Get Outside RVA: Plan a trip to Grayson Highlands

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Here’s a look at your next Virginia outdoor destination: Grayson Highlands.

Tucked away about as far south and west as you can go in the commonwealth is Grayson Highlands State Park. While the 5-hour drive time may not be for everybody, the plethora of beautiful, unique landscapes, outdoor activities, wild ponies and Virginia’s highest peak make this a must-see destination within the state.

This image was taken along the Appalachian Trail in Grayson Highlands State Park

Today’s post is going to focus on what to do, where to stay, and some other general knowledge to help you get psyched and ready for your own southwest Virginia adventure.

What to do:

Hike to Mt. Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak: The easiest way to hike to Virginia’s highest peak is to pay the $5 parking fee to enter Grayson Highlands State Park and drive the few miles up the windy road until you reach Massey Gap. Park in the day-use lot and hike the 0.5 mile spur trail to the Appalachian Trail.

Images from the Massey Gap Spur Trail and a helpful guide to point you in the right direction once you’ve hiked the 0.5 miles from the Massey Gap day-use parking area.

Once you reach the AT take a left (southbound on the trail) and begin the moderate 3.8-mile hike to the Mt. Rogers spur trail.

[Brief aside: If you turn right and hike about a quarter of a mile northbound on the AT, you hit some of the best (and scariest) highball bouldering in the state. More on this later…]

Along the way, you’ll likely encounter some, if not all of the following: wild ponies, longhorn steer, grassy balds, rocky outcroppings and 360-degree views, virtually all of which is above 5,000 feet in elevation. For many, this is the highlight of the Mt. Rogers hike, as the Mt. Rogers Summit is viewless.

Caution: Be sure to follow the white-blazed trail for the most direct route to the spur trail.

White blazes are used to mark the entire Appalachian Trail and keep hikers on the right path.

Once you pass by the Thomas Knob Shelter, you’ll know you’re getting close. Be sure to bring your filter and re-up on water at the spring near the shelter. Just a hop and a skip later you’ll hit the Mt. Rogers spur trail sign. From there, you’ll turn right and continue hiking upward another 0.5 miles through the suddenly thick pine forest.

According to the Thru-Hiker’s Companion, a trail guide created with Appalachian Trail thru-hikers in mind, Mt. Rogers is 5,729 feet high and is home to “fragile plant life and the endangered Wellers salamander,” a species that only lives in coniferous forests above 5,000 feet in elevation.

On the left is the endangered Wellers salamander, on the right is the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey Marker planted in rock at the summit of Mount Rogers. Images courtesy of Brian Gratwicke and James Scott Ferrebee, Roy Perry, and Kaden Yealy.

From there you can retrace your steps back to the parking lot, or extend your hike in any of a number of directions, but plan ahead for backcountry camping if you intend to go much further…

Bouldering: Grayson Highlands is also home to some of the best bouldering in the state. For those who aren’t already familiar, “bouldering” is a form of rock climbing performed without a rope, usually at a much lower height and with a pad to fall on for safety.

According to Aaron Parlier’s Grayson Highlands Bouldering, the rock type varies from area to area, but the park is known for its steep, overhanging climbs, sharp holds, and in the highlands, it’s highball boulders. “Highball” is a term used by climbers to describe longer, higher boulder problems with a higher risk for serious injury.

Many of the boulder problems you’ll find in the highlands portion of the park are not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced climber.

This is me trying out the start to the relatively easy (but terrifying) Highland Highball, V2. Images courtesy of Sara Brockman.

For those boulderers looking to try out something a bit less sketchy, with a much shorter approach, Grayson Highlands State Park has you covered there too, with six major areas, each containing between 50-200 established bouldering problems, not to mention the random smattering of other boulders that are more off the beaten path. Most of these areas are just a short hike from your car, with nice, flat landing areas and super fun climbs.

Case in point, the Rockhouse Boulder:

From the Rockhouse Boulder in Grayson’s Picnic Area

For a more in-depth look into all the bouldering Grayson has to offer, check out Parlier’s guide book, it’s sister website, or the Mountain Project website (Note: the book is definitely worth the price; full of colorful photos, vivid descriptions, and helpful advice).

