Appalachian Trail: Grayson Highlands State Park

Have you ever finished a week and just wanted to get away? That was this week. By the time Friday rolled around, I wanted nothing more than to leave dishes in the sink and work on my desk while I got the heck out of Baltimore.

Labor Day Weekend 2015 Jordan and I planned to go to Grayson Highlands State Park with our friend, Jeff. Thru-hikers had told us about the wild, miniature ponies, abundant rhododendron, and the beautiful sweeping landscapes. Let's be honest, they didn't need to sell us on it beyond the ponies. Anyway, a rainy weather forecast at Grayson Highlands sent us searching for sunshine in the White Mountains. The Highlands stayed on our to-do list.

Cue: Long week at work and early spring Cabin Fever. Jordan and I left Baltimore unsure of whether we were going to Asheville, NC or Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers. Again, the forecast was iffy, but the car was packed with gear and we were southbound. Somewhere along Route 81, we decided it was high time for us to see some wild miniature ponies. However, rather than camping out along the Appalachian Trail as originally planned, we opted to keep our gear dry an extra night by staying at an AirBnB.

I was behind the wheel of a loaner Volkswagen Passat and Jordan was playing navigator. He had found a reasonably priced room for rent at the Cabins at Healing Springs in Jefferson, NC. His nose was buried in his phone looking for directions when I yelped with glee. I startled him. On the rippling hills before us, were thousands upon thousands of Christmas trees in neat rows. It sounds silly, but have you ever seen hundreds of Christmas tree fields? Every hill we crested was another vantage of the pine bounty. It was awesome!

Somewhere between the Christmas tree fields and pulling off the main highway to Healing Springs, we saw a man walking down the road a couple hundred feet from a road crossing of the Appalachian Trail. His huge backpack indicated right off that he was a thru-hiker. I pulled off on the side of the road and we offered him a lift. As I write this, I don't remember the guy's name, but he was black, a little on the pudgy side, and a black, wooden rosary hung from his neck. Before he even sat in the backseat, I asked if he'd mind me rolling the windows down; that thru-hiker funk is always a little too much for an enclosed space. We dropped him off at an area Baptist Church that puts hikers up for the night and he thanked us for our generosity.

As we pulled into Healing Springs, Jordan and I were a little unsure of what to expect. The place was clearly a former resort from days of yesteryear and it seemed as though it just needed a little love. The owner greeted us at the door and showed us our room- a second floor, barn slatted master bedroom with a rustic chic feel. She advised we stay in one of the first floor rooms as temperatures were threatening to drop and the second floor room was unheated. Despite having gear enough, we opted for the warmer room.

Upon entering the room, we laughed to see travel-sized Christmas tree soaps atop the stack of fresh towels. The owner informed us that Jefferson County North Carolina is the number one producer and supplier of Christmas trees in the entire country. That explained the fields!

Jordan and I wandered around the property and found THE Healing Spring. We filled our water bottles and bladders with the magical spring water before driving into town for dinner. Now, I'm not quite sure what the deal was, but the corner restaurant we decided on for dinner was run by the nicest people we have ever met. Everyone- hostess, servers, manager, cooks- was overwhelmingly...nice. Our server had the most earsplitting Southern twang imaginable, but her delightful smile, and the chef checking in on our meals really made the experience. Sitting side by side in a booth while we enjoyed a couple of beers, it began to snow.

The snow came down in big, wet clumps. Yet, when we left the restaurant, the streets were completely clear. Driving back to the Healing Springs required gaining a few hundred feet of elevation and the winding roads quickly found us in a healthy dusting of snow. Jordan and I fell asleep at Healing Springs to the hum of the radiator, crackling of the wood stove, and gentle tapping of snow falling on the windowsills.

Before the sun could crest the tree covered hills surrounding the cabin, we were in the car and heading to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Getting the car on the road required dusting off a crusty 4" of wet, packed snow. The prior evening's snow set the tone for the rest of the trip. We're not strangers to cold weather or snowy days, but curing Spring Fever requires sunshine and warmer days. Mother Nature had other plans in mind.

The trail head we had planned to hike from was gated off and closed. On the fly, we improvised and decided to back track to a road crossing with the Appalachian Trail. The plan was to complete a loop including part of the AT, Mount Rogers, and Grayson Highlands. After forty minutes of trekking through snow covered rhododendron leaves in cold, wet weather, we turned back for the car. Jordan was coping with the less than ideal weather than I was. When we returned to the car, with backpacks packed for two days and two nights of trekking, I felt a little defeated, but there was one glimmering hope still left for the trip: wild, miniature ponies!

Jordan navigated us to Grayson Highlands State Park. If you've never been, the park is a gorgeous area in the Blue Ridge Mountains with expansive views of the mountains of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. The park would be an exceptional option for a day trip or a weekend car camping trip. There are camping amenities within the park.

With all plans thrown out the window and nothing but ponies on the brain, we parked the car at Massie's Gap and began hiking towards the Wilburn Ridge (map). The wind was piercing and the temperatures were far from the winter reprieve I had hoped for. Bundled up, Jordan and I weren't even 10 minutes along the trail and we spotted the herd of ponies. We have since learned that there are two herds of ponies, a north herd and a south herd. The ponies were doing exactly what I would be doing if I lived outside and the weather was as biting and numbing as it was- hiding. As we approached the ponies, it became apparent that they were using the natural topography to cower from the wind.

I definitely expected the ponies to be skittish, but their fat bellies and calm demeanor around us indicated that they were more interested in harassing people for Trail Mix snacks than running away. I didn't mind the opportunity to get a few photos with the ponies which looked particularly majestic amidst the snowy landscape.

Despite the roaring wind, Jordan and I continued up the trail to the top of the ridge. The views were worth braving the cold. For people who may forget that the east coast has mountains, this is the place to go. Standing atop the ridge, and allowing my body to fall against the wind was exhilarating. After cowering down behind some rocks for lunch, Jordan and I decided to head back to the car. Though the trip hadn't gone as planned, it wasn't a total bust. We saw the ponies again on our way out. For the most part, they were stationed in the same location, but now they were aggressively eating the barely visible grass- maybe the bellies weren't solely from Trail Mix! Jordan and I rehashed the trip over a couple of flights at Soaring Ridge Craft Brewery in Roanoke, VA. Their beers are divine! Really delicious stuff! I particularly liked the names which included Night Hiker, Dragon's Tooth, White Top, and Twisted Stump. It didn't hurt that they had an awesome food truck on site and that they're dog friendly. After finishing our flights and settling back into the car for the long drive back to Baltimore, there was no hesitation in deciding that though we saw the ponies, Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers are still on the to-do list.

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