During a really warm and mild winter, I saw the temperatures finally drop on the forecast for last weekend. With rain and storms coming through, along with high temps dropping from the 60s on Friday to 20s and below on Sunday, I decided it was a perfect weekend to do some exploring of Grayson Highlands and adjacent wilderness areas in Virginia without as many folks as usually frequent this incredibly scenic area.
I started from Elk Garden trailhead on Highway 600 just north of the VA-NC line. I chose this rather than the popular Massie Gap trailhead in the scenic Grayson Highlands State Park. Due to its easy access and popularity, Massie Gap is overly crowded with day hikers, trail runners, backpackers, and others even on bad weather days. I have nothing against any of those folks, but when I want a quiet weekend in the woods, I drop into that calm mindset much faster without a lot of folks around.
From Elk Garden you quickly transition into a forested path along the AT and enter Lewis Fork Wilderness.
Mossy rocks, trees and other formations along the trail seemed like old familiar friends as I recognized a few from my trip last winter down the AT.
One of my favorite sections of this access to Mt Rogers is walking along the AT in the ecotone (transition zone) between the mid-elevation hardwood forest and the evergreen high elevation forest of Mt Rogers. I had to keep moving at a good pace as I arrived late in the afternoon and wanted to camp along Pine Mountain about 4-5 miles from the trailhead.
I got my first glimpse of Grayson Highland’s famous ponies on the way past Mt Rogers.
As the sun set behind me, I collected water at Thomas Knob shelter and found a decent campsite in the shelter of the edge of the forest about a half mile further down the trail.
I got a few low light shots of the view from where I ate my evening meal outside the treeline.
That night the winds picked up (not unusual for this area) as a front came through and the temperatures began their pretty consistent descent from the 60’s to the teens over 48 hours.
I woke up to almost a complete white out on the ridge outside the tent (remember this photo for reference later on my exit), thunder and lightning, and steady rain.
Since this was a relaxed wandering trip through the high country, I decided to lounge around in the tent until the lightning stopped and enjoyed some extra coffee.
Then I enjoyed a rainy morning hike along a portion of the AT as well as Pine Mountain Trail – one of my favorites in this area. Due to the storms and rain, I didn’t see anyone until close to lunch time.
The rain began to lighten and the clouds and mist gradually receded, revealing the beautiful views of this area that reminds me sometimes of my homeland of Scotland.
I love the misty forest along the PMT with moss-covered rocks and beech trees changing to scrub and open views then back again.
Even the highland ponies looked soaked today.
But finally the skies began to open up and the views came with it.
The sun changed the mood of the forest, although I personally love the misty “dreich” days (Scottish description that fits well for the morning) but the sunlight is refreshing if it doesn’t bring heat and humidity.
Per my plan, I headed off trail before the PMT rejoined the AT to do some exploring. It’s always interesting what you can find if you do a little homework with topography and aerial photos before the trip. Things like…
An old school bus that seems to be used for hay storage now but would have been a nice little hermit shelter.
Nice “shelter rocks” that could allow for future campsites on windy days.
And grand old trees still standing despite the heavy use of the Grayson Highlands area in the past.
So here is where the fun begins, and I’ll take you through my “process”. Seeing Pine Mountain in the distance and knowing that there are several sheltered but beautiful spots to camp for the cold night ahead, I decided it would be fun to try to get there “cross-country” following horse trails and wandering through the brush.
As usual, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I even found on closer inspection of the wall of scrub a few horse trails I could crawl through, although they are difficult to see below.
Long story short…after an hour or so of scrambling and crawling through thicket and bog, including calf deep wetlands at the upper end of Wilson Creek, I emerged on the Crest Trail a quarter mile later! Worn out and happy I planned to water up at a spring and head a bit west to a camp site I had picked out ahead of time, passing a few horses along the way.
However, at the junction of the PMT and Crest Trail near the spring, I found a young boy scout looking around wondering where the rest of his troop had gone. I kept him company and headed east instead of west until we caught up with the troop, then decided to camp in some shelter of trees off the trail after being worn out by my cross country excursion.
I found a nice spot with some decent views at the edge of the forest but with a sheltered campsite inside the treeline.
I settled in with full cold weather gear on as it had already dropped below freezing with winds of 30 plus mph (best guess).
I enjoyed brief trips out to the open balds to take some photos and soak in the beauty of the sunset. However, with wind chills to the negatives I spent a good bit of time nestled in my tent reading and relaxing while cooking dinner.
Like the reading glasses with a balaclava? I guess you could call this the learned terrorist look!
The next morning temperatures were hovering around 10 degrees without the wind, that was still steady, and everything was frosted over and very pretty. Due to my diversion to walk with the boy scout, I had a few extra miles to do so hopped onto the PMT and AT and made good time with the cold wintry weather limiting stops.
Here are a few photos from the trip back to Elk Garden on the frosty morning…
And a few more after it warmed up to nearly 30!
Note the tree below is the same as in my “white-out” shot from earlier. Different angle but you can see the difference 24 hours makes (or even a couple of hours).
Back to the forest and more interesting features like a tree that looks like it dove in head-first…
And several mossy rock-covered slopes…
And finally out to Elk Garden and the car in time to get back and clean up everything before dinner!
See you on (or off?) the trail sometime!