Tag Archives: Grayson County

Winter Solstice Backpacking

On Saturday, December 22, 2012 we went on a winter backpacking trip that was extremely cold but rewarded us with incredible conditions for photography:  massive hoarfrost, remnants from a snowstorm, and true alpenglow lighting—a rare combination anywhere, but especially in the South.

Otherworldly Alpenglow
Otherworldly Alpenglow

As the evening sun set, the entire sky in the east (the direction opposite from the sun) began to glow pink with a purplish band at the horizon.  The rime-encrusted trees and brush, which had their own bluish-white hue, looked otherworldly.  The side of the mountain basked in the alpenglow.  In the course of my life I have seen this phenomenon on occasion in the Rockies and in the Alps, but never so pronounced in our region as it was this evening.

For a comparison with the same phenomenon on the Matterhorn in Switzerland, see this photo.  While the orange light from a sunset is itself beautiful, true alpenglow—when the entire sky is lit with light seemingly emanating from behind or even within the mountains, in the opposite direction from the sun—is amazing.

Dark pink and orange light on the mountain
Dark pink and orange light on the mountain

Looking towards where the sun was setting revealed another interesting effect—purple mountains with an orange sky.

Purple Mountain Majesty
Purple Mountain Majesty

As we continued to take pictures until almost all of the light was gone, we were reminded that part of the reason for the great conditions was the cold.  And it was getting colder by the minute.  Operating the cameras and standing still, the chill began to invade us.  Toes and fingers burned.  As the last good light disappeared, we continued onward to make camp somewhere near the top of the mountain.

The Blue Ridge Mountains in all their glory
The Blue Ridge Mountains in all their glory

The Hike

Our planned out-and-back route was straightforward:  A one-day hike from the Elk Garden area of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area up to the highest parts of the southern side of Mount Rogers near the famous Thomas Knob shelter; an overnight in the shelter or at a tent site somewhere in the vicinity; and a return back via the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail.  These trails roughly parallel the Grayson County-Smyth County line for about five miles along the mountain ridge.

As we approached the mountain, you could clearly see the delineation where the frost began to accent the freshly fallen snow.  While you could see the snow between the trees on the bottom half of the mountain, on the top half of the mountain everything—literally every single thing—was covered with brilliant white frost.

The Appalachian Trail at Elk Garden, Virginia
The Appalachian Trail at Elk Garden, Virginia

Donning my 44-pound backpack full of winter camping gear and camera equipment, I crossed the road and started up the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail.  The hike started through trees, which glistened overhead.  The skies were bright to the west, where the sun was already dropping, but were a dark cobalt blue in other directions.

Hoarfrost Coats Tree Branches on the Virginia Horse Trail
Hoarfrost Coats Tree Branches on the Virginia Horse Trail

The frost coated everything.  Tree branches were twice or more their size due to the hoarfrost.

Cobalt Blue Background for White Branches
Cobalt Blue Background for White Branches

Once up in the balds, you could see great distances.  The mountains to the south had snow but little frost; to the north across the valley, Clinch Mountain had frost on its largest southern-exposed face, known as the Bear Town area.

Reaching the First High Country Bald
Reaching the First High Country Bald

The contrast between blue and white was dramatic.

Blue and White Contrast Nicely
Blue and White Contrast Nicely

Hiking in this winter wonderland, you could easily imagine yourself in another part of the United States, or another part of the world, hiking in the Arctic or in true Alpine conditions.

Big Sky Country . . . in Virginia
Big Sky Country . . . in Virginia

The Frasier firs and other trees at the highest elevations looked almost fake with their limbs and branches so heavily laden with frost.

Rime and Snow on High Elevation Frasier Firs
Rime and Snow on High Elevation Frasier Firs

The moon rose dramatically in the East, signalling that this was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.

Reentering the Forest
Reentering the Forest

The Show

The entire hike, as awesome as it was, was merely the opening act for the light show we were about to watch.

North Carolina and Tennessee Mountains
North Carolina and Tennessee Mountains

As we rounded the first bend that allowed us a view to the eastern horizon, the whole mountain became aglow in amazing colors.

Evening Alpenglow on the Appalachian Trail
Evening Alpenglow on the Appalachian Trail

The photos we took do not adequately show the overwhelming color of the scene.  The periphery as well as the main view to the east were bursting with palettes of pink and purple.  In the photo below, I used my camera’s panorama feature to show a 180 degree view.

