Hiking the AT: Glorious Grayson Highlands!

The Hills Are Alive… Lalala!

You know what I love most about the Appalachian Trail? That I can pick a section I don’t know anything about purely on the basis of convenience and have it turn out to be as glorious as the section we hiked this past weekend. Seriously, this was one of the best hikes of my life and I essentially pulled it out of a hat.

Me & Ant heading for the summit of Mount Rogers- the highest point in Virginia! Why yes, that’s a new Akubra hat! Ebay $14. Score!

My task was to find a 20-mile section of trail roughly halfway between Lexington, Virginia and Charlotte, North Carolina, with a campground near the Appalachian Trail. That way my friend Anthony could drive up after work on Friday, meet us at the campground and we could hop on the trail early Saturday morning and be done by mid-afternoon on Sunday.

Setting off on the AT! In a 20-mile loop we passed through Grayson Highlands State Park, several Wilderness areas and the Mount Rogers Recreation Area.

I settled on meeting at Grindstone Campground in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area south of Marion, Virginia and hiking a 20-mile loop on the AT and the Mount Rogers Trail, which would take us up and over the highest point in Virginia!

On Thursday last week, my friend Devin in DC emailed to ask if I was doing anything outside over the weekend and I said, why yes I am, come join us! So he strapped on his backpack, hopped on his motorcycle and rode down to my place and we carpooled south to meet Anthony and Drew at the campground late Friday.

Appalachian Trail Marker in the Greyson Highlands

This simple plan nearly met with disaster. Devin and I arrived at Grindstone Campground at 9:45 pm only to be told the gate was shutting for the night in 15 minutes. Anthony and Drew were running late (as usual) and we had no cell service to warn them. So we found a campsite and I plastered the entrance of the park with notes, hoping that Drew and Anthony would see one of them, park their cars and walk in to our campsite. Miracle of miracles it worked! Drew made it in just as they were closing the gate and Ant and his giant dog Dozer came strolling into site 64 around midnight. Ah, the art of the well-placed note. I guess the world still revolved before cell phones, didn’t it?

Dozer is a very dignified and well educated giant dog.

Bright and early Saturday morning Ant and I parked our cars at the parking lot in Grindstone Campground and Drew dropped Ant, Devin and I off where the AT crossed highway 603. Poor Drew had to head back to Lexington to work. Turns out being a professor isn’t an easy job…

Ferns Aflame on the AT

What green tunnel?

Hiking through an Autumn Wonderland!

The Appalachian Trail is nicknamed “the Green Tunnel” because so much of it runs through the woods. The section we hiked this past weekend turned out to be a rare exception: much of the trail ran over vast balds with 360° views. It was a perfect fall foliage hike! I’ve hiked a lot of the AT and have never seen anything quite like this place.

Saturday Lunch on the AT. This is about where we realized we were in for a very special section of the trail.

Ant & Doz heading through one of the many turnstiles on this section of the AT

A ladder leading to the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail, which parallels this section of the AT

This section of the AT was new to me, but it’s apparently quite popular: the trail was loaded with scout troops, church groups, families, day hikers and fellow weekend warriors. This was not a trip for solitude, but in all that open space, there was plenty of room for all of us to enjoy the great outdoors. We met some cool people and got some sweet NC hiking tips; Dozer even found love on the mountain with a very pretty Danish girl named Maggie.

Great Danes meeting in the wilderness! For Dozer & Maggie it was love at first sight. I don’t think either of them gets to look another dog in the eye very often.

We camped about 12 miles in along Wilburn Ridge, on the leeward side of some rocks.

Since the trail was so crowded, I didn’t want to set up camp at one of the AT shelters we passed. We kept an eye out for a level spot on one of the balds that would afford great views of both sunset and sunrise. About 12 miles in we found a perfect secluded campsite. Devin had packed a hammock, but with so few trees he ended up sleeping on the ground under epic stars.  The next morning he woke us up just before dawn for an incredible sunrise and then we headed for Mount Rogers: the highest point in Virginia!

Campsite at Dawn

Self Portrait at Dawn

Heading for Mount Rogers! We dropped our packs on the side of the trail for the 1-mile out and back spur trail to the summit.

USGS Summit Marker on Mount Rogers- 5,729 feet

Team Summit Shot! No views from the top but the woods were beautiful dense and deep – very Maine!

Man, it felt good to get out for an overnight! I haven’t even told you yet about the best part of our trip! Anybody want to see some wild ponies?! Stay tuned… 😉

The Weekend Warriors! Devin, Me & Ant.

What’s an Akubra?! Only the best hat in the entire world! Check out my previous posts: Akubra Love and Akubra Lament.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
This entry was posted in Appalachian Trail, Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Hiking the AT: Glorious Grayson Highlands!

  1. Barneysday says:

    Great pictures. Reminds me of my New England upbringing.

  2. How inspiring for people who want to go backpacking, but are short on time!

  3. Michael says:

    Mary, Congratulations on the eBay Akubra find, it looks great! Try to hang on to this one 🙂

  4. Pingback: The (Not So) Wild Ponies of Virginia’s Grayson Highlands « Travels with the Blonde Coyote

  5. Shelby says:

    Any chance you could send me a copy of the exact trip you took?? I’m new to hiking. I’ve been looking for a good overnight trek for myself and some friends for spring break this year.

  6. Sounds like you had a lot of fun!

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  10. Taylor says:

    Looks like you found a good loop! I was hoping to do a similar hike and was hoping you could send me more specific information on your trip.


  11. Jonathan Choi says:

    I’m planning a trip up there for that second week of October this year. What was the weather like when you were there?

    • Glorious during the day, t-shirt weather, and chilly at night. Bring a 35 degree bag, minimum, unless you sleep hot. Definitely frost on the ground in the morning! Rain always a possibility. Gaiters might be nice to have if it does rain, with all that tall grass. Have fun! Awesome place for a hike! Cheers, M

  12. sharon lester says:

    Your trip looks like a perfect little weekend trip. Could you possibly send me the exact details for the trails you linked up. Which maps I need and road access. I would love to do this this weekend. Thanks so much,
    Sharon Lester

    also what is the little tear drop camper that you have called? I love it! Im about to head to California for some travel nursing and Im looking for something like yours.

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