Grayson Highlands State Park

State parks had not been on my radar as I tend to focus on national parks. Out of no particular reason other than the national parks tend to be better known. It’s not to say I don’t go to them.. I just haven’t gone out of my way to make them the primary destination.

Enter Grayson Highlands. Again, no the ultimate destination, as my focus was to get my summit in and I settled with Mount Rogers, highest natural point of Virginia. When someone heard of my plans to summit Mount Rogers, he said to focus on nearby Grayson Highlands.

What a wonderful recommendation it ended up being. I spent two whole days in the park, walking every single marked trail. Had I more time, I’d start venturing more off the trails. Weekdays, it also felt like I had the whole place to myself, a wonderful bonus in pandemic times.

Grayson Highlands sits between Virginia’s two highest peaks, Mt Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, elevated at over 5,000 ft above sea level. Grayson features a striking landscape of the balds, crests covered by low vegetation and wild grass instead of the more typical woods of the mountain ranges.

Because of its elevation, it has a whole different climate. Swaths of the land are the balds, grassy treeless rolling fields so wind is pretty blustery. By the end of my trip, I had wished for my fleece beanie and gloves.

The popular attraction is probably the “wild” ponies. “Wild” because they have no fear of humans and are released deliberately to graze on the balds and keep vegetation under control. But the park itself boasts a range of activities including trout fishing and horseback riding. Trails are designed to accommodate mountain bikers along with hikers and riders.

I caught the fall foliage by chance and what a gorgeous view. The park offered multiple view points of not just the balds but the series of peaks all around. Being in a mountain range doesn’t hurt one’s appreciation of the dramatic surroundings. The variety in the landscape was astounding – each trail featured something different.

This is probably the wettest hiking trip I’ve had in a long time. Which made me realize how fortunate I have been all these years. Fortunately, most the rain came in spurts, even when heavy. So I was able to try to squeeze the trails inbetween during the lulls. It sure felt like I had mud in my ears by the time the trip was done.

I made the disgusting mistake of trying to take a horse trail. Ugh. No amount of stomping in running streams could help my sense of gross. Even the dog wasn’t impressed. Sticking to the foot trails from this point, thankyoueverymuch.

2020 Summit: Mt Rogers

2020 is quite a year, isn’t it? I almost forgot to carve out time for my annual summit.

Staying closer to home this time around. It’s overdue. I know embarrassingly little about my own backyard.

Mount Rogers. Highest peak in the state of Virginia.
Elevation: 5,729ft above sea level
Jefferson National Forest
Range: Blue Ridge Mountains

I opted for the more straightforward trail, approaching from the Appalachian Trail spur to the west. While my goal was to get my summit, a recommendation was to get it done and spend more of the time exploring the nearby Grayson Highlands State Park (more on that in another post).

The hike was not technically challenging, but uphill enough most of the time to work up a sweat. What a beautiful route it was! My timing coincided with the beginning of fall foliage, which made my New England heart giddy. The landscape started with green rolling cow pastures than quickly turned into woods.


The trail crossed enough running streams that the trail sometimes because ministreams, making S super happy to paw around in running water. Despite my own series of bad mishaps with wet trails in the past, something about the bubbling water sound is music to my soul. Must be my affinity to water in general. This was a very wet trail. The fact that it rained earlier likely didn’t help.


We crossed over to the balds, a geological feature seen across multiple points on the Appalachians, where the summits and crests are covered with grassy vegetation instead of the more common tree cover. This are in particular, the state has released semi-wild ponies to help keep trees from growing. The ponies are often roaming in Grayson but we found ourselves following some up the trail. Even the vegetation was in full fall foliage colors.

The actual summit did not offer a view. It remains tree covered, a charming change. The surrounding area was damper than the lower elevation, resulting with an eerie but beautiful mossy look with sunlight streaming in lines. I felt like I walked into a movie scene. And I am reminded how much I enjoy hiking, as little as I do it.

In my backyard

Well, where do I start. Global pandemic has a way of snuffing out exciting travel plans. Instead, it becomes a time to explore our own backyards. Two years in my current house, I actually knew very little about my neighborhood. The last months have definitely changed that. Walks become photo ops. Dogs’ stopping becomes a time to look around and take in all the details.

Canberra National Gallery of Australia

We asked our hosts to see an Aboriginal exhibit. We’ve enjoyed our stay in Australia, but we wanted to give a nod to the native Australia culture. Off to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) we went.

Bonus: museum is free. There was a traveling exhibit from the Tate (London) which required tickets but the rest is open to all. Knowing my history with art museums, we skipped the tickets.

NGA has two Australian exhibits of note: collections of Australian art. The collections varied from Victorian era Impressionist paintings to modern sculptures and photography.

Indigenous art. The pieces are also wide ranging in time period. NGA holds the largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art so I can imagine how much rotation they had. Interestingly, they had a warning at the entrance to their earlier pieces:

Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people are advised that they may see images and names of recently deceased Indigenous people. All such references have been reproduced with the permission of the appropriate representative family members, where possible. 

Definitely a cultural sensitivity.

NGA does not explain the differences between Indigenous groups. Their focus is exhibiting art, and giving necessary description of the artist and artwork. If one wishes to understand Aboriginal culture and tribes, this is not the place to come.

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The animal you never knew you wanted to hold

For those of us uninformed, when we think of Australia animals, we think kangaroos, koalas, Tasmanian devils. For those with a little more background, we may even think the gazillion poisonous snakes and spiders that wander around here.

How about them wombats?

Funny looking marsupials, closely related to koalas but burrow in the ground. They have pouches where they carry their babies and a very hard boney backside, which they use to snap at predators. It is not unheard of to see dead predators with broken heads and necks laying by the entrance of a wombat burrow.

OK, I’ll be honest. They are ugly animals. But the babies are SO CUTE!!!!!

We paid a visit to Majors Creek Wombat Refuge, a small self-run self-funded refuge focused on saving injured wombats. Most wombats they get are hit by cars or have mothers hit by cars. At the time of our visit, they have over ten babies in their care. And a few adults waiting to be released back into the wild.

The owner, Bill, has converted his large farm land into a series of wombat pens. The younger the babier, the more enclosed the pen, to protect from predators and disease carrying rodents. The older the wombat, the more open the pen.. although Bill admits he is losing the battle to their burrowing habits. Some of the metal walls he as put up are more buried than above ground.

We actually didn’t see many full grown wombats. Most of them were underground except for a couple that have been too injured to survive on their own.

 

For the babies, Bill and his wife fashioned fleece pouches from donated clothing. They had cut off the arms off the sweaters, sewed up the arm and neck openings, and hung the pouch off the side of the pens. The babies just knew to look for them, many of the more mobile ones automatically climbing into the pocket on their own to curl up and shut us out.

I never knew I wanted to meet a wombat.. let alone hold one. But, yes, I did. They made very little sound, and just wanted to be held in a warm embrace.. as if they were back in a pouch.