virginia hikes: Grayson Highlands loop, July 27 2019

My friends, Chris and Tori, had long talked about heading out to Grayson Highlands State Park to camp out and doing some bouldering. While my lackluster climbing skills and commitment to get better at climbing would steer me away from their bouldering activities, I said I would join them camping. One of my favorite hikes in Virginia is located in Grayson Highlands and I looked forward returning since my last trip out there was five years ago. I would go for a hike while they climbed. A sunny, but abnormally cool summer weekend at the end July finally motivated them to do the trip, so I couldn’t say no.

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New lab member Natalie also joined us at the last minute, she had also been looking to hike in Grayson Highlands as well since arriving in Virginia.

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index

1 Grayson Highland State Park costs and camping information
2 climbing in Grayson Highlands State Park
hiking in Grayson Highlands State Park
      3.1 information
      3.2 report
      3.3 ratings
backcountry camping report
trip video

Grayson Highlands State Park costs and camping

Grayson Highlands State Park is just on the edge of what we’d consider a comfortable drive for a day’s adventure based on where we live. So camping a night would make it most comfortable even if it meant driving back the next morning, which is what we ended up doing.

Virginia State Parks have recently increased in costs with the growing popularity in the outdoors and the subsequent need to upkeep the infrastructure. For a long time, it was USD$3 per vehicle, but currently it is USD$10 for a weekend visit during high season and USD$7 otherwise. We also paid USD$8 for the overnight backpacker parking fee. Our total was USD$18 for each car. More details on fees, including the USD$75 annual Virginia State parks pass can be found on the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) webpage. Do note that the State Park Annual pass is not the National Park’s America the Beautiful pass.

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Front country drive up campsites at Grayson Highlands needs to be booked ahead online (Reserve America) for USD$21 a night. There are however plenty of private front country campsites around the park and within Jefferson National Forest.

However the cheapest camping option is to just pack a backpack and camp in the backcountry just outside of the park (there is no backcountry camping allowed within the State Park itself – DCR webpage). The Wise Shelter just beyond the northern edge of the park is intended for through, section hikers, and groups no larger than 4, so the park specified backpackers not to camp there. If you were looking to camp in the area, you just have to go a little further north on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and cross Big Wilson Creek. There you can camp anywhere suitable as long as you follow leave no trace principles.

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Wise Shelter is meant only for through and section AT hikers. You can camp further north along the AT just across Big Wilson Creek following leave no trace principles.

Our plan was to head south on the AT instead and exit the park into the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (MRNRA). The Thomas Knob shelter is a few miles southbound on the AT, however like the Wise Shelter, it is intended for through and section AT hikers. We would have been happy if there were frontcountry campsite available, but there were none on this beautiful weekend so we made due. Furthermore, it allowed Tori and Basil (Chris and Tori’s dog) a shakedown backpacking experience since they hadn’t done if before.

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Entering MRNRA on the AT southbound after exiting Grayson Highlands State Park.

Lastly, due to the popularity of backpacking around Grayson Highlands, there will be new online reservation for overnight backpackers parking spots (Reserve America) coming into effect October 2019. As the notice also points out, there are several other trailhead parking locations (such as RT600 at Elk Garden or RT603 along Fox Creek – google maps) you can utilize outside the park to help with the effects of overuse in the park. These alternative trailhead also save you the park entrance fee.

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climbing in Grayson Highlands

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Before I get into my hike in Grayson Highlands, I’ll briefly touch on the bouldering available there. Most of the information is through Chris and Tori. Their main guide was through The Mountain Project, however many of the instructions on the webpage just pointed to the book “Grayson Highlands Bouldering” by Aaron Parlier (Amazon affiliate link).

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The guidebook is readily available at the visitor center. There is also an support page (Grayson Highlands Bouldering) with book updates and additional tips regarding climbing at Grayson Highlands State Park.

Lastly, according to Grayson Highlands Boulderings, the park office has four Misty Mountain Highlander crash pads for rent at USD$5 a day.

