In the west, Grayson County, VA stretches skyward to become the highest point in the state – the peak of Mount Rogers at 5,729 feet above sea level. That peak is clearly visible and accessible from the Grayson Highlands State Park. Simply hop on the Appalachian Trail and hike a few miles and you’ll end up quite close.
Trail log from the AT at the parking area
If you are worried about getting Fringed on the trail, perhaps neighboring Whitetop Mountain is more your speed; it’s the second highest mountain in Virginia, but there’s a nice road leading right up the summit. I wouldn’t try it in winter, though.
Drive or hike several miles down a little 4WD road, unlatch the livestock gate, and take a break in the grassy paddock. There you might see a high-clearance pickup truck and perhaps a tent or two. This is the Scales/Elk Garden area of the Grayson Highlands. It’s been a cattle grazing area for pioneers and farmers for at least two centuries, and it was still being grazed by cattle and WILD PONIES (more on that later) when I was there.
The roots of the mountains, and on up their slopes, are studded with relatively flat spots, which were apparently logged as soon as the area was settled. All that grazing and rocky terrain keeps those flat areas pretty clear of vegetation throughout the years, creating “balds” where the ground beneath your feet might be stone, caribou moss, or grass.
Farmers used to sell their horses and cattle (by weight) in this area, leading to the name, “The Scales.” In fact, you can still buy colts….
…of the wild ponies that roam the highland slopes. The ponies were introduced in the 60’s and pretty much left alone. The population as a whole is managed, but they are not pets (and they will bite you; I’ve seen it). I’ve spotted ponies all over the mountain. Certain areas are fenced off from them, but heck, I’ve seen them in there too.
Note that a pony is not a word for a young horse. Ponies are their own breed. These wild ponies will never grow to full horse size. You can ride a pony (probably not these ponies). However, Virginia does have some feral horses, especially in reclaimed or abandoned mining areas. Horse owners dropped them off as a local coal economy declined or as agricultural laws changed. The feral horses can breed but it seems their population remains fairly stable and limited. Other times, horse owners might just have deals with the local mineral rights holders to allow grazing on reclaimed strip mines or natural gas extraction areas.
I wouldn’t take a horse with me on the Fringe. I don’t think they have a dog’s natural immunity, and they’re too much a mode of transport. Something terrible would probably happen to it, and that would break my heart much more than injury and discomfort to my own person.
The trails were lined with berries of all kinds. A Fringe Hiker could stay alive out here by wading into the thorns and picking his fill. I only stayed for a bit this fall, but I sure ate a lot of berries.
The balds are beautiful picnic spots and scenic vistas. I see lots of plant species up there that I don’t see elsewhere in the region. The ecosystems are also different.
Some of the flatter forested areas form duffy swamps, even at the high elevations. You start seeing yellow birch and spruce.
Yellow birch has an interesting habit of growing in “nurse logs.” The seedling starts shooting up from within a rotten log that acts as compost for the young tree.
Roots are sent out, draped over the log, until they find the real soil and dig in. The roots and stem thicken as the log rots away, until it has vanished completely and you are left with the strange sight of an adult tree whose stem doesn’t start for a full twelve inches above ground level.
I spotted several such trees intertwined with each other.
And even a tree that had used the hollow of a larger tree as a nursery site.
The stones are interesting too. They reminded me of the glacial erratics in the Midwest, big stones dropped by melting glaciers. They’re very different from other stones in the area.
I asked a naturalist, and she told me Mount Rogers is the only part of Virginia where evidence of ancient glaciation can be seen – an ice age even older than the ones that shaped the Midwest. Furthermore, Mount Rogers and the surrounding area were formed by volcanic activity!
I’ve been on so many great trails in the Grayson Highlands, and this blog only details a few areas of the park. Get out there, explore, and don’t forget to take the long way home.