True Alpenglow
True Alpenglow

The entire episode of amazing light lasted less than one-half hour.  Even the fading light was beautiful, as captured below.

Last vestiges of evening Alpenglow
Last vestiges of evening Alpenglow

The sunlight disappeared, and the moonlight began to illuminate the mountain.  It was not a full moon, but it was sufficient such that you could walk without a headlamp once your eyes adjusted.

The light show over, we set out to make our camp.  The temperature seemed to plummet by the minute.   The winds, which were not insignificant while we were obsessed with photography, seemed to increase in strength and become more ominous.  It was definitely getting colder.

There would be a price to pay to for the incredible optic conditions:  suffering through a brutal night of cold and wind.

Looking back on a great hike
Looking back on a great hike

The Pain Factor

The next day, when we returned to our vehicle, an older gentleman walked into the parking lot from the other direction–coming down off of Whitetop Mountain.  A large white beard, accompanied by a red union shirt, made the man appear as a slim Santa Clause coming from the snowy woods to inspect his winter kingdom.  The man was none other than Damascus Dave, a well-known and experienced thru-hiker and outfitter in the region.

He greeted us.  “Isn’t it beautiful?  That hoarfrost, or rime ice, or whatever you want to call it—it’s whiter than snow.”  Then he asked, “Did y’all overnight up there?”

We told him we had, and we began discussing the wind gusts and how cold it got last night.  We talked about gear for a while, and how while we were prepared, it was still extremely cold.

“Well, it was pretty cold last night,” he said.  “And, I reckon you can’t camp up there in this kind of weather and not experience some pain.  No getting around it.  That’s just part of it.”

As I stood there in the parking lot, tired but satisfied, I realized that he spoke the truth.

When it comes to hardcore winter camping, especially if you are seeking exposed ridgetops, vistas, and the coldest weather with the most snow, there will be some pain.  Not insufferable pain.  Certainly not the Beck Weathers’ level of pain.  Not nearly the level of pain a depicted in Cold, the movie about climbing Gasherbrum II, a 26,000′ mountain, in the middle of winter.  But there is unquestionably some serious discomfort—some pain—involved.  It’s truly a case of “no pain, no gain.”

We weren’t cold while hiking.  (In fact, while climbing it’s pretty easy to actually overheat.)  We moderated our hike so that our pace kept us warm but didn’t cause us to overheat.  But when we stopped, the whipping wind would quickly steal body heat.  We had to put on our down jackets when we stopped.  (You don’t want to overdress, risking sweating too much and the dreaded “wetting out” inside your jacket, but you have to dress sufficiently to keep warm.)  It’s a balancing act to maintain warmth in these conditions.  Preparation, proper clothing, and layering is key.

However, regardless of your dressing properly, setting up camp when it is really cold can be difficult.  The cold seeps through your gloves, burning and then numbing your digits, making it increasingly difficult for you to manipulate them.  For example, holding aluminum tent poles firmly while setting up a tent just saps the heat from your hands.  Simple tasks require greater concentration and mental focus when it’s freezing and your hands are numb.  Standing around while doing these kinds of tasks causes your feet to get cold, too.

By the time we had set up our tent, the water in our one-liter water bottles had almost completely frozen.  The sandwich I brought for dinner had frozen.  And the gas canister that would allow us to warm up some water for coffee and oatmeal was not functional.

That night, I slept in my 15 degree-rated sleeping bag on a sleeping pad, with polar fleece pants, two undershirts, a fleece jacket, wearing a down jacket, a hat, and gloves.  My feet were covered with wool socks and insulated slippers.  And yet, my feet and hands were still cold.  My friend, who brought his 0 degree-rated “Never Summer” down sleeping bag, fared no better.  Let’s just say, it was very cold.

We warmed our water by placing it in our sleeping bags, along with a host of other gear that was generally uncomfortable to have there:  batteries from my camera; my headlamp; additional food; the gas canister; and various other items.

The wind was blowing interminably, with gusts that seemed Everest-like.  In putting up our tent, we staked through the first inch of frozen ground down into the soft earth, and used some additional rocks to keep if from moving.  Nonetheless, the tent flapped incessantly through the night, and the intermittent gusts seemed to have enough force to blow us off the mountain.

