Grayson Highlands State Park, VA was on our bucket list for quite a while before we were finally able to visit. It was absolutely worth the wait and we loved every minute we got to spend there. It’s probably best known for the “wild” ponies that live there and for the section of Appalachian Trail that passes through the park. But, with 4,502 acres, over 160 miles of the park’s 672 miles of trails dedicated hiking, and another 397 listed as multi use, there’s plenty more there to do.
Grayson Highlands State Park ($7 per vehicle weekdays, $10 per vehicle weekends), Mouth of Wilson, VA is just across the border of North Carolina in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Southern Virginia. It’s part of the Jefferson National Forest and right next to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Grayson Highlands has some great hikes with scenic views of peaks over 5,000’ high. The high elevation can cause high winds and extreme drops in temperature, which we got to experience when we visited at the end of July. It’s part of what made our experience so special and memorable.
We wanted experience as much of the Park as we could in the few short days we had there.
- Rhododendron Trail – (0.3 miles, moderate), the Wilburn Ridge/Appalachian Trail (0.6, difficult) and the Horse Trail North (0.93 mile, moderate). We chose to do this hike because I wanted to see the ponies who are said to often spend time in those areas. It was a beautiful, windy, foggy, early morning in the mountains and we had the best time climbing in the rock outcrops and enjoying the crazy weather. We heard ponies whinnying, saw plenty of signs of them, but didn’t actually find any ponies until we were almost back to the Rhododendron trail area.
- Twin Pinnacles Trail – (1.3 mile loop, moderate). This trail starts behind the visitor’s center and heads up to Big Pinnacle and Little Pinnacle. It can be popular and for a good reason – on a clear day you’ll get huge views on both of them. We loved the whole trail, in the forest where there were some awesome rock formations and beautiful trees, and the big views (the weather had cleared up quite a bit by now). We even found a nice spot just off the trail to lay back, have a snack and just enjoy the peace of the woods.
- Wilson Creek Trail – (2.1 mile out and back, difficult/steep) down to a waterfall. It was very pretty and we only passed one other person on the trail. The trail starts right next to the Park’s country store where we bought some delicious, cold iced tea to cool off with after our uphill workout.
- Haw Flats Trail to Split Rock Trail – (0.63 easy and 0.3 difficult mile loop). It takes you through the woods and past some boulders that people actually practice Bouldering on. They’ve put signs next to them showing the routes and difficulty ratings. I have to say that I’m impressed people can get up them, I wasn’t able to climb the first 6”. From there the trail takes you through a narrow pass between a large split rock. It was a little steep and slippery with the leaves which could be why this trail is labeled “difficult” but don’t let that stop you, you can easily go around if you need to. From there the trail takes you out of the woods and into a meadow planted with wildflowers and berries to help support the wildlife. It was beautiful and had a view.
- Cabin Creek Trail – (1.51 miles, difficult). It’s labeled “difficult” by the park but I don’t remember it being that hard. This trail goes through the woods and along a little creek. We took the loop counterclockwise and somehow ended up a bit off course. While we were figuring out how to get back on trail we ran into a new friend who was in the same boat. We got sorted, found the trail and the very pretty waterfall and were able to spend some time there enjoying it just the 3 of us. Our new friend headed back to the parking lot ahead of us, apparently got off course again, and ended up following us back. Every other trail we did in the Park was easy to follow and had very clear and accurate signs. This trail had signs too but somehow we still had trouble following it. Still a great experience and I would definitely do it again.
We have Trail maps for Grayson Highlands State Park that you can download and print before your visit.
There’s a very pretty driving loop that takes you through some small towns, past some other hikes and recreation areas, the Blue Ridge Discovery Center and the Appalachian Horseback Riding Adventures and around to the Elk Garden area of the Park where the AT enters from the North. You won’t find any Elk there but you may find a few ponies, some cattle and some views. We parked the car here (free) and went for a walk through the field.
Drive The Loop: Take RT 58 -> North on RT 16 -> West on RT 603 -> Left on Whitetop Rd -> East on RT 58.
- Grayson Highlands General Store & Inn – Located only 8 minutes from the park which significantly reduces driving time and leaves more time for hiking. Very rustic but for the price the place was a perfect home base for exploring the area. It was temporarily closed for a short time while it changed hands but it reopened in December 2022 under new owners. We’re looking forward to staying there again on our next visit.
There also aren’t that many places to get food near the park. The restaurant at the Inn we stayed at was closed when we were there but it looks like it’s been reopened now, too. We chose to bring most of our food with us for the few days we were there. We did buy a small tub of Hershey’s ice cream from the Corner Market and Cafe, which also has a gas station, that we took to a beautiful spot on the river and crumbled cookies into (yum).
The ponies were first introduced to the area by Park Rangers in 1970 to help manage the balds by grazing on them. The ponies are accustomed to humans but they are still capable of biting or kicking. The Park asks that you keep a safe distance away from the ponies and to not feed or touch them. Feeding the ponies puts them at a high risk of developing serious behavioral and health problems. Every fall park officials round up the herd to check for health problems, take inventory and reduce the herd size, if it’s needed. Excess colts (young males) are sold at auction.
The staff at Grayson Highlands ask that when you come to visit the Park you bring with you a healthy respect for the ruggedness of the area and weather conditions that can change quickly at high elevations. They ask that you come prepared for the unexpected and recommend that you bring with you (even “just” for day hikes);
- Water. Bring more than you think you’ll need, just in case.
- A bag for your trash
- A topographical map – we usually use AllTrails and download it ahead of time. You can also buy a hard copy at the Park.
- An up-to-date weather forecast – use Whitetop for a more accurate forecast or National Weather Service website where you can get a forecast specifically for the highlands.
- A First Aid Kit
- Lighter*Rain jacket
- Sturdy hiking boots – the trails have a lot of rocks and some muddy areas.
- A fully charged cell phone (and a spare battery) – cell service in and around the Park is extremely limited. Put your phone on airplane mode so it doesn’t keep searching for coverage and use up your battery. In an emergency situation, if you can connect to a tower that wouldn’t normally allow your provider, 911 will still work. If you are lost, and your phone is turned on, the 911 operator has the ability to ping your phone and triangulate your location. If you can’t reach 911 you may still be able to get an SOS out through GPS. Your phone needs to have enough battery left for it to be able to do any of this.
- Also please note that pets must be on a 6’ leash at all times. In high bear activity areas they recommend leaving your pets at home.
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