I stepped from my car and the wind immediately whipped the map case from my hand and underneath the car. I had been warned about the wind here and I remembered that warning now as I crawled on my hands and knees in the broken ice trying to reach the map in its plastic bag.
After the wind I noticed the cold and I thought to myself later this would have been a good trip to do what I got in the habit of doing in Colorado. There, I would often pull over with partners near the base of the mountain and to get dressed in our gear so when we arrived at the trail head at 11,000 and it was cold, we would step from the car already properly attired and ready to go. But alas, I did not do this. As a matter of fact, after a 5 hour 45 minute drive to get here starting at 3:00am, I barely stopped at the front entrance to register and pay my $1 parking fee for Grayson Highlands State Park…I wanted out of that car!
After retrieving the map, still on my hands and knees, I noticed there was one other vehicle in the parking area at Massie Gap. Getting up, I quickly traded Tevas for heavy socks and leather boots and threw on my shell jacket to cut the wind. Opal, my companion for the trip (as I had not been able to talk any office mates into coming with me) kept circling the car in an attempt to get out of the wind. Soon I was ready so I put on my gloves, donned my hood and started up the grassy hill toward the Appalachian Trail (AT).
Before this outing I had inquired on rec.backcountry about possible conditions and about the hike in general. I received some good feedback and was looking forward to seeing the area that so many people enjoyed in the summer, but without the hordes. I was not to be disappointed as upon my return 4 hours later we had not seen another human sole… which suited us just fine.
At the top of the hill, the State Park trail caught up with the AT and headed across an open area toward the Lewis Fork Wilderness area. Before we reached the park boundary we came across five ponies eating the dry winter grass on a small knoll.
There evidently is a private organization that watches over these ponies and the park endorses them so the area will remain a grassy ridge vs. scrub bush or treed. After crossing over a fence ladder to enter the Wilderness area, Opal and I started some elevation gain. The trail was frozen, dry dirt with patchy ice in the shaded areas. We immediately were confronted with a choice, continue to the right on the AT or pick up the Wilburn Ridge trail going straight up and over the ridge. Easy choice even with the wind… we of course went up onto the rocks of the Wilburn Ridge!
The vista, even with the low hanging clouds was great and we could easily see into North Carolina to the south. I also spotted what I thought was Mt Rogers still away in the distance. The area is perhaps the nicest area in VA with open ridges and above tree line similar to mountains west of Kansas. The Wilburn Ridge trail continues for .5 miles until joining again with the AT near Rhododendron Gap. At the Gap, numerous trails converge but the signage is excellent and Opal and I continued on the AT into a forest of pine trees. Once in the trees, snow appeared, but it had melted down into hard pack and it was easy enough to walk on top of and keep a good pace.
It was also nice to get out of the constant 30mph wind and accompanying noise. The AT is marked with white blazes and easy to follow. Coming out of the trees on the other end of the ridge I saw a shelter on the hill. We made our way through a stile designed to keep grazing cows out and came upon the Thomas Knob AT shelter. A hardy shelter showed no signs of recent use other than a paperback book and a candle lantern left over by a past backpacker. We left both intact, continued past an open-air outhouse, through another stile until we reached the Mt Rogers spur trail to the summit.
Making the final elevation gain, we went back into the trees, and entered a dense pine forest, which made it quite dark. With Opal forging ahead, we made quick time up to summit and found the USGS marker embedded in the rocks on top. Nice summit, no view. One of those hikes where the trip getting there is better than the destination. J
We were both hungry, but I wanted to sit down somewhere with a view, so after about 5 minutes we headed back down, came out of the tress and rejoined the AT northbound. We passed by the shelter and down the gentle ridge to Rhododendron Gap where we found a good place to sit on an outcropping sheltered from the wind. Opal wolfed down a late breakfast and then wanted to start on my lunch but I shooed her away. I don’t want to be stranded on a deserted island with a limited food supply with her…I know who would starve first! As we were sitting there we heard the roar of a jet engine and sure enough, a few seconds later an F-15 came streaking across the mountains under the low ceiling of clouds. The jet, on a low-level route presumably, ran low down the valley at about 2000’ and executed a right bank around a mountain out of sight. We waited for perhaps a trail fighter a few minutes behind but none appeared. I was not surprised, as low level routes have to be over uninhabited areas for obvious reasons. I have always labeled military jet engine noise as the “sound of freedom”. But it still jolted me from my isolation zone of being the only up in the mountains that day.
The planes passing also jarred me into wrapping up our food stop and we continued down the AT. Crossing back into the State Park, we encountered the ponies now lying in the grass taking a morning’s nap. Opal, on the melting trail was now quickly turning black from mud as we headed down the hill toward the trailhead. We had made it the entire time with her keeping reasonably clean and now the last mile turned her a different color! We made it back to the car at 12:44pm.
For some reason it seemed just as cold at the car as it had been when we started so I quickly changed clothes, attempted to wipe Opal off and we headed down the road to the park entrance. When I had called the week previous to check on conditions, the road had been closed because of ice and I was contemplating just walking up it adding about 6 miles RT. Glad I did not have to do this, as it would have been no fun! After leaving the park, I completed a high-speed rally driving through the mtns to I-81 and pointed the car north to Wash DC. 5 hours, 28 minutes later I was home. A long way to go for a day hike, but I wanted to do this highpoint in winter to avoid the crowds. That plan worked and I can now personally attest to the beauty of area. This was highpoint #21 … getting closer to the hump goal of 25!
Beta: 8.4 miles RT, 3.5 hours, AT, Driving: 720 miles RT, 11 hours driving time (sort of lopsided I know)