For decades my backpacking buddies have encouraged me to check out Grayson Highlands and the high country of Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Within the 200,000-acre recreation area, we have camped, hiked and ridden the Virginia Creeper Trail. But despite friends’ stories of wild ponies, profusions of rhododendron blooms and more wild blueberries one can ingest, I had not — until now — ever explored the high country.
Shame on me for waiting so long!
The most common and practical way to get to the Mount Rogers High Country is from Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park, near Mouth of Wilson, Va.
The feral ponies are a main attraction at Grayson Highlands. During our early May visit, several of the ponies were accompanied by newborn foals while others were ready to give birth. Introduced in the early 1960s, the wild ponies are part of a program to manage the vegetation and prevent reforestation on the exposed mountain ridges known as balds. The ponies eat briers, hawthorns and other scrub plants which in turn provide sweeping panoramic vista throughout the crest zone. Signs tell visitors not to feed the ponies and to keep a safe distance since they do bite and will kick. One pony found a sweaty teenage hiker in my group to be an irresistible salt lick.
Camping within the state park is only permitted in 96 designated spots. Non-Virginia residents will pay $24 for a standard site. Backpackers should park in the overnight backpackers lot. Once you pass the gate from the state park into the national recreation area, camping is permitted anywhere, although camping in established campsites is strongly encouraged to minimize human impact on the ecosystem.
Heading south on the Appalachian Trail (AT) for 1½ miles leads to Rhododendron Gap. Several blue-blazed routes parallel the AT in this section and can provide an alternate view for frequent visitors. Rock prominences along the way, including Grandview Peak, provide repeated panoramic vistas. The AT runs through a tight natural rock formation referred to as Fat Man’s Squeeze. The squeeze is just that, a couple of dozen feet of tight trail, buffeted on both sides by boulders.
Rhododendron bloom around the gap in late-June. A number of established campsites can be found in the one-mile stretch between Rhododendron Gap and the AT’s Thomas Knob Shelter. Water is available from a spring located behind the shelter.
A little beyond Thomas Knob shelter, there is a half-mile side hike to the summit of Mount Rogers (5,729 feet). The hike does not offer views like those on the balds, but when clouds envelop the mountain, the hike through the thick spruce and fir forest provides an ethereal experience like walking through a scene from “Lord of the Rings.” In addition to the other-worldly feeling, you can say you have stood on the highest peak in Virginia.
To make a weekend-loop hike, head back to Rhododendron Gap, then northeast on either the foot-only Pine Mountain Trail or the shared-use Crest Trail. The two run parallel for roughly 3.4 miles to Scales campground. Scales is named for the weigh station that once was located there in the era of commercial cattle production. Thousands of wild blueberry bushes, which ripen in mid-August, can be found in the area of Pine Mountain and Scales and on to Grayson Highlands.
Hikers also can get to Scales campground off Va. 602 by using Route 613. Because of ruts and protruding rocks on this unpaved, single-lane road, it should only be attempted using high-clearance vehicles. The 4-mile drive took us about an hour.
From Scales, hikers have several options back to Massie Gap — the Appalachian Trail winds 5.3 miles back to Grayson Highlands while hiking the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail will cut about 1½ miles off that distance.
With more than 500 miles of trails within the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, some of which crisscross and run parallel to one another, our National Geographic Trails Illustrated map was an invaluable resource.