Backpacking Grayson Highlands: 7 Tips For Your Trip

So you want to come to Southwest Virginia to backpack Grayson Highlands State Park? Why? To see the wild ponies the park is famous for. Of course. Or maybe you just want to day hike it. After all, it’s supposed to be one of the best hiking areas in the country. Then, there’s the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets you may have already heard about. Or you might just want to saddle up the horses and go riding through the park. Yep, you can do all that and more. Heck, you can even fish it. Apparently, there’s a few streams in the park that boast some wild brook and rainbow trout. So now you’re sold on it. Right? Well, not so fast there, partner. Because I’m here to tell you the truth about this wildly popular state park in SW Virginia. And the truth is…

Well, what you really want to know is should you really go there? And should you really believe all the hype about Grayson Highlands and take a long weekend or even a few days off work to visit it? Or would that just be a big waste of time? That I can’t say. All I can tell you is what it was like for me. And maybe give you a little bit of advice, if you’re planning on hiking or backpacking in the park.

First Time Visiting Grayson Highlands:

So the first time I visited Grayson Highlands State Park was near the end of a day of fly fishing Whitetop Laurel Creek, which is just a bit west of the park. Fantastic stream to fly fish, by the way, if you’re in the area. And, you can read all about the Whitetop Laurel fly fishing experience here, on my blog, of course.

However, on this particular day, the trout weren’t biting. So I decided to head over to
Grayson Highlands State Park. And to access it via a forest service road, which would allow me to fish Big Wilson Creek via the Wilson Creek Trail.

First mistake. Why? Because it took longer than I’d imagined to reach the forest service road. And, in the second place, once I got on it, it just never seemed to end at the trailhead. And then, of course, inevitably the road became rough and treacherous. All the while, I’m getting knocked around, wondering what would happen if I got stuck out here and had to spend the night on a lonely cold mountain road. And who wants to do that? So, with some difficulty, I managed to turn my pickup truck around. Then I headed back down the mountain to the main road.

But I wasn’t defeated. No. Not even close. After all, there was still some time left to visit the park. And that I did. By driving back down the road to the standard park entrance. Then driving straight up it to the Massie Gap parking area.

Backpacking Grayson Highlands Tip 1: Park at Massie Gap.

So my first piece of advice is this. If you’re going to visit the park for the first time. Just enter the park through the main entrance on route 362, as shown in the map below. Then head to one of the main parking areas along it. And don’t try to enter the park through one of the two forest service roads, because I can tell you that they’re both rugged. You’ll probably need a high clearance vehicle and four-wheel drive to negotiate both of them. And then, you’ll still get chucked around a lot. And yes, I know this by personal experience. That said, if your vehicle is outfitted for this. Hey, knock yourself out.

Anyway, now that I’d finally managed to access the park. I had to figure out what to do next, since I only had a little bit of time before the sunset. And no, I didn’t even pull out my map. I just walked straight ahead and across a field. Started up a lovely hillside trail with a wooden fence along it.

And suddenly, there it was. A wild pony!

First wild pony encountered in Grayson Highlands State Park!
First wild pony I encountered at Grayson Highlands State Park!

What the heck? I couldn’t believe it. Why, I’d only been in the park for no more than five or ten minutes and already I’d spotted a pony. I reached for my smartphone. Had to get a picture of it. And when I pulled my phone from the ziploc bag, the sound of that plastic unzipping, immediately caught the attention of the pony, which trotted over to me, eagerly.

But no, I had no treats. No tasty food to feed her. No, I don’t do that. I just took her picture. And she sure did give me one look of aggravation and upset after that. So therein lies my second piece of advice to you.

Backpacking Grayson Highlands Tip 2: Please Don’t Feed the Wild Ponies.

Please, don’t pet them, either. After all, they might just bite or kick you. I think this is common sense, and you, my dear subscriber, surely has that. But maybe a few of you special ones out there need to be told this. Of course, you can always be told this by the park personnel instead of me. Who might hand you a small piece of paper, as well.

Having said all this, I did cherish the close up experience with the pony. As well as the gorgeous sunset, I witnessed as I headed back down the hillside to my truck. And, as I drove home that night, I promised myself that I’d visit Grayson Highlands again, sometime soon. And that, this time, I’d arrive bright and early and really take my time walking around the park. However, my second great Western road trip kept me away from Grayson Highlands all of the following year. And for most of this year, I was too busy fly fishing to contemplate a return.

Until the fall came. And, once again, I found myself planning another trip to Grayson Highlands State Park.

This time, I did a loop hike. Basically, a roundabout hike that looped around most of the park. How long was it? Not sure. I’d guess 14 to 15 miles. All I know was that I was tired at the end of the day. Felt spent. And thought that I’d never get back to my truck, which was parked safely, once again, at Massie Gap. And not only that, but that last part of my hike really beat the heck out of my feet. Truly, it was a bit rugged. Then I had another 2 hours to drive back to my home in Johnson City. Two hours of shifting and punching a clutch on twisting turning mountain roads.

