High Country Escape with Wild Ponies
discovered for Stir Crazy by Jocelyn Neal
Grayson Highlands State Park, located just over the border in Virginia, is my favorite camping spot and weekend getaway from the Triangle, almost too good a secret to share! I took my three kids, ages 8, 5, and 3, for a three-day, two-night car camping trip this summer, and the kids had a blast.
The park is known for its wild ponies, which graze in the high open meadows. Close to Mount Rogers, it features peaks over 5,000 feet, with spectacular views, and one of the most scenic stretches of the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the park and is easily accessible via short spur trails. The park is also horse-friendly, with camping areas and trails specifically designated for horses. As a destination for kids, the park has lots of amenities (including a playground), but my favorite feature is relatively short hiking trails (1.5-3 miles) that lead to really spectacular views, so the kids can get a full hiking experience and its rewards before their legs give out.
We camped at the park’s Hickory Ridge Campground, which has tent sites as well as full hook-ups for RVs. Reservations are taken through the on-line parks reservations system, and I chose a standard tent site (to be selected upon arrival). The campground is heavily wooded and quite nice, with standard picnic tables, a hanging post, campfire circle, and gravel tent pad. The tent pads are a tad small, and the campsites rather close together (don’t expect too much campsite privacy). Also, water spigots are not close to all the sites, which is a bit of a bother. The bath houses, with hot showers, are also small, but quite clean, and have a separate room with dish-washing sinks. We picked a site that backed into an open meadow of wildflowers – just about the prettiest “back yard” one could ask for, and my girls spent hours exploring the meadow and making a bouquet for our table. The campground also has a large-group camping area and an amphitheater.
The campground has a large open lawn with swings for the kids. The campground’s store is delightful! It stocks all the expected supplies one might have forgotten, plus some cute souvenirs, and a frozen slushy machine and ice cream bar freezer. The slushies were the perfect incentive for hiking: promises of getting to make their own slushies got the kids up those last few stretches of the hikes! The store also has a pile of toys – Frisbees, jump ropes, etc.—that can be checked out for free to keep the kids entertained in the campground. And of course ice and firewood are available for purchase (Virginia asks that campers not bring their own wood).
The park hosts a big music festival and several other events throughout the year, and so one section of the park is developed for day use, with swings, a big jungle-gym playground, huge open lawns, and historic buildings.
The park office, located near the entrance gate, has park maps and information available. The visitor’s center, located near the highest point in the park, has some lovely crafts for sale, a small museum with a great diorama showing the park’s animals including a black bear, and artifacts such as old weaving looms from the settlers who lived in the area. It’s well worth a visit, and the park rangers also have great suggestions for where to hike.
We hiked a loop consisting of the Rhododendron Trail, across the Appalachian Trail along Wilburn Ridge, and down the Appalachian Spur Trail. Even the three-year-old managed quite well. Park rangers in the Massie Gap parking area told us where the ponies had last been sighted, and we enjoyed watching two herds that we found on the hike. I could have spent all day just watching the ponies! We also did some bouldering while on the Appalachian Trail, which was my oldest’s favorite part of the trip.
We hiked the Cabin Creek trail to the waterfall, which was beautiful. And we hiked the Wilson Creek Trail that starts in the campground to see a couple of waterfalls. There were places where one could certainly wade and play in the creek.
We also hiked the Twin Pinnacles Trail, which is an easy loop departing from the Visitor’s Center. The half of the trail that leads to Little Pinnacle and then Big Pinnacle is spectacular. Views along the way are gorgeous, and there are a number of finds such as a tree perched on top of a four-foot boulder, with its roots wrapping all the way around the boulder. There were lots of rocky outcroppings along the trail that my oldest two scrambled up, delighted to be climbing all along the hike. The final stretch of the trail to Big Pinnacle winds around a somewhat steep set of stone steps laid in the trail (steep in terms of a hiking trail for a 3-year-old – adult hikers wouldn’t find this even remotely steep). But the kids persevered to the top, my littlest declaring that we were “hiking into the sky!” The rocky peak of Big Pinnacle, with views of Massie Gap and Mount Rogers, etc., was my youngests’ favorite part of the trip. I wish we had re-traced our steps on the way back, because the other half of the loop trail was just a walk through the woods – nowhere near as interesting as the first half of the trail.
The park is relatively high in elevation – Little Pinnacle is 5,084 ft.—and visitors are warned to be prepared for sudden changes in the weather, as major storms do roll through pretty regularly. All the trails we hiked had storm shelters and benches built along them, in most cases by boy scouts and girl scouts. The elevation also means that the park is a heavenly escape from summer heat! Remember to pack warm clothes, especially for the kids, as mine were happy to have long pants and hooded sweatshirts in the morning and evenings, even in July. And it’s in a fairly remote location, so pack and plan accordingly for self-sufficient camping. There is also no cell phone coverage at all throughout the park. Old-fashioned maps may be needed to get to and from the park, if you are used to navigating with your cell phone.
All in all, it was a fantastic camping trip with the kids, and I can’t wait to get back again.
What we liked: great camping with kid-friendly amenities and excellent kid-accessible hikes, wild ponies, spectacular views, and just over three hours from Durham.
What we’d change: the campground needs better access to water for campers, and the sites are a tad too close together for my preference. And two nights wasn’t long enough! But those are the tiniest of details in an otherwise amazing vacation.
Visitor’s Center, with museum.
Campground bath house.
Tent site, very near the bathhouse and backing up to the meadow.
Dessert every night!
Meadow behind our tent site.
Playground near the Henderson Stage.
View from Big Pinnacle, looking across Massie Gap.
Pony grazing along trail.
Waterfall on the Cabin Creek Trail
View from Little Pinnacle (elevation 5,084 ft).
Tree growing over a boulder on the Twin Pinnacles Trail.
Watching the ponies on the Appalachian Trail.
Wilson Creek Trail
Grayson Highlands State Park
829 Grayson Highland Ln., Mouth of Wilson, VA 24363;
PDF Trail Guide and park map:
Info: Standard tent site for out-of-state visitor was $24 per night. Firewood bundle: $5.