Today was a magnificent day to go for a hike. We drove about an hour to get to an elevation of just over 5000 feet at Grayson Highlands State Park. The drive to the Park is along The Crooked Road and today, that was a literal translation. The two lane country road wound around and around, climbing the mountain. At one point, Arnie commented that we may have just met ourselves coming and going! Hairpin switch back curves kept me a bit on the edge of my seat. It is such a change from the hub bub traffic that we are used to in Florida. At one point, we were driving along at a slow pace sight seeing and Arnie glanced in his rear view window to see a line of half a dozen cars behind us. We had forgotten how much fun it is to just go out for a drive in the country!
We were excited to get out on one of the hiking trails and see some of this beautiful country up close and personal. We grabbed the backpack with peanut butter sandwiches, fresh orchard apples and a couple of bottles and started to head up the trail.
This 4,822 acre Mountain Park next to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in the Jefferson National Forest was established in 1965 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It offers breathtaking views from the highest point in Southwest Virginia and a variety of outdoor activities, camping, trails, boating, fishing and events that range from music festivals to wild pony roundup. Average daily temperature during the main season is between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and between 30 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit at night. The park can have snow as early as September and into late May. We had been warned to go prepared for drastic and swift changes in the weather, so we packed carefully this morning. We needn’t have worried though, it remained ideal weather for a walk in the woods all day. It was also nice to hike and not think about snakes for a change. Due to the harsh weather and conditions the rangers report that they seldom see snakes. It is known for it’s salamader biodiversity. To see these more reclusive creatures, we would have had to turn over some wood and stones. They are unlike the geckos and lizards in Florida which run about everywhere in the open.
During late spring and early fall, temperatures well below freezing are not unusual. There are hiking trails of moderate to difficult levels and we had chosen a moderate one named The Rhodedendrum Trail. Along the way, hikers can encounter Wildlife, including a herd of wild ponies. Nearly 10 miles of wild trout streams are located in Grayson Highlands State Park. We would cross a cool mountain stream that offers anglers native Brooke and wild rainbow trout as well as breathtaking scenery. We could look right down into the depths of the Blue Ridge Mountains and valleys. It is the land that time has forgotten. We walked beside cliffs, shaded pastures, in and out of lush woodlands.
The Parks most famous attraction is a group of wild ponies that inhabit the pastures of the mountain top. They are not always visible, but a lucky visitor can see them moving on the distant mountainside. They graze paying no attention to visitors’ excitement at seeing them. They are fairly tame and visitors can spend hours watching them, taking photos, following them around. Today, we were not fortunate to see the whole herd, but we did catch a brief glimpse of one individual through the woods. It seems so often now that we have to travel to see animals locked in cages or behind glass walls but here at Grayson Highlands, they are wild and free. Seaworld take note!
One downside of being wild is having a very harsh environment to live in. At over 5,000 feet in elevation, the mountain can have brutal winter conditions to survive in. There have been years in the past when the herd suffered many losses and withered down to about 45 to 50 ponies. Currently, the herd has been maintaining around 120. The Wilburn Ridge pony Association holds an auction each year in the fall to keep the herds population in check. The proceeds go towards sustaining the herd and to help other local charities.
Here we met the Appalachian trail. We just saw the movie A Walk in the Woods with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte before we left Florida. It is one of my favorite books and it was a special feeling to think that Bill Bryson walked this very place. I have a lot of admiration for those hardy folks who can complete this feat. It is not easy walking and this is one of the more accommodating sections of the trail. We crossed paths with a number of folks who are on that journey either in its entirety or in sections.