That said, the hike was awesome. Saw some fall colors in the trees. A bluebird day. And I got up close and personal with the free range cattle in the park. Two massive steers approached me on the Crest Trail. One even pawed the ground, menacingly. We passed so close that I could’ve touched them. And I even fed a cow over by Scales. That was with permission, by the way. All along the trails. Every now and then, I’d stumble onto a couple of wild ponies. Now how cool is that?

Blog author shown in a field near Scales with free range cattle gathered around him.
Getting close to the free range cattle near Scales during a Grayson Highlands day hike.

Another part of the hike that I enjoyed the most was discovering a few campsites that were among the very best I’ve ever seen.

Just saying. Seriously, a few of those highland campsites were so awesome that I’d have sworn that John Wayne or Clint Eastwood would’ve camped in them. Don’t believe me, punk? Well, just try hiking in there sometime, if you feel lucky, today. That’ll be the day, pilgrim…

A nice cowboy style campsite in a clearing in the trees is shown in picture.
Cowboy style campsite in Grayson Highlands State Park.

So that became my only regret as I drove back home that night. Legs all sore and aching. That I didn’t have more time in Grayson Highlands to experience a sunrise or sunset. To camp in one of those campsites, I swear are legendary. Or just to get to know the landscape better. So I swore I’d return. And, lo and behold, the weather over the next few days was predicted to be in the 70s. So I packed up all my antiquated backpacking gear. Loaded it up in my truck and headed for one of the trailheads surrounding Grayson Highlands State Park.

This time, I did it right, too. Got up at 6:00 am. Ate a big breakfast. Headed out in my truck. And even arrived at the trailhead at a reasonable time. A real feat for a guy like me. Then I headed up the Appalachian Trail. Stopped and ate lunch along the way. And, after about five miles, I arrived at an Appalachian Trail shelter. Then, I kept going. Until I found one of those unbelievable campsites, where I pitched my tent.

Backpacking Grayson Highlands Tip 3: Bring a Good Map for Your Hike.

Next, I went for water at a nearby spring. If you’re wondering where those are located, you can purchase the Mount Rogers High Country [Grayson Highlands State Park] (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map, 318). Because that’s the next piece of advice I’m going to give you, if you’re planning on exploring the park.

The reason you want the map is that there are a lot of trails and it can get downright confusing, especially at a few of the intersections.

So don’t be afraid to ask a local for directions. I know I asked some local trail experts for advice on my second trip. And, I even ran into a guy who lost the Appalachian Trail, while he was hiking in the park. So, get those maps folks, if you plan on roaming around Grayson Highlands and vicinity.

So where was I? Oh yes, at camp on top of one of the mountain ridges in Grayson Highlands. I’d just finished eating dinner. Putting away the trash. Brushing and flossing my teeth.

Then I found myself staring off into the distance at the setting sun. Oh, you should’ve seen it… All violet, yellow, orange, pink, and golden. Dusk. And dew.

The sun slowly sinking below the mountain ridges in the distance. Clouds on fire.

And something else. It was quiet. You could hear yourself. For once. Your heart beating. You might even find yourself at that moment. Or lose your self. If you just allow your self to let go.

A gorgeous sunset is shown in picture taken near base camp on a ridge in Grayson Highlands.
Watching the sunset in Grayson Highlands after setting camp for the night.

Backpacking Grayson Highlands Tip 4: Use a Bear Locker to Store Your Food.

But before it got completely dark on me. I headed over to the bear locker to put my food away for the night. So yeah, you should probably put your food in one of those, or risk a bear encounter in the middle of the night.

So there I was now, lying in my sleeping bag inside my tent. I had the outer rain fly pulled open. And I just watched those stars get brighter and brighter. Saw a shooting star just before I drifted off.

Backpacking Grayson Highlands Tip 5: Beware and Be Aware of the Weather.

Later, I awoke when the winds came. They sounded like a hurricane or a jet engine just behind me. Strangely, though, I guess those winds were either rushing up the backside of the mountain or blowing far above me against Mount Rogers, itself. Because my tent only shook and trembled a bit. And I never even had to pull my rain fly up or lash down the guy lines. But you can bet if there was any inclement weather that you’d get hit pretty hard by it in those high ridgeline campsites. Also, I’ve heard of people getting lost up there snowy conditions.

But as for me, well, those winds just seemed to bring a crisp and relaxing scent of pine needles into my tent. And I was grateful for that. As well as the view of the brilliant stars, as I drifted off into a deep, peaceful sleep for the rest of the night.

So the next day, I briefly thought about using my camp as a base. But thought the better of it, given that I’d heard rumors of the ponies ransacking people’s food bags and tents. Or even, running off with equipment, like trekking poles… So I only briefly went on a quick loop hike, heading toward a certain crossroads of trails, where I’d gotten a bit lost on my second trip to Grayson Highlands. And on my way back, I again encountered a few of the wild ponies that make Grayson Highlands famous in Virginia and beyond.