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hiking in Grayson Highlands

information

  • name: Grayson Highlands loop (gps track – alltrails wikiloc)
  • type: loop
  • distance:  8.5 miles
  • elevation change:  1694 ft ascent and descent
  • time:  5:40 hours (est 4 hours with breaks)
  • location: Grayson Highlands State Park near Damascus, VA (google map directions)
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red line = correct path; purple line = my path including off trail mistakes, exploration, and doodling

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There is a large network of trails within the Grayson Highlands State Park and outside of the park in Jefferson National Forests. So there are plenty of loops and in and out hikes you can put together around the park itself. Some of the more popular hikes include the tallest peak in Virginia, Mount Rogers. However, that is more about the achievement than the view since it is covered among the trees (wikipedia – yes I’m referencing wikipedia since I’ve actually never took the effort to go up there).

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Trail map with descriptions of Grayson Highlands State Park upon entrance.

My favorite hike within the park loops together the best that the park has to offer all within a day hike and stays mainly within the park itself. I originally found it on an old and perhaps now defunct site (trailheadfinders.com) in 2013 referencing the hike described in the book “50 Hikes in Southern Virginia: From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, First Edition” by Leonard Adkins (Amazon affiliate link). This is an hike that I also haven’t seen in other online publications on Hiking Upwards or AllTrails even though both has plenty of other options. Most of trail descriptions also miss my favorite section, Wilson Creek Trail.

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report

Our plan for the weekend was that Natalie and I would do our hike while Chris and Tori bouldered around the park. After our hike, we’d meet up and do a short hike with our overnight packs out to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (MRNRA) to camp in the backcountry. So Natalie and I parked at the overnight backpackers parking lot when we arrived and left most of our gear in the car except a day pack with snacks and water. If you aren’t staying overnight, there are plenty of day parking at Massie Gap along SR362.

It was 9:50 am when we left the parking lot toward Massie Gap to start out hike, since we needed to use the toilet after the drive. Alternatively, there is an AT cutoff trail that we could have taken as well.

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It was a short incline over 0.2 miles when we reached the major intersection and the bathroom located near the day parking area.

After our restroom break, we officially started on our hike by heading north on the Rhododendron trail which gains elevation at about a 8.0% grade over a half of a mile. The Rhododendron trail splits a couple times on the way up, but they all end up at the same place. There are warning signs of not feeding or petting the Ponies as we would enter their territory right away. I wish I could say everyone obeyed these signs, but there is a reason why I know of a few stories of through hikers that having to fend the ponies off from their dinners.

We had only taken a few steps when the first ponies made their appearance. Once the trail leaves the tree and continues onto Wilburn Ridge, that’s where many ponies can be found.

At the end of Rhododendron trail is the junction with the AT, which we took northbound.

The AT northbound continues with a very slight elevation gain over the next 2/3 of a mile cutting through Rhododendron bushes

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Rhododendron in full bloom in June 2013.

and a few rock outcrops. The first of the outcrops are the most popular but also the end of the crowds on the hike. Most people hang out here before heading back. This is where we ran into Chris and Tori looking for bouldering problems.

They would eventually able to find them after relenting and buying the book “Grayson Highlands Bouldering” by Aaron Parlier (Amazon affiliate link) from the visitor center. Some of the bouldering problems were on the outcrops further along on our hike.

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A benefit of meeting up with Chris and Tori here was that we were able to make our post hike and their post climb rendezvous plans, which would have been difficult since cell service mostly nonexistent in the park.

After the outcrops on Wilburn ridge, we reached the junction with the previously mentioned AT Spur Trail from the overnight backpackers lot. We continued on the AT northbound as the trail begin to drop off Wilburn Ridge at about a -6.7% grade over the next 1.4 miles.

About half mile from the junction, the trail crosses the Quebec Branch over a wooden bridge and exits Grayson Highlands State Park through a fence gate. The moisture here lead us to find plenty of mushrooms and Rhododendron.

The trail then follows the fenced parameter of the state park with several muddy spots.

The trail crosses back into the state park through a gate. This is where you have to keep an eye out for blazes that indicate the trail branching off to the right even though there is a false trail that continues straight. We took the wrong trail this time around leading us to a fire ring, which is a good sign that you missed the turn off. Instead of doubling back, we ended up bushwhacking along the park perimeter until we reached the Wise Shelter camping area. Again, the state parks specifies that the shelter and camping area around it is for AT through and section hikers. The park specifies camping for park visitor to camp beyond Big Wilson Creek following leave no trace principles.

