Thursday, May 4, 2017

Grayson Highlands and Mt. Rogers, VA

Finally, it is Thursday of our vacation week and one of the two days that Annie has most looked forward to since we started planning this trip months ago: Grayson Highlands State Park and hiking with the ponies. Wednesday night, the forecast is shit: cold, cloudy, extremely windy, with slashing rain moving in by noon. But Ann was in a damn-the-weather-full-speed-ahead-to-see-ponies frame of mind, so not hiking was never even on the agenda.

Unfortunately for the purposes of this blog post, I lost two hours of photos from the day. But there are still enough below to give you an idea of what it is all about. Even in the horrid weather, it was worth every step. I would do it again and again, from Grayson to Thomas Knob shelter and back. I'd skip going to the top of Mt. Rogers as not worth the effort, but I would love to see this phenomenal place in the sunshine. Anyway, on with the tale.

Land O'Ponies
Given the crappy forecast, Thursday morning, we skipped breakfast at the B&B near Boone to roll out early in an effort to hike Mt. Rogers before the storm moved in. In our haste to leave by 7:15, we left our pepperoni, tortillas, and provolone in the refrigerator at the B&B. Lunch would be packets of Lance snack crackers, Clif bars, and trail mix. And poor Ann would find out that her trail mix somehow got soaked in the downpours on Monday and was disgusting mush.

After a bunch of twisty roads and you-can't-get-there-from-here driving, we turned off US 58 at Grayson Highlands State Park by 8:30 in the morning for hike number 17 of 9.5 miles to Mt. Rogers. Even at that early hour the weather was threatening to go to hell, so, naturally, I was anxious to get moving up to Mt. Rogers and minimize our time hiking in the very cold rain. The clouds were so low that visibility was about 50 yards at any given time and the wind was howling, a constant 20+ miles an hour with plenty of gusts, though down in the relatively sheltered Massie Gap Overnight Backpackers' parking lot, we really couldn't tell how bad the gusts were. Time would tell.

It was a bit further up the trail that Ann quipped that the park was misnamed. It should have been "Grayson Highwinds State Park" instead.

Two trails leave out of the back of the parking lot, separated by a line of trash cans. The trail to the left is marked Massie Gap and the other is marked Appalachian Trail Spur. To go to Mt. Rogers, stay left on the Massie Gap trail and that will bring you after a two tenths of a mile or so into a large field or what we felt was a large field in the fog. As we walked across the field, we would get our first glimpse of ponies away in the fog. We entered the field on the east side. You can also enter from a parking lot on the south side of the field. In either case, to get to Mt. Rogers, you need to traverse the field and exit through the gate on the north side of the field.

First Pony Sighting
So, I get the whole do not mess with the wildlife thing as part of the LNT ethos and I saw all the signs saying don't pet or feed the ponies. I'm good with that. But, doesn't this go both ways? Down in the field, the ponies would not be denied a scratch on the neck, nuzzling up to you. And what to do when a pony comes up to you and start trying to pick first one pocket and then the other? Once we had climbed Wilburn Ridge, we saw several ponies in the mist, and two of them were standing by the trail as we came by, strategically placed to try to pick-pocket hikers. I had photos of one in action, but sadly, that was among the two hours of photos that I lost. It was all I could do to get rid of that one: he was very aggressive in hassling me for food. Never once, though, did I fear that I would be bitten. The pony was just very enthusiastic.

Yeah, Do Not Pet the Ponies
Up in this field is a great place to see the ponies grazing. Of the 70-plus we saw on the day, about 18 were calmly grazing in the field, until we arrived. Once we arrived, being some of the first visitors of the day, the ponies quickly converged on us looking for handouts, no doubt.

Curious Colt
Fabio, the stallion who runs one of the herds, is unmistakable with his long blond locks and dappled grey body. And he was quick to spot us and come running. Nothing camera- or people-shy about him.

Fabio is Not Camera- or People-Shy
As much as Ann wanted to stay and admire Fabio's long camera-worthy locks, we both had a sense that we needed to get moving against the incoming weather. We left the north side of the field through a swinging gate and started to climb a bit on the Rhododendron Trail. Although we would climb all the way to the top of Mt. Rogers, the climbs were very gentle.