Images courtesy of Sara Brockman.

Virginia Creeper Trail: The Virginia Creeper bike trail is an adventure in itself. While the trail may not start within Grayson Highlands State Park, you can get there via windy back roads in under 30 minutes.

The trail stretches from the tiny town of Whitetop, not far from the North Carolina border (also not far from Whitetop Mountain, the second highest peak in the state, and a much more scenic view than Mt. Rogers), through the famous trail town Damascus, all the way to Abingdon.

The Virginia Creeper Trail is a rails to trails pathway from Whitetop Station all the way to Abingdon, Virginia. Images courtesy of Waldo Jaquith and Metayel.

Mountain bikers, hikers and horses are all welcome on the gravel trail which traverses where railroad tracks once laid.

As with the hikes in Grayson, there are many ways to get on the trail, but one of the most popular (and convenient) ways is to rent bikes from one of the local outfitters and catch a shuttle ride to Whitetop Station. From there, you can coast mostly downhill the 18 miles back to Damascus.

All in all, the trail traverses 34 miles — nothing to scoff at — and contains opportunities for camping, eating and sleeping all along the way. For more details to help you plan your trip, check here.

Backpacking/Appalachian Trail: Another big draw to the Grayson Highlands area is the Appalachian Trail itself. Every year, the small town of Damascus hosts a three-day festival devoted to backpacking and long-distance hiking.

The event, known as Trail Days, usually takes place towards the end of May and coincides with when the majority of northbound “thru-hikers” are making their way into Virginia–which is convenient, as Damascus lays right along the trail just a few short miles north of the Tennessee border.

Images courtesy of Sara Brockman

The festival usually features outdoor vendors, large bonfires, tons of camping and a yearly “hiker’s parade” in which thru-hikers (people hiking the entirety of the trail from Georgia to Maine or vice versa) march through town along with local boy scouts and beauty queens.

One fun way for the casual backpacker to enjoy Trail Days is to drive to Damascus and pay one of the local outdoor outfitters to give you a ride to Grayson Highlands from which you can get on the Appalachian Trail and hike the 31 miles southbound back into town.

View from Whitetop Mountain
View from the Grayson Highlands on the way to Mt. Rogers.

Mt. Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, Virginia’s two highest peaks, are along the way, along with opportunities to see ponies, rock climb, take a dip in Beartree Lake (accessible via a side trail) and hike along the Virginia Creeper Trail (which overlaps with the AT for a short distance).

And when you arrive back in Damascus you’ll get to pride yourself in looking (and smelling) like a long-distance hiker, while having the luxury of going home afterward.

Where to stay:

Grayson Highlands State Park campground: Lots of different options within the park, including tent camping, RV camping, shelter camping and cabins. For more information, check the Grayson Highlands State Park website.

Beartree Campground: Located a 30-minute drive from the park, but conveniently smack dab in the middle between Grayson Highlands and Damascus, the Beartree Campground is a great opportunity to car-camp with running water and hot showers readily accessible, not to mention the lake (which is apparently loaded with trout).

Beartree Lake

Damascus: Hostels, bed and breakfasts, and hotels abound in this small town, especially during the hiking/biking season, and especially during trail days. Some gems though: The Place, Crazy Larry’s, Hiker’s Inn and Outdoors Inn.

Check here for more ideas for amenities.

Books/maps/websites:

Grayson Highlands State Park website

Grayson Highlands State Park map

-Beartree Campground website

Hiking Upward: Grayson Highlands website

Grayson Highlands Bouldering (Guidebook), By Aaron Parlier

Graysonhighlandsbouldering.com

Mountainproject.com/Grayson Highlands page

Virginia Creeper Trail website

Trail Days, Damascus website

Thru-Hiker’s Companion, published by ALDHA

Got an idea for an outdoor adventure story, profile or event? Email mchaney@wric.com with your ideas.

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