So this year was a big year for me. In July I turned the big 3-0. For a big birthday, I wanted a fun adventure. After waffling over a few different ideas, I finally settled on a trail run at Grayson Highlands State Park with Barry. The park is gorgeous, and it’s also an access point to the highest peak in Virginia, Mount Rogers.
I spent most of our run absolutely stunned at the scenery. But the highlight was definitely the wild ponies. That’s right. Grayson Highlands State Park and the surrounding Mount Rogers National Recreation area are home to about 100 adult wild ponies. We even got to see some of them on the drive in! They weren’t shy at all, and came right up to the car looking for handouts. I should note, it’s illegal to pet or feed the ponies and they will fine you if you’re caught doing either.
The ponies are part of a grazing program maintained by the US Forest Service and Virginia State Parks. They help keep the alpine vistas and grassy balds in the High Country open and clear by grazing, which is part of conservation for the area. The two herds are actually owned by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. They oversee the welfare of the ponies with annual veterinary exams. The herd population is also controlled by auctioning off young stallions each year at the annual fall festival.
After our warm welcome to the park, I couldn’t wait to get started on our run and see more ponies! We parked at the Massie Gap day use area and headed out on our run. We started out down the Rhododendron Trail. About half a mile to one mile in, the trail opened up on a grassy bald in the Wilburn Ridge area.
We were about to go through the gate and leave the state park boundary, when we noticed a few wild ponies just down the way. They were so sweet and I wanted to pet them so badly, but I followed the rules.
After I was finally done turning to mush over the ponies, Barry and I got back on track and exited the state park through a gate and onto the Appalachian Trail. As we started down the trail, we encountered one of the many long horn cattle that also graze in the area.
We continued along the Appalachian Trail, which was rocky but manageable. I just could not get enough of the scenery. Grayson Highlands and the surrounding recreational area is unlike any other place I’ve been in Virginia.
After another mile or so, we came to a fork where we could either continue on the Appalachian Trail or turn onto the Wilburn Ridge Trail. I had read that the Wilburn Ridge Trail was challenging, but had some good views. So we decided to take that trail, which runs parallel to the AT.
There were definitely some incredible views on this trail and I’m really glad we decided to take it on the way out. But it was super rocky, like to the point of climbing over boulders or climbing up a rock wall, so there was very little running during this section.
I’ll trade running for the incredible 360 degree views we enjoyed on this trail, though!
We met back up with the Appalachian Trail and continued on towards Mount Rogers. At this point, we started seeing a lot more backpackers on the trail. I enjoyed seeing others, and it never felt too crowded to me. It was funny how many different people asked us whether or not we sprain our ankles running on trails.
Around 3.5 miles in, we arrived at the Thomas Knob shelter. I had a quick snack and talked to a section hiker while Barry refilled his water.
I had heard about a nuisance bear at this shelter. It was rumored the bear had stolen over 60 hiker packs during the spring and early summer. We never saw the bear, but we did see the extensive measures the forest service is taking to try and deter the bear. This included a bear box (where hikers store food at night) inside an electric fence area.
We left the shelter and continued down the trail towards our goal – the summit of Mount Rogers.
There is a blue-blazed spur trail that branches off from the AT to take you to the summit, and it is about a half mile long. Entering this area is like stepping into the forest in the Pacific Northwest. It’s crazy how quickly and drastically the scenery changed. All of a sudden, we were headed up a trail through a dense, cool, moss-covered forest.
The higher we got, the thicker the vegetation got, until we finally arrived at the summit. There is no view while standing on the highest peak in Virginia, at 5,729 feet. But it was still a really neat place to hang out.
There are supposedly four summit benchmarks at the summit of Mount Rogers, but Barry and I only found two.
We only hung out at the summit for a few minutes before heading back down the trail and making our way back to Grayson Highlands State Park. This time, we stayed on the Appalachian Trail the whole way, which made for more running on the way back. It was getting later in the morning and the trail was much busier the closer we got to the state park.
We reached the final mile of our run and made it back to the parking lot with just under 9 miles total for the day. It was such an awesome run and I can’t wait to go exploring up there again. There’s also a race there every spring that has a 50K and half marathon distance. I definitely want to check that out in 2019!
All in all, an excellent way to ring in my 30th birthday!