Campsite at 5400 feet
Exposed winter campsite at 5400 feet. Brrr!
If you click and enlarge this photo, you can see the stars visible between the trees.

Despite the good weather window reported on the news and on the Internet the previous day, the temperatures plunged and the wind whipped with increasing intensity through the night.  Using the heat inside our sleeping bags, we were able to thaw the iced-through water bottles.

Little did we know that although the weather was predicted to improve at the lower elevations, the recorded temperature (single digits) and wind chill (below zero) was the coldest in December 2012, and wind gusts were recorded at 65 miles per hour at the Grayson Highlands State Park Weather Station, almost 1500 vertical feet below where we were camping on the exposed ridge at over 5400′.

Grayson Highlands Weather December 2012
December 2012 Weather Graphs for Grayson Highlands State Park. Note the yellow arrows showing December 22, 2012 statistics: Single digit temps and 65+ mph wind gusts.
This weather station is 1500′ below the campsite in this article.
(Click to enlarge)

If we had not been adequately prepared that evening, an uncomfortable night could have been much worse.  Instead, we awoke the next morning, broke camp, and went back to the Thomas Knob shelter to brew some coffee to warm up before the hike back to the trailhead.  As expected, as we hiked back down the mountain, it got warmer and the winds subsided.

By the time we returned to the parking lot, it was comfortable enough wearing just our fleece sweaters to stand around and chat with Dave regarding harrowing experiences he had heard about in this area.  (Many folks have actually been in some real danger up on the mountain).  While not uniquely cold, the weather we had experienced was extreme, especially for this region.  For us part-time adventurers, you might even call the weather conditions epic.

The evening sunlight, true alpenglow, and whole experience made this a fitting winter solstice backpacking trip, a perfect prelude for Christmas and the New Year.  The suffering part? Yes, it was definitely worth it.  Meaningful achievement, even something as relatively inconsequential as a winter overnighter, requires some striving and involves a little or more discomfort.  It’s in part the difficulty that makes it rewarding.  If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, and the solitude sought after in these kinds of trips would not exist.

And for the record, yes, I actually did carry with me and wear insulated slippers.

Gallery

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The Scales

High up on Pine Mountain in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is an area known as the Scales.   This June we drove and hiked up to this area.

The Scales

Basically, it’s nothing more than a grassy, fenced in area used by campers and horse riders.  On the other hand, the Scales have been for many, many years the eastern gateway to the high country of Mount Rogers, where ranchers brought their cattle to graze in the summer and then sell during earlier in the 1900s.  Livestock was weighed up here (thus the name “Scales”) before the animals trekked back down off the mountain and lost weight (and brought their owners less money when sold).

Forest Road Warning

The Scales are located above 5000′.  The Appalachian Trail crosses right above this area.  The most direct route from below is Route 613, which is a rugged, rock strewn forest road that requires a high clearance vehicle.

You need a rugged, high clearance vehicle for Route 613

The road eventually crosses a cattle guard.  Shortly thereafter the forest opens up to show Pine Mountain and some good views to the north of the valley and ridge mountains in Virginia.

Cattle Guard

The skies always seem to be a deeper color of blue up here on the mountain.

Blue Skies

 The photo below shows the numerous mountains visible to the north from the area near the Scales.

Whitetop Panorama

These two panoramic photos taken from a recent trip to Whitetop Mountain show the expansive vista to the southeast at the summit. 

If you click on them in an updated browser, they should open in a much larger format that is pretty awesome viewed on 16:9 monitor.  There is a slight overlap in the two photographs, but together they form almost a single, panoramic image.

As I state in the main article, the views at the top of Whitetop certainly justify the climb to the summit.

There is also a gravel road from the east side of Whitetop that goes to the summit of Whitetop.  It is Route 89, and it connects to Route 600 near Elk Graden.   Route 89 is usually open even in winter, although it is covered in snowpack and requires a 4 x 4.

Fox Creek

One of the gems of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is Fox Creek.     Nestled between the south side of Iron Mountain and the north side of Mount Rogers, Fox Creek flows east through about 5 miles of National Forest before entering private property down the mountainside. 

Fox Creek

Lower Fox Creek

The lower section of the creek that lies within the national forest flows through a miniature gorge.  Large boulders and timbers create numerous beautiful pools of water.  Fox Creek Falls, a fan-type cascading waterfall, is a much photographed feature.  The photo below shows Fox Creek Falls from a side angle, a less traditional view.  (Click on any of the photos in this article to enlarge them.)

