Day One | Day Two | Day Three
My rule-of-thumb for any adventure is to make sure the time spent on the activity is at least as great as the time spent traveling to get there. With a 6.5 hour one-way commute to the destination, my long weekend of hiking might just barely fall within the narrow confines of this rule.
Why would someone drive so far for two days of hiking? Obviously, there are several nice places much closer to home. But are they as nice as the highlands of southern Virginia? I would soon see.
Day One: Saturday, June 13, 2009
Our first day of hiking would not be until tomorrow. I was feeling a little antsy just thinking about sitting in my small Subaru Impreza for 6.5 hours. I was also longing to get back out on the water in my S1-A. Norma knew this and suggested we leave a little late so I could get some paddling in. I took her up on her suggestion and paddled my personal best that morning. See Inner Harbor for more information.
We didn't hit the road until high noon. The traffic getting out of Washington D.C. seemed a little slow for midday driving. But the drive really wasn't that bad, partly because Norma and I took turns which allowed the passenger to catch a few winks. I plugged my iPod into my car stereo and we listened to classic rock, funk, and country music. We drove past Norma's alma mater then into sections of the Virginia heartland that I have never ventured. It rained hard for awhile but started to clear up by the time we got off the highway.
Norma and I made a stop to check out the New River. We found a nice launch site just below Fields Dam at Mouth of Wilson. It looked like a place we might want to return with a kayak or two.
By 1900, we arrived at
Grayson Highlands State Park
829 Grayson Highland Lane
Mouth of Wilson, Virginia
I've stayed at Maryland and Delaware state parks but never a Virginia State Park. I learned that the latter is like Southwest Airlines while the Maryland and Delaware state parks are like other airlines. If you stay at a Maryland or Delaware state park, you pick a campsite and you know what site you'll be at when you make the reservation. In Virginia (or at least at Grayson), you sign up for an electric or a non-electric site. Then it is first-come, first-served. Since Norma and I arrived late, we got the last site, number one. Even though it was the last site, it wasn't bad. It might have been further from the latrines than the other sites but that was a minor inconvenience. The site was clean and well-maintained. But there were some mushrooms growing out of the rotting wood enclosing the tent space. See photo at left.
We walked over to join the rest of the group, led by Mike J. I greeted Janet, Mark, Dottie, Andy, John, Don, Chuck, and Shaz. I knew everyone except Chuck and Shaz. I also met Mike and Janet's dogs: Precious and Joey.
After sharing their fire and talking about previous adventures, we were off to bed by 2130. Tomorrow would be a big day.
Click thumbnail to enlarge.
Day Two: Sunday, June 14, 2009
I'm usually pretty good about packing. I have my hiking checklist to ensure I don't forget anything. But I made the mistake of not using it and an equally devastating mistake of packing after I pushed myself to my physical limit while kayaking. Needless to say, my brain was not running on all eight cylinders. So I was camping without rain gear, warm clothes, or hiking poles. Fortunately, Norma loaned me a large sweatshirt. The color was a bit feminine so I would only wear it as a last resort. She also had a disposable poncho for me but I was preferring my duck head umbrella. If we were fortunate, I would not need it.
At 0900, we met at the camp (country) store to begin our hike. The store is a log cabin, operated by friendly people with southern/country/moutain accents (I can't tell the difference). It seems like most of the people we met had an accent...which means WE were really the ones with the accents.
Numerous moths gathered around the light at the outside covered wall of the camp store. I looked for more interesting insects like walking sticks but moths were as good as it got. See first and second photos at left.
I wondered what wildlife we might see during our hike (other than moths). I was hoping for a bear but there were no bear signs or bear bins for our food like they have at the Lake Tahoe or Shenandoah campsites. Perhaps a porcupine or a snake?
We caught the trail that began at the camp store. It took us through the woods and onto Stampers Branch Trail, a 1.7 mile trail connecting the visitor center and the campgrounds. We stopped for a restroom break at the visitor center. The trail passed by
a hardwood forest of oak and hickory that changed to red spruce, beech, birch, and maple closer to the top of the mountain, [Haw Orchard Mountain].
The mountain was near the southernmost side of our lush tree-filled circuit route.
Trees with large, slender thorns are hawthorne trees. These trees were so numerous here that the area was referred to as Haw Orchard.