Big Wilson Creek is actually immediately after the Wise shelter continuing on the AT northbound, so it’s not much further and there is a bridge in place for the crossing.

The next quarter of a mile on the AT consists of an area of tall grass and then some rock hopping over marshy land before the next junction, which is just before the bridge crossing Wilson Creek. Here we turned right off the AT on the Wilson Creek Trail that will follow Wilson Creek downstream and back into Grayson Highlands State Park.

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A few short steps on the Wilson Creek Trail, we arrive at the junction for the Scales Trail branching off to the left just before the water crossing back across Big Wilson Creek, which drains into Wilson Creek. You might have to ford Big Wilson Creek as we found a large group doing. However, there are some rocks around that you could jump on to avoid getting your feet too wet.

From the ford of Big Wilson Creek, the Wilson Creek Trail is an old fire road that is shared with horses. There are a few areas where a stream will run across the trail and required hoping on a few rocks to avoid getting our feets wet. We stayed on the Wilson Creek Trail for the 2/3 of a mile without much elevation change. While this portion of the hike isn’t the most interesting, do pay attention for the trail branching off to the left. This is the Wilson Creek Trail for hikers and is easy to miss.

The Wilson Creek Trail for hikers drops down to Wilson Creek itself and follows it for about 3 quarters of a mile dropping at about a -7.4% grade. You should plan more time you time than you think for this section because of all the amazing cascades and swimming holes.

This portion Wilson Creek is my favorite section of the loop, but I’m bias toward rushing cascades over ponies.

At the beginning and end of the hiker only section of Wilson Creek Trail, there are little shelters for you to relax in, though I’d much rather do that on a bluff over the creek.

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The end of the downhills, Wilson Creek Trail junctions with an unnamed trail that you can take out of the park to Highlands Parkway (an unverified alternative access to the park following Wilson Creek – Google Maps) and Upchurch Road, another disused fireroad that junctions with the Wilson Creek Horse Trail. Stay on the Wilson Creek Hiking Trail to start the climb up to the Hickory Ridge Campground in a half mile at about 11.4% grade crossing Upchurch Road once. There is a bathroom, vending machine, a small store, and a potable water spicket behind the store at the entrance of Hickory Ridge Campground.

The store was very well stocked and it even had a slushy machine. I bought a pop, refilled my water, and found the Stamper’s Branch Trail behind the little amphitheater to continue on our loop. Should you be short of daylight, you can take the Horse Trail East (which parallels the road to the campgrounds) back to main parking area.

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The Stamper’s Branch Trails isn’t of much interest going through the woods. For the first 2/3 of a mile, it drops very slightly until a small stream called Wilburn Branch. There is another shelter here and a fire ring, probably reminiscent of the days when backcountry camping was still allowed in the state park. The the uphill toward the Visitor Center begin by climbing 700 ft over just under a mile at roughly 14.3% grade. Just under half way up the hill, we crossed SR362.

The Visitor Center has a store, nice bathrooms, and historical exhibits about the area. The main road of the park, SR362, ends here, so expect more crowds.

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We continued on our loop after a bathroom break by take the Twin Pinnacles Trail. Should you be doing just the pinnacles, there is a small loop here. We took the left trail after the trailhead to reached the pinnacles.

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To reach the Little Pinnacles, it is a short quarter mile hike an incline of 8.1% grade. Along the way there is a cool tree growing over a boulder worth looking at and another shelter.

The Little Pinnacle, sitting at 5089 ft, provides a nice vista to the southwest. It is the highest point on the loop.

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Layered ridges are part the classic Virginia vista.
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Meg scrambling among the rocks at Little Pinnacle back in 2013.

Continuing on, the trail starts to lose some elevation toward the Big Pinnacle before a final uphill to the Big Pinnacle. Along the way, there are some nice boulders here for climbing.

Big Pinnacle sitting at 5068 ft provides another nice vista, though the field of view is smaller than the Little Pinnacle.

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From the Big Pinnacle, it was a steep downhill at -15.3% grade over 0.4 miles back to Massie Gap and the day use parking area.

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We had a few more steps to return to the overnight parking area to pick up our backpacking gear and meet up with Chris and Tori.