Fox Creek Falls

The two trips we took to Fox Creek in October revealed remarkable foilage on the moss-covered boulders.  Although past their peak vibrancy, the leaves created a tapestry of color that I needed to capture with the camera.

Fallen Timber and Boulders Create a Striking Foreground

The first day we arrived in the middle of the afternoon.  The sunlight was too harsh for good photography, so we came back the next day in the later afternoon.  The boulders in the creek are quite large; in the photo below, you can see my son Isaac playing on one of them.    

One of the Larger Pools
Autumn Leaves Dress Up Huge Boulders

Upper Fox Creek

The upper part of Fox Creek is formed when Lewis Fork Branch joins the Fox Creek headwater.  At this point, the creek becomes a full fledged, albeit small, trout stream.  A modest, high elevation valley forms between Mount Rogers and Iron Mountain.  The National Recreation Area has a large, split rail fence that runs along Virginia Route 603 for several miles.

Along this section of road is the trailhead for the Mount Rogers Trail, Grindstone Campground, a parking lot for the Appalachian Trail, the Fairwood Horse Camping Area, and the entrance to the unimproved road that goes up to the Scales area of Pine Mountain.

One Entrance to Upper Fox Creek

Fox Creek in this area is a small, swiftly moving creek with a gentle gradient remiscent of a Midwestern trout stream or an Eastern chalk stream as much as typical freestone stream.  However, the flow of the creek is variable as it is dependent on runoff from Mount Rogers.

Stalking Wild Trout

The views up and down the valley are Western-like.  In fact, much of the Mount Rogers area reminds many people, including me, of the West.  It’s like a little slice of the West dropped into Southwest Virginia.

Evening Glow in Fox Creek Meadow
Fly Fishing for Wild Trout

The large meadows along upper Fox Creek provide many starting points for short hikes.  There are also numerous places to begin longer hikes up Mount Rogers or Iron Mountain. 

Another Entrance to a Meadow in Fox Creek

Autumn Sun

As the sun reflects the autumnal hues of falling foliage, we no longer take the endless days of summer for granted.  Our appreciation of the sunlight grows as each day becomes shorter. 

The sun bursts through golden foliage in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

Like most natural resources, our conscious awareness of the sun increases in proportion to its scarcity.  A whole sunny week is a nice thing.  On the other hand, a bright, sunny day following a gloomy, rainy week−now that, my friend, is absolutely glorious!

The warmth of the autumn sun is more palpable in some way, too, and parallels the warm colors of the season.  I find myself consciously glancing up to catch the sun’s rays more often in autumn, sometimes as they are cast through the trees. 

Grindstone Campground

This past October 15-17 we camped at Grindstone Campground in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.  This is one of our favorite campsites, and it is somewhat of a tradition that we come here at least once almost every fall. 

The elevation, about 3300′, and the climate here usher in a change in the foliage that is usually a few weeks ahead of the change in the towns and cities of the region. 

We enjoyed fine fall colors, with the brilliant early reds and yellows across the mountains giving way to the finer and more subtle burgundies and golds of late fall.  These are the archetypical colors of Southwest Virginia in autumn. 

Our campsite was flooded with color each morning and afternoon.  The long shadows added texture to the imagery.

Colorful Campsite

One tall oak, larger than all the others, stood sentinel over our tent, leaves and branches rustling as the wind blew through the campsite all weekend.

The autumn sun and its accoutrements−the colors, the shadows, the warm daylight and accompanying cool, crisp nights−these things make fall my favorite season for camping.

Twin Pinnacles

While the most spectacular hike in Virginia is, in my opinion, the ascent of Wilburn Ridge (as described in one of my previous articles), perhaps the best “bang for the buck” hike in Southwest Virginia is the short hike known as Twin Pinnacles.  This is a 1.6 mile hike in Grayson Highlands State Park.  On September 25, 2011 after visiting the Grayson Highlands Festival my family did this little hike.

View from the Little Pinnacle

The trail begins right behind the Visitor Center.   The trail is a loop that takes you out to two pinnacles, or rock outcroppings, that have great views of the surrounding mountains.  The first pinnacle can be reached in less than 300 yards from the trailhead.   The pinnacles afford 300 degree views.  The view in the above photograph is looking south towards the North Carolina/Tennessee state line.  The view below is toward the north.  The rounded, frasier fir-covered hump at the top of the photo is Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia.

