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.

All Aboard!! Badlands National Park

Ever since I saw photos from friends’ vacation at the Badlands, I’ve wanted to go. If people thought I was crazy to take the train in an indirect route, those friends drove all the way from the East Coast. Direct, but speedy, it wasn’t.

I didn’t know what to expect. I just saw photos and was enamored with the notion of taking equally cool photos. I didn’t know whether the cliffs went up or down.

I didn’t expect the Badlands to be so vast and sudden to the landscape.. yet so contained. It felt like I was still driving on flat midwestern plains when the ground suddenly opened up and dropped into crevices. Then half way through, it felt the other way around.. I descended down and was looking up at the colorful array of the buttes.

I was startled to see so many motorcycles. It took a while to realize, belatedly, that I am in South Dakota the time when it seems the most people in the year: Sturgis motorcycle rally. What a backdrop it was, with the swarms of motorcycles thundering by the ancient sandstone landscape.

I climbed up Saddle Pass.. and the shape felt exactly like it was called, a saddle. Steep at times, I found myself glancing below my toes nervously. I know it’s bad when I adjust to sling my camera across my chest so I free up both hands and knees. I didn’t hike beyond the actual climb. A true disadvantage of traveling alone is needing to plan my hikes so that I end up back where I left the car. The path was surprisingly solid. I don’t know why I had the impression the ground would be softer, I just did.

I was determined to hike more of the park, though. The landscape leveled out to grassy plains on the western end. I started using every pull over to explore for walking paths. The loop road that traversed the park took less than an hour to cover and, yet, with 244,000 acres of natural wildlife, I itched to explore the place more. Especially given its claim as the largest expanse of protected prairie ecosystem in the American national parks. Near the west entrance, I found myself looking at the flat plains, hankering a good walk.

I found a nice wide lot perfect for parking the car. I pulled over and stepped out to examine if there were signs of any beaten paths to follow. I had barely walked five steps when I levitated, jumping up a good distance into the air, as a rattle snake snapped at my flipflopped toes.

Right then, my desire to hike disappeared and I scampered back in to the car to drive back for the day.

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Weekly A-Z Archive: D for Dread

Sightseeing and climbing many ancient ruins in Southeast Asia lead to a very unpleasant discovery about myself: I have acrophobia, fear of heights. It’s not just the niggling worry of getting too close to the ledge. I actually get lightheaded, imbalanced when I peer down.

It seems to be a recent development. A bit of an inconvenience considering how I like to frame Downward pictures because I find them Dramatic. And that I like to rock-climb, hike, ride horses, ski… What a bother, this condition.

At the Angkor Wat sites:

Whoa. Fish eye does a wonderful job of distorting proportion to reflect my dizzy spell.

Climbing at the Badlands National Park, South Dakota:

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Inspired by frizztext.