Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia is one of my favorite areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I'm lucky in that it is less than an hour's drive from my home. Though I've listed this post under Blue Ridge Day Hikes, you should spend more time than that at Grayson Highlands if possible. Grayson Highlands offers excellent camping opportunities. If you're into panoramic views, waterfalls, wild ponies, and primeval spruce forests, this is your place!
Geography & Location:
Grayson Highlands State Park, established in 1965, is located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. It's an easy drive from the Boone, North Carolina area, northeastern Tennessee, and, of course, western Virginia via U.S. 58 (aka Highlands Parkway). Two of Virginia's highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, are at the park's borders and the famous Appalachian Trail runs right through the park and continues up all the way to Maine and down all the way into Georgia. The park itself is 4,502 acres of pristine mountain balds and spruce forests. The highest peak within park boundaries, Little Pinnacle, is 5,089 feet above sea level. For more information on entrance fees, park rules, and trail maps, visit Virginia State Park's official website.
Hiking Trails & Camping:
There are thirteen hiking trails in Grayson Highlands providing recreational opportunities for every age and fitness level. Some are designated as horseback riding trails. I generally keep to one specific trail that leads through all the rocky peaks of Wilburn Ridge and connects with the A.T., called the Appalachian Spur Trail. I need to branch out because there is so much more to the park, but I just can't get enough of those awesome views along the A.T.! To access my favorite trail, which winds through rocky outcrops, cow pastures, and is guaranteed to take you to ponies, park at the Overnight Backpacker's Lot and follow the trail through the open meadow. In spring and summer, the fields are full of wildflowers, hummingbirds, and butterflies.
In addition to hiking trails, there are loads of backcountry campsites (96 total) located all over the park area. There are even a few covered shelters for those who need walls and a roof. Along the Appalachian Trail, just outside the park boundaries, you don't need to worry about where you can and can't camp for the night. You can simply set up in whichever spot provides you with the best morning view! Certain rules, including food storage regulations for bears, must be followed inside Grayson Highland's boundaries. For the details on camping in Grayson Highlands State Park, visit the official website.
Grayson Highlands State Park is famous for its wild ponies, which are actually feral ponies released by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s. The ponies are said to be descendants of breeds owned by local, Native American tribes. Their purpose is weed control, but I'd assume the cattle that freely graze the balds at Grayson Highlands do a good enough job at that (watch out for huge cow-pies). Whatever their true purpose, or origin, they attract droves of people to the highlands year-round. They are generally friendly and fun to photograph, but don't come between a mother and her foal and never directly approach a male pony head on. Give them space and you should be able to get some great photos. Feeding the ponies is strictly forbidden. My approach is to let animals come to me. I simply take a seat in the grass and mind my own business for a minute or two, and, sure enough, curiosity gets the best of them (especially the youngsters) and they hobble right on over to me.
When to Go & What to Photograph:
Grayson Highlands is open year round from early morning until well after sunset, so this is one of the few pristine wild places you can go in the Blue Ridge to photograph sunrise and sunset without staying overnight. It can be very difficult to access during winter when snows cover the winding mountains roads in the area. The best seasons in general are summer and fall. In summer, temperatures are pleasant and the long daylight hours allow plenty of time to explore if you only have a day to spend. Sunsets are spectacular, but bring a headlamp so you can hike your way out without falling into a gorge or slipping into a rhododendron thicket after a shoot.
Summer is great for wildflowers, birds, butterflies, and lush-green balds. Autumn is always a great time to be in Appalachians, but ironically there isn't that much autumn color at Grayson Highlands because it's mostly balds and evergreens. Autumn would be the best time to see larger wildlife, like black bears and whitetail deer. Both summer and fall are great times to see ponies and newborn foals. There is one notable and sizable waterfall in Grayson Highlands located on the Cabin Creek Trail. I haven't been to it yet, but it's on my short list. No matter when you go, Grayson Highlands will not disappoint when it comes to photography and recreational opportunities.
All images (c) 2017 Jon Reaves. All rights reserved.