- from trail signs
Next, we caught the yellow blazed Wilburn Branch. Near it were
large black locust trees which have a hard wood favored for making fence posts due to its long-weathering qualities. In the summer, the open portions of the trail's edge have large patches of ferns and viper's bugloss, a bristly wildflower with showy blue flowers.
- from trail sign
The first part of the hike had quite a bit of incline. A year ago, Mike would have been taking it slower but after having lost 18 pounds, he was tearing up those hills like nobody's business.
We saw some small, scenic waterfalls. See third photo.
Soon we were walking on the 1.6 mile Twin Pinnacles Trail. This loop trail follows
the ridge line over the park's highest peak, Little Pinnacle, with an elevation of 5098 feet.
The trail leads
through both a spruce forest and a northern hardwood forest. These areas are home to many cool climate plants and animals.
On a clear day, the pinnacles offer a spectacular 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains, including parts of North Carolina and Tennessee. North of the pinnacles are the two highest points in Virginia. Mount Rogers is 5729 feet above sea level, and Whitetop is 5520 feet.
- from trail sign
We posed for our obligatory group photo. See fourth photo. From left to right are John, Andy, Don, me, Norma (in front), Chuck (standing tall), Dottie, Precious (the dog), Mike (Precious' pet), Shaz (hiding behind Mike), Mark, and Ken (Santa Claus).
Our next stop was the north-facing Massie Gap Overlook.
Massie Gap was named for the Lee Massey family who lived in the gap in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The different spellings of the name resulted from a mistake on an early U.S. Geological Survey map, and "Massie" has remained as the official name. The Massey family - like others who lived in the park at the time - were self-sufficient people who were able to live on what the land provided. The Masseys raised sheep, gathered chestnuts to eat and sell, and foraged for ginseng in the woods.
Massie Gap is known not just for its history but also its pre-history.
Numerous Indian artifacts have been found in Massie Gap. The Indians - probably Cherokee - hunted deer, turkey, bear, and at one time, possibly buffalo in the immediate area.
Native flint - found in the rock outcroppings all around - was used for making arrowheads, hide scrapers, knives, and other tools.
- from trail sign
At the Little Pinnacle (elevation 5089 feet), we caught some great views. See the fifth photo along with the photo at the top left corner of this page.
Later, we came to the half-mile long Big Pinnacle Trail. Sneak a view in the sixth photo.
The trail is a gradual 400 foot climb to the top of the Big Pinnacle (5068 feet) with a short, steep section at the base of the pinnacle.
The trail has
stands of mountain laurel, which bloom with white to pink clusters of starlike flowers.
It also has
rosebay rhododendron, which has deep pink, trumpet shaped flowers in tight clusters.
Near the summit are
twisted, stunted red spruce trees with their foliage blasted from the northwest side by year-round exposure to strong winds.
- from trail sign
Lately, my camera has been quite a pain. It still takes good photos but it is very picky about batteries. I tried to be environmentally friendly by using rechargeables but they no longer carry a strong enough charge. Even disposable batteries only work for a day or two of picture-taking. I made the mistake of only bringing two spare batteries. My camera takes four. Hence, mid-way through the day, my camera was dying. Fortunately, Ken came to the rescue by giving me two more AAs. Thanx Ken. I owe you.
After a little more walking, we came to the Rhododendron Trail. Nearby, we saw some horses hiking. Their packs sure were heavy (seventh photo).
This trail is so named because it leads to Sullivan Swamp and Rhododendron Gap where large stands of Catawba Rhododendron bloom in mid-June. Rhododendron Gap may have been the site of isolated glaciation during the Ice Age.
Much of the trail was wet, which reminded me of our September 9-10, 2006 Dolly Sods adventure.
Sullivan Swamp is a bog - or more correctly, a seepage wetland. The moss in the bog - acting like a giant sponge - retains large amounts of water at the surface which would normally percolate into the ground. The constant evaporation of moisture from the surface causes the bog to maintain a lower air temperature than that of the surrounding area. It is this temperature difference - along with the high elevation - which may enable plants and animals normally found further north to thrive here.
- from trail sign
After crossing Main Park Road (route 362), we walked on the 1.9 mile long Cabin Creek Trail.
The creek is so named because a small hunting cabin once stood on its bank. Lee Massie, for whom Massie gap was named, lived above the creek where the trail first crosses it.