They stood in well-grazed clearing in the pines, like statues. Unmoving. Unflinching.

Except for a foal, lying in a thick bed of moss, which never even rose, as she grazed a bit on the greenery.

A foal, lying in a bed of moss in the early morning light, is shown in the photo.
A foal naps in the early morning light, dreaming of mischief and mayhem.

And oh how innocent they all seemed standing there like that in the early morning light. But it was all just a clever charade. Because I knew that they were all really just a bunch of bandits and ransackers of people’s food, equipment, and tents. Seriously, I’ve read credible accounts of the ponies ripping tents and other items to shreds. And suddenly, I was reminded of my unguarded campsite not so far away. So I hurried back. And luckily, found everything intact. Just as I left it.

Backpacking Grayson Highlands Tip 6: Don’t Set a Base camp.

But therein lies my most important piece of advice to you, if you’re planning on camping in Grayson Highlands State Park. I personally wouldn’t recommend setting a base camp at a primitive campsite, then exploring the park during the day. Rather, if you choose to roam about, then you should plan on packing up each day and keeping your tent, food, and equipment safely on your back.

Backpacking Grayson Highlands Tip 7: Pack Light.

So pack light and be prepared to hike around the park Appalachian Trail style with all your belongings in your backpack. Otherwise, you might come back to a campsite that’s unfortunately been ransacked by the very wild ponies that you traveled so far to see. And under no circumstances, should you ever plan to leave any food inside your tent. Heck, I even brought some bear spray with me. Just in case. But that’s just me.

Backpacking Grayson Highlands: Breaking Camp.

So, by this time, I figured that it was finally about time that I’d better get cracking and packing up my gear. Which is exactly what I did. And having completed this task at hand, I just sat back and ate a fine lunch. Then, I laid down, resting in my hammock for a bit in the shade of some pine trees, enjoying the stunning view of the sea of mountains that seemed to stretch into the distance for an eternity.

Later, I awoke in my hammock. Got up and stretched. Put the hammock into my backpack. Hoisted my aging backpack upon my shoulders. And finally, headed back down the mountain toward the trailhead.

But, this time, I took a bit of a detour on the way back, through a wide open field on the mountainside. And here, I discovered a few more campsites that were, at least, as jaw-dropping as the campsite that I’d just spent the night at. I couldn’t believe it! In fact, I found myself so drawn to these newly discovered sites that I planned to stay for the night. Except, I couldn’t find a good source of water. Sure, there was a stream, running right through the middle of the field. But the water ran tepid even at its source. I didn’t trust it. No matter, though. At least, now that I knew about this place, I simply figured that I’d just come back here another time, packing a couple liters of water, and stay the night. Sometime, soon.

So yeah, that was what was on my mind for the rest of the hike back to the trailhead and on my way back home.

Already, I was planning out my next adventure to the Highlands.

And why was that? I’ll tell you why. It was an epic experience.

No, it probably won’t change your life, like hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. Or holding your firstborn baby in your arms for the first time. Or kissing a girl for the first time in your life.

Then again, it just might, when you see that big old sun dipping beneath the distant horizon from atop the Highlands. And as that exquisite symphony of sound, color, and light overwhelms your senses, leaving your mind at a loss. Unable to comprehend the sheer beauty and immensity of all that is around you…

In the dying light of that day, you’ll finally come to a state of just being. Breathing in the cool crisp mountain air. Unhindered. Unimpeded. By anything. The fresh air filling your lungs! Naturally. The way it should be.

With no fear. No anxiety about what’s to come when the sun goes down on you. Because, you know that it’s okay. And that all this awareness and love you feel are infinite. Like the endless skies above you. And having cast aside the last vestiges of all your primal fears on this earth, only now are you finally free to be at peace with yourself and your God again. That is, if you dare to take the high road to the Highlands and stay for the night.


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Backpacking Grayson Highlands Bonus Tip: Secure a Parking Permit.

I forgot to mention in this article that if you want to stay overnight in Grayson Highlands State Park and park at Massie Gap, then you’ll need a permit to do so. There is a designated overnight backpacking parking area for those who want to stay overnight at Massie Gap. For more information, regarding the situation for overnight parking at Massie Gap, please visit this website.

Backpacking Grayson Highlands: Bonus Pony Picture.

Pony is shown in a highland field, approaching blog author.
I believe this foal devoured the unattended cookies and snacks of some nearby campers. Shortly after having her picture taken. So guard your food and belongings is all I’m saying.

After a long career in the publishing industry, Gary Alan left his corporate job to pursue his next adventures in life as a blogger, writer, investor, fly fisherman, hiker, and traveler. He is the author of the adventure fiction book, 'Big Thunder-Hearted River'.