the stove and emptied. That place really gets hammered.....

4:40 p.m. on March 10, 2017 (EST)
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No worries Patrick...I got what you meant. For Grayson, I don't consider what I had as winter...just the best I could do this mild year! I wish I could have made it up there to see it covered in such luck in my schedule this year. 

Just went by there again this weekend whIle returning from PA so my wife could get some time in one of our favorite spots. Another great trip but a little warmer, which suited her fine!



6:21 a.m. on March 11, 2017 (EST)
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A year ago February on Mount Rogers.


10:20 a.m. on March 12, 2017 (EDT)
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That's the weather I wanted to get out in Bill! It's even more beautiful up there with snow cover. Maybe next year! Ironically, it's snowing down here now after two trips there in the last three weeks. Oh well.

I calculated wind chill on my chart at minus 15 for my solo trip in Feb. It can get a lot worse up there though.

3:18 p.m. on March 12, 2017 (EDT)
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Thanks for the good pics in some cold wet weather.  My main consideration when it comes to a winter Mt Rogers trip is not whether I can make it for 15 or 18 days backpacking all the trails in the area, but whether my car will get me out at the end of the trip after a big storm.

What you call "shelter rocks" I call Bear Tooth Rock and it's one of my favorite campsites on the Stone Mt side of Mt Rogers.

TRI%20132%20158-L.jpgPatman by Beartooth Rock.

TRI%20132%20143-XL.jpgLunch time before setting up camp.

TRI%20132%20105-XL.jpgA favorite shot of Wilburn Ridge as I make my way towards it.

TRI%20132%20088-L.jpgA view of Mt Rogers.

TRI%20132%20133-L.jpgPatman discovers me in "Grandmother Gap" on a nighthike as he's camped in Rhododendron Gap.

TRI%20132%20173-L.jpgIt's time to leave Beartooth Rock with Wilburn Ridge behind me.

TRI%20132%20186-L.jpgEvery Mt Rogers backpacker should know these, from left to right:  Fir, Spruce, Hemlock.

4:10 p.m. on March 13, 2017 (EDT)
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Thanks for sharing your report, Phil! I enjoyed the pictures. Grayson Highlands is one of my favorite places. I always have some sort of wildlife encounter there, whether it is being chased by a bull or having a pony steal one of my trekking poles, haha. Nice to see it without so many people.

11:18 p.m. on March 13, 2017 (EDT)
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I call Mt Rogers the Mammal Effluvia Center for all the animals depositing their turds in the area---ponies, long-horn cattle, horses for horseback riders, and humans.  I drank bad water there in 1984 and puked my guts out all night atop a peak near Elk Garden.  It was the best of times . . . etc.

10:37 a.m. on March 14, 2017 (EDT)
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The evergreens are interesting up there. My wife really likes the pony watching but I sometimes get tired of the poo piles. I stay off all the horse trails...

Thanks was pretty light numbers for a weekend trip up there. The parking areas can get really bad when the weather gets better. I am using Grayson as a training ground in the cold months and bad weather weekends for my future trip across Scotland. Best simulation of wind, rain, and boggy ground I can find in a decent drive from the house!

12:47 p.m. on March 14, 2017 (EDT)
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Sadly, horses and their riders are allowed thruout most of the Mt Rogers backcountry except for the Appalachian Trail.  And Scales is a blight on the entire area as it allows not only horseback riders but vehicles and car campers---right into the center of the Highlands and the Crest Zone!!

I learned to hate horses in the backcountry (not the ponies) by pulling trips in Mt Rogers.  They destroy the muddy trails in the Little Wilson Creek wilderness and the Lewis Fork wilderness---both adjacent to Wilburn Ridge.  And to pull a complete trip thru the Crest Zone would be impossible without using some of these horse trails.

Here's some horse sign in the Lewis Fork area---


1:01 p.m. on March 14, 2017 (EDT)
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I hear you...I meant all the horse trails along the crest area...I only use the AT and Pine Mountain Trail. Cant avoid them in Little Wilson or Lewis Creek. They stay off Cliffside for good reason. I now just meander my own way around off trail where I can and link back up with the main foot travel ones occasionally.

November 20, 2019
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