We encountered waterfalls on Cabin Creek just 0.7 miles into the trail. See eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh photos. We also saw several flame azaleas (twelfth photo) and some plants with huge leaves (thirteenth photo). Andy identified spittle bugs. See fourteenth photo. These insects live in white foam at leaf/stem junctions (fifteenth photo). Along the lower sections of the trail were several bigtooth aspens.
These trees - at the southern limit of their range - are uncommon in this area. The leaves turn a bright yellow in autumn much like the quaking aspens found in western North America.
- from trail sign
Our next stop was Wilburn Ridge. Here we saw insects pollinating white flowers (sixteenth photo) and several wild ponies (seventeenth photo). They reminded me of the ones we saw with my parents on Assateague Island on May 26, 2009. I later learned that these ponies were indeed brought from Assateague.
After walking through a field filled with blooming Catawba Rhododendron on the Appalachian Trail (AT) (eighteenth and nineteenth photos), we stopped for a late lunch at a rocky outcropping. See the view below in the twentieth photo.
The Appalachian Trail took us to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, Jefferson National Forest.
A little further and we were at the Wilson Creek Trail. We crossed the creek (twenty-first photo) and stopped at some falls. I regretted not bringing my swimsuit. There were some nice swimming holes that were calling my name. Andy jumped in while Dottie and Norma got their
feet wet. Precious, make a point of jumping in at every body of water at least a foot deep.
During the last mile of the hike, I almost slipped on a sloping rock. Norma laughed and poked fun at me but ended up falling on the same
rock. She bruised her hip pretty bad on that one.
By 1530, we finished hiking 9.4 miles with a total elevation gain of about 2200 feet. The rain held off and while the sun didn't shine brightly, the temperatures remained comfortable.
For maps, hike information, and more photos regarding this hike, see Grayson Highlands State Park Circuit.
After washing up, Norma, Shaz, Mark, Dottie, and I threw around the flexible flying disk and the tethered throw toy. I call the latter a
"sperm toy" because it looks like a sperm cell.
Like last night, we sat around the fire at Mike's campsite. At about 2100, Norma and I started walking back. Someone was playing bluegrass music on their stereo...or so we thought. As we approached the music, we learned there was a six piece (give or take one) band. We think they were preparing for a bluegrass festival scheduled for next weekend. Norma and I sat and listened to about 4 songs before retiring for the night.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.
Day Three: Monday, June 15, 2009
On the morning of June 15, Norma and I awoke to cloudy skies. It hadn't rained during the night but just as we began eating breakfast,
a light drizzle began. Then the drizzle turned into rain and the rain turned into a downpour. We migrated over to Dottie and Mark's pop-up camper, complete with a big overhang.
The previous night, we were instructed to meet at Don and Ken's campsite at 0830. There we would vanpool to the trailhead. It was
obvious we wouldn't be hiking but I decided to run over anyway to see if any word was passed. They heard nothing so I ran back. I was regretting not brining my raingear. My duck head umbrella wasn't cutting it.
Norma and I walked over to the camp store. Since it was Monday, it was closed. Under the overhang, we worked on our boxing skills.
The rain let up and we started walking back to our tent just as Mike was heading to the store to find us. He declared the hike a go. We hurried and threw our gear in Ken's van. The trailhead was only 5 minutes away.
Our group was a little smaller than yesterday's since Shaz headed out and Precious was keeping Janet company back at the campsite.
At 1000, we caught a spur of the Appalachian Trail that led us to the main part of the AT. I've hiked the AT many times but never so far south. The scenery was much different than the Maryland section. There were several grassy fields with large boulders and pristine views of surrounding peaks. Maryland, in contrast, seems to have denser woodlands and fewer vistas.
Photo one: Norma being cross.
Photo two: Crossing a grassy field.
Again, we saw numerous wild ponies. Left to the wild, some had very long manes (not sure what else to call the long hair on their necks). See photo three. All seemed quite tame though I don't think I would want to ride one.
The trail took us back into the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, Jefferson National Forest.
Much of the trail was rocky, which slowed us down considerably. But the gray rocks contrasted nicely with the light green vegetation bordering both sides, creating a fantasyland atmosphere.
Photo four: Norma, Dottie, and Mark trekking up a rocky incline.
