Mt Rogers / Grayson Highlands
May 26 – 28
For our first hike of the season we decided to change the scenery a little. Our normal stomping grounds are in the Linville Gorge, but for this hike we decided to head a little more north to the Grayson Highlands State Park and Mt Rogers Recreational Area. What a beautiful and interesting place to hike. For anyone on the fence or looking for somewhere they may haven’t been yet, I can certainly recommend this area. Our plan was to start at the backpacker’s parking lot and make a loop up around Mt Rogers over approximately an 18 mile stretch.
We left Charleston around 4 am to get ahead of the traffic Memorial Day weekend. It took about 5 and half hours to reach the Grayson Highlands State Park, with a quick stop for breakfast thrown in. Our first stop was the welcome office just inside the park to pick up a parking pass for the weekend. If you are only staying a couple nights, it is only 12 dollars. Unfortunately, we thought we might stay a third night, so it ran us 20 dollars. The higher fee will get you 7 days if you really need it.
We started at the backpacker’s parking lot in Massie Gap, then headed north towards the AT. We followed the AT south bound until we got to Thomas Knob shelter. There we spent the night in that general area and planned to head out around Mt Rogers the following morning. Along this set of trails, we had some beautiful vistas of the surrounding countryside, lots of chances to see the “wild” ponies, and great weather. I have wild in quotation marks as these ponies are pretty used to people and don’t get skittish at all. The trail was mostly on an upward incline, but not all that steep. Just enough to get the legs used to the idea you are hiking. The trail was a lot rockier then we anticipated, so good ankle support and water proof boots are highly recommended.
For water, we found the spring just behind the Thomas Knob shelter was flowing great. We did talk to a gentleman that said this was the best he had ever seen that spring flow. It is usually more of a trickle then what we saw.
On the second day, we took the AT south bound until it intersected with the Mt Rogers trail on the north side of the mountain. We took this around to the Lewis Fork trial, ultimately having to decide to take the north or south direction when Lewis Fork actually forks in two directions (we decided on the south trail). The north direction appears to be a little shorter but cuts right up a steep incline. The south direction still had a bit of an uphill climb, but was manageable. We saw a lot of horse prints in the mud, and were impressed that people could get their horses up and down that trail. With all the rain, I’m glad we chose the south direction. This way we ended up crossing Lewis Fork Creek at the start of the creek, where as if we had gone down the north direction I believe the creek would have ended up becoming a large water crossing.
The Lewis Fork trail had a bit of different scenery, as it was more woodlands/forest then rocking plains form day one. After just a few miles we intersected with the Cliff Side Trail right at the point it in-turn intersected with Crest Trail. This is the area we wanted to camp for the second night, so we headed a half mile or so south along the Crest Trail to find a decent water source. The National Geographic map specifies a water spring in this area, and unfortunately, I’m not sure the spring we ended up getting water from was the same one indicated on the map. I only believe this based on some videos I have seen after the fact. No matter what, we had the water we needed and set up camp not a tenth of a mile from the spring.
It is kind of funny to think back on, we had hiked past a group of trees and told each other this would be a good spot to hang. If we don’t find anything just up the trail, we will come back here. We were only gone maybe 30 minutes stocking up on water and when we returned to the camp site we had eyed just minutes before, we found a boy scout troop had moved in along with a few other groups. Sigh, there was still enough room to put up our hammocks so we set to work on putting up camp.
That night we spent most of our time just hanging out and talking shop with the neighbors. The evening ended a little short as a storm moved in. The night brought with it a fair amount of wind, rain, and lightning. Everyone fared well and none of the gear was overly wet. It was probably the worst thunderstorm I have encountered to date while hiking.
Once camp was torn down, we headed north along the Crest Trail. It didn’t take all that long before we made it to the Scales intersection. Many trails in this area meet at Scales, including the AT. A nice feature was a very well maintain privy, that not only had a little TP, it also had a couple trash cans available. Hiking along these trails was very easy and so we made pretty good time to get to the Scales intersection. Now, we had originally looked at making this a three-night trip, but we were covering ground a lot faster than we thought we would and with another storm coming through that night we decided to just go ahead and finish the loop. We were only 5 or 6 miles from the parking lot, and figured we could make it back to Charleston by 8 pm even with a dinner stop.
The last couple miles were along the Scales and Hickory Ridge tails. The tails themselves were in “decent” shape, a bit of heavy mud and water from time to time. We did find Wilson Creek had risen enough that we treated it like a water crossing and broke out the Crocs. Nick had to go barefoot, fortunately it was a short crossing.
This has been a great hike and worth the trip. The views and wildlife are a huge draw for this place. I’m happy that I brought some cooler weather gear, as the temperatures were a little lower than expected. I’m also thankful for solid Gortex boots, the trails were nasty when it comes to water and mud. If you are looking for fewer people, I would recommend hiking in the off season, as we ran into a lot of people throughout the entire hike. On the flip side, we did meet some interesting characters and had some good conversations which isn’t a norm when you are fairly remote. All in all, I would certainly hike in this area again.