Roots on the Rhododendron Trail

Wild Apples, A Rare Bit of Color on a Bleak Day

Ditto for a Lone Trout Lily
Just before Massie Gap, the Rhododendron Trail dumps out onto a horse trail, essentially a dirt road. The sign posts might be a little confusing. You want to go left up the hill. When in doubt, head up hill. Soon enough the AT will cross the horse trail and you will head south, to the left, on the AT in the direction of Mt. Rogers. As you are wandering through the pastures and upland fields on the AT, you will cross the 500-mile point. By my reckoning, the 500-mile rock formation shown below is about mile 499, but what's a mile, give or take, in 500?

The Approximate 500-Mile Point on the AT
At this point, as we were getting ready to leave the state park and head out onto the surrounding Mt Rogers National Recreational Area federal lands, the weather really started getting nasty. The wind was really ferocious to the point where we were glad to go through a stand of trees or shrubs to block it. But the big downside was that it was pouring rain under the trees. The weighty grey clouds were condensing on the trees and dripping so hard that it might have been raining. A couple of well-placed drips shorted the autofocus on my camera temporarily. Ann finally gave in and donned her rain jacket, but more against the brutal wind than the precipitation.

Our View at 9:45 in the Morning

Our View at 1:45 in the Afternoon

Leaving Grayson Highlands State Park
We hit a big bubble of thru hikers, most coming NOBO, but a couple SOBOs as well. Usually we all take time to do the trail meet and greet and say hi. But just not today. All the hikers, thru or not, were just like us, heads down and hauling ass, trying to get someplace dry before the weather turned against us. Later up on the ridge, I got the faintest of signal and was barely able to see through very foggy eyeglasses that the forecast had moved the 50% rain probability back from 1pm to 3pm. It was about that point that I was slightly hopeful that we might actually get back to the car without becoming drenched.

Meanwhile, climbing the ridge, the weather was showing no signs of abating. Once we got up on the ridge, we had to cross through a gap in the rocks, a gap that was fairly sheer on both sides and a place where we really needed good balance and good footing. This gap, being at the very top of the ridge, was exposed to the now 30-plus mile an hour winds and as I was desperately trying not to be blown off the ridge and down the sheer rocks, my 240-lb body was being rocked and I was being tossed about like I was a scrap of paper in the gale-force blasts of icy wind.

Our View Was Like This All Day

Some Rocky Sections
At one point, we went up through some rocks and suddenly found ourselves in a rock tunnel. Ann got through easily enough, but it was a tough squeeze for my huge self. You can see in the photo below the white blaze at the entrance through the boulders.

See The White Blaze?

A Bird-Man Sculpture?

Lots of Rocks on the AT Here
As we crested the ridge successfully and without being blown off, the very rocky trail smoothed out and we put it in gear and moved really quickly. We really wanted to avoid heavy rain starting mid-afternoon and going into the night, coupled with 40-50 mph gusts. The day was already chilly with a temperature in the 40s coupled with relentless 20 mph winds with gusts at times hard enough to almost knock me over. Shreds of clouds were flying by our faces. It was just short of brutal.

At times we could only see a few feet ahead of us for the cloud fog and the icy wind was enough to fog my glasses to the point where I could barely see. Rolling along south on the AT as fast as we could motor, suddenly the Thomas Knob shelter emerged through the fog and my fogged glasses. We were immensely thankful that the wind was directly behind the shelter, letting us sit in relative comfort to bolt some lunch. Just as soon as we sat down, some other 8 or 10 hikers also converged on the shelter for lunch.

Everyone was taking only a five-minute break from the wind, trying to get in miles before the rain. We took our five minutes and promptly left heading south, the others leaving soon after. The Mt. Rogers spur trail is just yards south of the Thomas Knob shelter, heading straight on while the AT veers left. It's a very short and easy climb to the top.