Photo five: I prefer my drinks on the rocks.
Photo six: John at vista
Photo seven: On the go.
One part of the trail led us between huge rocks that might make a bigger person claustrophobic (photo eight). Speaking of which, the fences used to keep the wild ponies confined had a narrow hairpin bend that would have made even a normal sized backpacker turn sideways to fit between. But I guess it keeps the ponies in their place (photo nine).
We ran into several AT thru hikers...twice. Our circuit route ensured they would remember us...or at least be confused when they saw our faces a second time. One gnome-ish woman carried a pack about as big as her. She was hiking solo and seemed to be pushing herself hard. I was admiring her determination, especially when I saw her the second time looking even more exhausted.
For lunch, we stopped at a lovely rock outcropping that gave us a spectacular 270 degree view of the surrounding area. About a quarter of a mile away, we saw more ponies and a few miles in the distance we saw Mount Rogers. Rogers was definitely high but its gradual ascent wasn't very impressive from afar.
Photo ten: Andy pointing to Mount Rogers.
Photo eleven: Chuck looking for food.
Photo twelve: View from our lunch spot. Can you see the ponies?
Photo thirteen: Getting ready to move out.
While the sun never really came out, it didn't rain either during our hike. The temperature was generally comfortable though it could have been less humid. But it was most pleasant in the open fields where we felt a light breeze.
Canopies of Catawba Rhododendron covered part of the trail and as we entered the 5700 acre Lewis Fork Wilderness Area. Further in, we saw several acres of these colorful flowers.
Photo fourteen: Dottie and Mark in front of rhododendron.
Photo fifteen: A tunnel of flowers.
Photo sixteen: Ferns and flowers. The cooler temperatures and high elevation was just right for a variety of ferns.
Photo seventeen: A field of flowers.
There were several beautiful trees, including two especially hearty ones that grew on top of a large rock. See photo eighteen.
Left to their own, the wild ponies managed to keep their population up. Though friendly, we were told not to get too close to their foals. One mother didn't even like us taking photos. She did her best to get between our cameras and her offspring but became less protective as our distance increased. See photo nineteen. Camera zoom is a good thing.
The Pine Mountain Trail took us to the 5000 foot Pine Mountain.
Though I didn't see any interesting wildlife, I certainly saw interesting bug-life. In addition to yesterday's spittle bugs, I found several leaves with chocolate chip shaped growths (photo twenty). Andy thought a small worm lived in each. I also saw some weird growth hanging on a branch. I'm sure someone was living inside but I wasn't eager to find out whom (photo twenty-one).
The rhododendron weren't the only pretty flowers. There were numerous buttercups and other flowers.
Photo twenty-two: Devil's Paintbrush in the Hawkweed family.
Photo twenty-three: Buttercup.
Photo twenty-four: Flame Azalea.
One the side of one hill, there were millions of medium sized plants with incredibly good posture and uniformity (photo twenty-five).
It is amazing how many shades of green we saw. That along with the panoramic mountain views made for some great photo-ops.
Photo twenty-six: A latrine that the ponies can't get to.
Photo twenty-seven: Norma at the trail's edge.
Photo twenty-eight: Near the end of a long hike.
On most hikes, there is often one tree that catches my eye. Sometimes it is twisted or bent but usually it is one that I wouldn't mind having in my yard...if I had a big yard. See photo twenty-nine.
We finished our little hike at 1700, completing 12.5 miles and a total elevation gain of about 2000 feet.
For maps, hike information, and more photos regarding this hike, see Grayson Highlands Two.
We then piled back into Ken's van and headed back to the campsite.
Norma and I washed up, packed up, said our farewells, then drove home. Norma took a splendid photo of some hilly farmlands not far from the park that I'm sure reminder her of home. See photo thirty.
On the drive back, we listened to bluegrass, oldies, and classic rock. We got back into Hyattsville around 0200 the next day.
I managed to escape with very few insect bites. I think I got two mosquito bites and two chigger bites. We never even saw a tick! Normally, I get 10-20 bites on a long camping weekend but with the cooler mountain temperatures and my permethrin sprayed clothes, the bugs were kept at bay.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.
My time spent hiking was about the same as my time spent commuting so my rule-of-thumb was not broken. But if it had been broken, my trip would have still been worth it.