Grayson Highlands offers wildlife, majestic views
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of five hikes that are available around our region. Hiking is a fun, safe way to get outdoors and get some exercise, especially during this time of social distancing.
If you’ve completed the first two hikes in this series, there is a good chance your boots are waterlogged.
The hikes to Gentry Creek Falls and Lower Higgins Creek Falls featured quite a few creek crossings in order to experience the payoff of the scenic waterfalls.
So this week, we’ll switch gears and head for higher ground – the Grayson Highlands Trail System, to be exact. From wild ponies to panoramic views, this hike is well worth the trip.
The description below is not exhaustive. A couple good resources to learn more include www.alltrails.com, and a local site by former Milligan College professor Mark Peacock, www.appalachiantreks.blogspot.com. Alltrails includes a free app that provides detailed maps and has articles on most hikes in this region, and Appalachian Treks’ descriptions, including directions, are excellent as well. And be sure to look up the “10 essentials” so you can hit the trail prepared.
Grayson Highlands Trail System (Grayson County, VA)
GETTING THERE: From Damascus, Va. take U.S. Highway 58 east for approximately 26 miles, watching for Highway 362 (Grayson Highlands Lane) forking off left from 58. Turn left on 362. In 3.3 miles turn right for Massie Gap parking lot or continue 1.5 miles to visitor center for Twin Pinnacles trailhead.
DISTANCE: 2 to 10-plus miles depending on route(s)
HOW STRENUOUS: Easy-moderate to moderate-difficult
PARKING: A large parking area is available at Massie Gap. Twin Pinnacles Trail begins at the Visitors Center. The park has a fee of $5 for in-state, $7 for out-of-state vehicles.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: Get a map, visit the park’s website and use other trail guides. The many trail options mean lots of junctions and different-colored blazes.
Grayson Highlands is special. From miles of high-elevation but relatively flat terrain and scramble-worthy rock outcrops to wild ponies and the chance to bag Virginia’s highest mountain, the place offers something different from the area’s hiking norm.
Another special element is the multiplicity of hiking options that await hikers who roll up to the well-maintained Massie Gap parking area or the nearby Visitors’ Center. Start at the center and warm up with the Twin Pinnacles Loop, a 1.3-mile hike rated easy that takes visitors over the park’s highest elevation point despite gaining only around 200 feet. Head back to the Massie Gap parking lot and take your pick – the 4-mile round trip Wilburn Ridge trail via the Appalachian Trail offers moderate difficulty with just 800 or so feet of elevation gain. You’ll probably see wild ponies, and in less than two miles you’ll reach the Wilburn Ridge outcrops, a rocky wonderland reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands or a scene from “Lord of the Rings.”
The Rhododendron Trail is also popular, and the Appalachian Trail cuts across much of the park. The highlands are also at an elevation that features boreal forest characteristics including Fraser fir, spruce and rowan (mountain ash). Wild blueberries abound in early September.
The payoff: Where to start? Wild ponies. Stellar views. Rocks that beg to be scrambled up and offer a commanding prospect of open heath, gentle forested slopes and … other rock outcrops. This is “big country” that just doesn’t occur much in the Appalachians, and the Commonwealth of Virginia does a good job protecting it for the enjoyment of a variety of users. You’ll want to return again and again.
Next week’s edition of the News & Neighbor will feature the fourth hike in this five-part series.