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ratings (1-5; click link for detailed breakdown)

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  • views: 3. This hike is currently my number 2 ranked hike in the Virginia Area. It just has everything you could want in a hike. First there are wild ponies lounging around and posing for your shots. Then there are boulders you can scramble up on or climb on should you have the skills and the crashpads. You can then cool off in the swimming holes or just relax by the rushing cascades on Wilson Creek. Lastly, you can head up to the Pinnacles to look off in the distance with a skyline consisting of layered blue mountain ridges. Plus it isn’t all that crowded outside of the initial section with the ponies. That’s everything I look for in a Virginia Hike.
  • difficulty: 2. The elevation profile for the hike isn’t bad at all, however the uphills at the end up to the pinnacles can provide more tiring at the end of the day. I always do feel this hike is more tiring in general because of the amount of time I end up spending scrambling along the boulders or exploring the views of the cascades.
  • technical: 2. Most of the trails were pretty well signed with trail names, but you will need to know where you are going. There are a few junctions that are not so clear and I did miss a trail marker leading to some off trail bushwacking this time around. So navigation is the main technical skill that’s useful. There are no scrambling on the main trail, but some off trail views will require some.

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backcountry camping report

With our packs now, we set off to find a camping spot for the night. As I specified earlier, our plan was to head south on the AT exit Grayson Highlands State Park into Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (MRNRA) and stop at the first place we liked, preferably with a view.

information

  • name: Massie Gap to Wilburn Ridge (gps track – alltrails wikiloc)
  • type: in and out
  • distance:  3.9 miles
  • elevation change:  730 ft ascent and descent
  • time:  1:40 moving time
  • location: Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area near Damascus, VA (google map directions)

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report

Since we were only staying overnight, my pack was pretty light and relatively empty. So I opted to fill the empty space with beers and some pulled pork. We once again hiked up the Rhododendron to the AT junction.

This time, we turned left to head southbound on the AT. From the junction, it was 0.6 miles with a slight uphill at 3.6% grade until we reached the state park boundaries. We found plenty of raspberry bushes with many ripe ones along the AT in this section.

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After crossing the gate into MRNRA, we started to look for a good camp spot. There were a few areas right after the gate, but they were in the trees with no views.

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So we would climb up onto the next bench of Wilburn Ridge over the next half a mile at about a 9.6% grade. It felt much worse now that I had a bigger pack on me at the end of the day. The bench had a nice overview onto the rest of Wilburn Ridge and Massie Gap to the east. As such, there several other tents in the area already set up.

We ended up finding suitable spots without a pile of pony or cow pies in the area after looking around for a few minutes. I ended up on a bluff above the trail.

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After setting up camp, we headed over to an opposite bluff with a better view for happy hour and dinner. Conveniently, this was also far enough from our camp. There are plenty of ponies and steers grazing among the grass here, so a proper food hang or bear canisters is recommended. This is more for the purpose of preventing the wildlife from getting use to and subsequently seeking out human food.

The sunset was just so so from here with the sun disappearing behind the highest point of Wilburn Ridge and Mount Rogers early,

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sunrise from here was excellent.

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Even though this was a short hike (2 miles one way) into the backcountry, it provided both Tori and Basil (Chris and Tori’s dog) a first backpacking experience. The short hike allowed them to do a shakedown and let them test how well their 1 year old dog would fare sleeping in a tent with other animals milling around. I’d say it went well.

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After sunrise, we packed up and hiked the 2 miles back to our cars.

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Natalie and I headed directly back from there since both of us had other plans for the day, but Chris and Tori stopped at the Corner Market and Cafe (Yelp) for breakfast on their way out. They recommend checking it out for a cheap and large meal.

ratings (1-5; click link for detailed breakdown)

  • views: 2. As a day hike, heading up toward the peak of Wilburn Ridge will give you another vista, but not too dissimilar from the rock piles near the end of the Rhododendron Trail. So mainly, you’ll hike this to see a little bit more and cover larger ground to see the ponies Grayson Highlands is known for.
  • difficulty: 1. 
  • technical: 1. There are several parallel trails that split heading up toward the peak of Wilburn Ridge, but they are well signed and end up pretty much at the same place.

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Written by John

I'm a graduate student that likes to hike and travel.

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