Mount Rogers View
Notice anything unusual in the photo above?  My son Isaac noticed the hawk on one of the outcroppings.  I have circled it below.  You can click on the photo below to enlarge it and see the bird a bit closer.  After a few minutes, it flew away, taking advantage of the thermals that rise up the mountainside.
Large Hawk at the Pinnacles

Looking back towards the north, you can also make out Wilburn Ridge as it rises from Massie Gap and climbs towards Mount Rogers.  In the photo below, it is the rocky ridge on the right side of the photo’

 
Wilburn Ridge View
On the second part of the trail, which involves some up-and-down climbing through some forest, we came across a resident in the middle of the trail who would not move.  Eventually, I had to get a long stick and move it out of the path.  The snake was almost three feet in length.  It was an eastern gartner snake, although I had not seen one this large before.  My daughter was not scared of it, and it seems to have been the most memorable part of the hike for her!
Gartner Snake on the Pinnacles Trail

After the hike, on the way down the mountain in our vehicle we saw a whole group of gobblers crossing the road.  Seeing wildlife like this in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area is not unusual. 

Wild Turkeys

Overall, this was another nice day in the mountains.  The Twin Pinnacles Trail is a bit short in and of itself to justify a long trip to Grayson Highlands State Park.  It is, however, a perfect complement to a picnic or a nice side trip while visiting.  It is also a really good family hike:  Just the right distance for younger children or those looking for a less strenuous, shorter hike with great views.

Specimen Sugar Maple

The colors are starting to really show in the High Country.  This photo of a sugar maple in Grayson County was taken on September 25, 2011.  This weekend and next weekend (October 1-2 and 8-9) will probably be the peak times to view fall foliage in the Southern Appalachians at elevations above 4000′, with mid-October being the peak viewing times for lower elevations in Southwest Virginia.

Sugar Maple at 4500' in Grayson County

Virginia’s Most Spectacular Hike

The ascent up Wilburn Ridge is the most spectacular hike in Virginia.  I usually avoid superlatives in describing the outdoors, because descriptions such as “most spectacular” are of course necessarily subjective.  However, in many years of hiking across the Commonwealth, this route remains my personal favorite.  If you are reasonably fit and only do one hike in Southwest Virginia, this should be it. 

This hike is one for all seasons:  Spring, summer, fall and winter each bring a different hiking perspective.  Because of the elevation, the winters can be harsh up here, and summer comes later than it does to the valleys.  In the middle of June, the balds boast the largest open rhododendron thickets in Virginia.  In the fall, the trees burst forth with color.  The peak brilliance of fall foliage occurs several weeks earlier here than in the rest of the region—usually the last week of September or first week of October.

The Views

These photos were taken on a day hike on Memorial Day Weekend in 2011.  Some the trees were still in the early leafing out stage that has long past the rest of the Virginia.  This provided an interesting contrast between the lighter greens of early foliage and the darker colors of the Fraser firs that are spread across the higher elevations. 

The following photo taken of hikers ascending Wilburn Ridge shows the grand views from practically the outset of this hike.  Click on this photo to enlarge it and appreciate the expansive views into North Carolina along Wilburn Ridge.

Most of Wilburn Ridge is above treeline in “balds,” huge sections of the mountain where there are only grass, underbrush, and rocky outcroppings.  This is more like hiking in the Western mountain ranges than anywhere else in the Southeastern United States. 

Wilburn Ridge is a ridge climb that is the southern rampart of Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia at 5700′ above sea level.  The highest point on the ridge itself is approximately 5500′.  The rock outcroppings rise like embattled parapets on a castle as you ascend the ridge.  From the northern part of this ridge the Appalachian Trail continues west across additional balds towards the true peak of Mount Rogers, and there is a short spur trail that ascends the final 200′ to the summit.  The actual summit of Mount Rogers is forested and has no view.

The trails surrounding Mount Rogers provide views in all directions.  There are some outcroppings that provide literal 360 degree views.  The further you ascend on this route, the better the views become.  In the midsection of the ridge, the views to the southwest show the Appalachian Range that separates North Carolina and Tennessee.