Unfortunately, there's nothing much to see up top, the hill being crowned in a wonderfully eerie cloud forest of spruce and fir, especially the very rare (in the south) Fraser fir, Abies fraseri. For AT hikers, unless you have to say that you bagged Mt. Rogers, this is not a blue blaze for you. All there is to see is a rock in the middle of the woods crowned with a survey marker. There is exactly a zero-degree view as a reward for the short walk up to the summit.

Wild Hydrangea
We noticed up at the top of Mt. Rogers that it seemed like the clouds were lifting a bit. The summit having been bagged, we quickly descended to the AT and headed back the way that we came. The further that we headed north, the more visibility we would have. The clouds started thinning and where we might have had 30 yards visibility in the morning, we could at times see a couple hundred yards to a quarter mile in the afternoon.

We lost the way once on the return trip when the AT turned unexpectedly up the hill (no double blazes) while the Virginia Highland Horse Trail kept on straight. I have no doubt that many hikers make the same mistake. We also found another place where the AT turns without warning while another trail heads straight on. On the way back we took the time to put stone arrows on the ground and mark the location with a small cairn. Hopefully the maintainers will see this and recognize the need for better blazing at this spot.

By the time we got back down into Grayson Highlands Park and 45 minutes from the car, it was clear we would miss the rain and so we could slack off the race pace that we had been on. It is just as well because we had several more wonderful encounters with the ponies and we could take our time near them.

More Ponies

Annie and Nonchalant Ponies

This Little Guy was Shy

This One Was a Pain in the Ass
The final group of ponies included the little brown foal that you see above, trailing its mother. Mom was trying to wean it, but the foal was having none of it. We watched for five minutes or so as it would try to nuzzle up to mom only to have her turn away. Then the foal got aggressive with her to the point where I thought she was going to kick it. This little foal was a certifiable pain in the ass.

We got back to the Jeep very happy to have only been damp and really cold at times, having seen our fill of the wonderful shaggy poines. We both had windburns to show for our hike, but at least we were not soaked to the core. I must say that it felt really good to be in out of the wind. Next, on to Trail Town USA, Damascus VA.

We Missed Trail Days by Two Weeks
From Grayson Highlands, we had planned to make the hour drive to Damascus (it's about 31 miles on the AT from Damascus to Grayson) to grab a late afternoon lunch/early dinner at The Damascus Brewery. Somehow, I goofed my homework on this one: they weren't open and it didn't appear that they serve food even were they open. We drove the couple minutes back into town to our inn, The Old Mill Inn, to get checked in and ask for a recommendation for beer and some hiker food. As we walked in the door I spied on the back wall 16 taps of craft beer. And the restaurant had just opened for the season the day before. Problem solved. I must say that everyone we met at the Inn was just supremely nice to us. It was a pleasure to stay with them.

Late Afternoon Burgers and Beer
After a late afternoon beer and burger, we were stuffed to the point where we wouldn't need dinner and it was now raining to the point where we wouldn't want to go out for dinner anyway. So we went up to our room and looked out at the river (Laurel Creek) behind the inn and the old mill dam just below our balcony.

Our View in the Rain in Damascus

The Mill Dam Below our Balcony
It was at this point that I started reviewing the day's photos on my camera only to find about two hours' worth were so underexposed that the were mostly jet black, including those of the molester pickpocket pony. And then I remembered that I found my camera dial switched to full manual at one point when I thought I was shooting aperture priority. No doubt it got turned as I was snaking through a tight rhododendron patch. One of the downsides of hiking with a big camera.

But one of the upsides is that sometimes you get a picture like this. From the balcony in the rain, I kept seeing a mallard that would fly 4-500 yards upstream, float down a little, swim like crazy to the dam, hop up on the dam, look around for a couple minutes, then take off flying upstream. Lather, rinse, repeat. Over and over, the silly duck.

Silly Mallard on Laurel Creek
So we were tired, windburned, full, and a bit tipsy on local craft brew when we turned in. Friday would be a zero-day for us. We had an optional short AT loop hike that we could do in Damascus on Friday morning, but I could tell the night before that we needed a day off, especially for Ann's knee.

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