Grayson Highlands has been on my “to hike” list for over a year after I first learned about the wild ponies that inhabit the ridge. The wild horses on the beaches of Corolla are well-documented, but I’d never heard of these ponies just over the border in the Virginia mountains. Since mountains always win over the beach, we simply had to visit!
Supposedly, the trail where the wild ponies are most common is very popular so we chose a cloud-free Saturday in early March with no chance of rain and temperatures cold enough to deter the masses.
The drive from Raleigh to Grayson Highlands State Park in the southwest corner of Virginia is long for a day trip, but doable. Nearly four hours in the car each way is rewarded with spectacular trail views and, of course, seeing the ponies up close!
After driving for four hours, we arrived at the park’s Massie Gap parking lot. Paved parking here is plentiful and there were mostly empty spaces on this chilly morning. In fact, temperatures never broke out of the 30s the entire day but we were bundled up and the cold air never bothered any of us.
Upon arrival, we quickly ate our packed lunch in the car. There are picnic tables available, but it was too cold to eat outside!
Now, I’d done a little bit of research on the trails in this area. I knew to park at Massie Gap and that ponies were often seen along the Rhododendron Trail. I’d also seen photos of a rock scramble nearby.
With several trails criss-crossing the ridge, we set out to create a loop by heading up the ridge via the Rhododendron Trail, take the Appalachian Trail north, and then head back to the parking lot via the AT spur. I assumed the rock scramble would be along this route. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. But let’s continue anyway…
Tummies full, we set out on the Rhododendron Trail from the parking lot. This trail is a mile long and is marked “difficult” on the official park map, but we didn’t find it difficult at all! It’s a fairly straight shot up and this is where we encountered our first herd of ponies including a particularly stubborn brown one who stood his ground in the middle of the trail. We heard him whinny in his best Monty Python black knight voice, “None shall pass.”
We reached the Appalachian Trail at the top of the Wilburn Ridge where we changed direction northward. Remember this trail intersection. We’ll be back later!
We followed the white blazes, passing a few other hikers, dodging mud from melting snow (me) or walking right through it (the boys), and starting down the spur when we reached the junction. Snow remained in shaded areas of the trail and we loved the crystallized structures created in the ice.
We hadn’t encountered a rock scramble yet and as we began down the AT spur, it was clear that there was no rock scramble ahead. Rather than go all the way to the parking lot, we turned around and retraced our steps southbound on the AT back to the intersection with the Rhododendron Trail. From that intersection, we chose a new path south on the AT.
At this point, where the Appalachian Trail continues south after intersecting the Rhododendron Trail, a horse trail roughly parallels the AT southbound to the park boundary, but we stayed on the AT as it was narrower and we expected less, um, evidence of ponies. Well, “evidence” was on littered both trails so that didn’t much matter!
We found the second herd just inside the park boundary in a meadow where the AT and horse trail finally merge. Beyond, the trail exits Grayson Highlands State Park through a gate in a fence and continues through the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. There were a few ponies on this side of the fence as well.
We continued hiking, still hoping to find the rock scramble. The trail was getting rockier so it was promising. We asked a hiker going the opposite direction to assured us it was shortly ahead.
And this is where we somehow made another error, but it was a happy accident. The AT on which we were hiking bypasses the rock scramble while the Wilburn Ridge Trail plows straight through, paralleling the AT, and then meeting up with it again on the other side. Fortunately, we made the mistake of getting off the AT at the fork with the Wilburn Ridge Trail. We like to think of ourselves as fairly experienced hikers, but made the newbie mistake of not noticing that the white blazes of the AT had changed to the blue blazes of the Wilburn Ridge Trail!
Fortunately, we DID make that mistake, though! The scramble was great. We found a high point to sit and rest, and take in the view. It was VERY windy so we didn’t continue on and turned around at that point, back down the AT, back to the Rhododendron Trail that led us back to our car.
In total, we were hiking on the mountain for four hours, covering around six miles. This was our clumsiest hike in a while, but we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I wouldn’t have hiked it any other way!
However, for those wanting more direct directions to the rock scramble via pony-frequented areas: Park at Massie Gap, hike up the Rhododendron trail, head south on the AT, and then take the Wilburn Ridge Trail at the fork outside of the park boundaries. That’s the most direct way to the rock scramble, incredible 360-degree views, and likely passing several herds of ponies!