At the northern end (the highest end) of Wilburn Ridge, you can view almost 100 miles of the North Carolina-Tennessee state line.  Clicking to enlarge the photo below, you can see Grandfather Mountain in the foreground on the left side (about 1/4 from the left side).  It has a unique “U” shape in the middle of it.  The mountains in the middle include Sugar Mountain in North Carolina, while the largest mountains on the center-right hand side of the photo include Roan Mountain that divides North Carolina and Tennessee.

At the northern end of Wilburn Ridge, you can look west back down towards the valley and ridge section of Virginia.  In the photo below, you can see where the Appalachian Trail, Crest Trail, and Pine Mountain Trail intersect.  Click to enlarge this photo and you can see the horses and riders on the trail.  Iron Mountain is the long straight mountain behind them that runs along the top of the picture.  In the very upper left of the photo is the valley back towards Abingdon.  While not visible in this photo, Abingdon is less than 30 miles as the crow flies from this viewpoint.

To the north, Wilburn Ridge overlooks Pine Mountain.  As shown below, Pine Mountain appears as a semi-circular mountain that has huge bald sections but is also partially forested.  Pine Mountain has tremendous views itself looking back up to Wilburn Ridge and towards the southern mountains in North Carolina.  The Appalachian Trail traverses the entire ridge of Pine Mountain.  The Crest Trail can be seen on the left of the photo below.  Click to enlarge it for a more detailed view.

The Trail

The Wilburn Ridge Trail is part of the Appalachian Trail.  The quickest way to access the trail is to enter Grayson Highlands State Park and drive to the Massie Gap parking area.  A short 1/2 mile spur trail leaves the parking lot and rapidly ascends to meet the Appalachian Trail and Virginia Highlands Horse Trail.  This photo shows the view looking up Wilburn Ridge at the beginning of the hike once on the Appalachian Trail.

Photo by Karl Thiessen

The views begin immediately climbing the trail.  The photo below was taken along the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail less than 1 mile from the parking lot in Grayson Highlands State Park.  If you click on it and enlarge it, the horse trail is clearly visible to the left-center of the photo, while the AT is just above it in the center of the photo.  These two trails parallel one another during the first 1.5 miles up Wilburn Ridge, until reaching the gate that separates Grayson Highlands State Park from Mount Rogers Wilderness.

The trail alternates between a series of rocky step climbing and traverses across fields.  Here is one of the fields showing rock outcroppings both near and far:

The following shows typical trail conditions while descending back down towards the parking lot:

The Ponies

Wilburn Ridge and the surrounding area are known not only for the views, but also for the herds of feral ponies that live in Grayson Highlands State Park and in the high country or “crest zone” of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.  This is one of only two areas in Virginia where wild ponies roam (the other is almost 400 miles away on Assateaugue Island National Seashore).  The ponies here endure tremendous temperature changes from the heat of summer to the winters at 5000′.

The ponies graze across the high country throughout the summer, preserving the character of the balds.  In the winter they migrate to lowers areas of the park.  The ponies can be seen on the trails that crisscross the balds:

The photo below shows ponies along Wilburn Ridge.  The mountain in the distance is Whitetop.

The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association, a private organization, assists managing these animals.  In the spring some of the female ponies give birth, and in the fall the ponies are rounded up, and a certain number of them are auctioned off during the Grayson Highlands Festival.

The ponies are awesome to observe as you are hiking up the ridge.  While completely wild, they are not afraid of the hikers and usually continue grazing.  I have even experienced them waking up backpackers by grazing close to tents in the early morning hours.  Here is a mother with her young:

Here is another young pony up close:

So there you have it:  The combination of views, miles of balds which provide above-treeline hiking conditions, wild ponies, and rugged country make this the most spectacular hike in Virginia. 

Directions

From Abingdon, drive east to Damascus on Route 58.  Stay on Route 58 through Damascus.  Route 58 itself is a beautiful drive as it parallels Whitetop Laurel Creek.  You will continue on Route 58 east until you enter Grayson County; when you reach the community of Whitetop you have about 20 minutes left until you will reach the entrance to Grayson Highlands State Park.

There is a $3 entrance fee to drive into the park.  The drive to the Massie Gap parking lot is another 3 miles or so.

The best map for hiking in the high country that is currently published is the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Mount Rogers Map 786, available at the outdoor stores in Abingdon, Bristol, and Damascus.