Everybody knows you can find the wild ponies on the Appalachian Trail just outside Grayson Highlands State Park. Or at least, I think everybody knows that. But I find most people do not know the state park nestled in one of the most beautiful areas of Southwest Virginia boasts 17 trails for hiking, cross country skiing, horseback riding, or mountain biking.
Any time of the year is a great time to visit this park, but I find Fall to be my favorite season. The leaves will turn earlier here than most of the surrounding areas because the park sits at an average elevation of about 4,500′ (the elevation is 3,698′ at the park entrance and 4,953′ at the visitor center). When the leaves turn here, there are a few trails that offer stunning views to appreciate the color palette of the season.
Here is a list (and a few photos) of my five favorite hiking/biking/horseback riding trails in this park, along with information about each trail so you’ll be prepared for the excursion. I’ve done two of these in the same day, but never more than two. If you truly want to spend some time here to appreciate all the park has to offer, bring a tent or RV, or you can enjoy one of the many rental cabins in the area.
1. Rhododendron Trail and the Appalachian Trail
Blaze: Blue/White Distance: 1/11 miles Time: 2-3 hours Usage: Hiking Difficulty: Moderate
The most commonly hiked trail in the park begins at Massie Gap. When I was a kid, this was also one of the most difficult trails to hike because it went straight up about 300′ in elevation from the parking area. But a few years ago the park planted blueberry bushes and altered the path of the trail so it winds left and right in a more gradual climb. Of course, the kid in me wants those blueberries every time I walk past them now.
I had only walked about 50′ up this trail once when I suddenly felt something tugging my backpack. It startled me a bit because I thought I was the only person out here. Well, that was actually true. The tugger turned out to be one of the wild ponies you’ll find in this section of the park. I didn’t know they kept the ponies inside the park, but this little guy had been wandering through the blueberry bushes and decided to come say hello to me. This is also the part where I have to warn and plead you about something: don’t feed the wild ponies. This one was tugging on my backpack because he smelled the food and was hoping to get at it. Feeding them not only creates dependence, it also creates a problem when you’re trying to set up camp and cook your meal, and suddenly five ponies come tromping through.
The hike up the Rhododendron Trail (also known as the Massie Gap Trail) is very short, takes only about 15-20 minutes, and is fairly strenuous. But once you reach the top you are treated to a spectacular view of nearby mountain ranges such as Wilburn Ridge. This flat area is a great place to hang out for awhile, but if you really want a view you’re gonna have to keep walking.
The Rhododendron Trail ends when it connects with the Appalachian Trail. Turning left will take you south toward Thomas Knob and Mt. Rogers. Turning right will take you toward Marion. You can also stay straight on the Horse Trail North. Hiking is allowed on the horse trail, just keep in mind the horses have the right of way. It is flatter and a bit easier to walk, so this is a good way to go with children.
The Appalachian Trail runs for about 2 miles before reaching the edge of the park at a gate. If you plan to camp on the AT you’ll have to hike at least this far since any camping inside the park must be at the campground. On just the other side of the gate there is a beautiful area for a campsite. I tried to set up camp here once after spending six days hiking the AT from the south. It was about four in the afternoon so I thought I could set up my tent and then walk back up Wilburn Ridge to shoot some photos. However, as soon as I set up the tent a bull gradually, slowly, methodically walked right through the campsite, and right through my tent. With a tattered and broken tent, my only choice was to pack up and leave the park altogether. Now, don’t get me wrong about this: after speaking with a park ranger, I appear to be the only person that has ever had a problem like this from a bull. That would figure.
From here you have two paths you can take across Wilburn Ridge. The ridge is noted for three knobs, each one higher than the one before. If you stay straight you’re on the Appalachian Trail. It’s rocky. You can easily walk a mile without your feet every touching dirt. If you don’t have good tennis shoes or preferably hiking shoes, you’re feet will throb by the end of the day. It’s strenuous, but not impossible. However, if you have children you may want to use the Rhododendron Trail to the right. This trail begins at the edge of the park and works around the base of Wilburn Ridge during the first knob before crossing the ridge in a flat area. This trail is flat, much easier to walk, and a bit faster.
Once you reach the top of Wilburn Ridge you’re treated to some amazing 360-degree views of the surrounding area. The title image at the top of this story was taken from atop the first knob beside the flat area where the trails intersect. This is where I found a herd of bull a couple of years ago, but it’s also just as likely you’ll find wild ponies. If you really want to find the ponies, cross the second knob to another flat area. They love this area, and during the summer months I would frequently find them lounging around this area.
2. Wilson Creek Trail
Blaze: Red Distance: 1.78 miles Time: 2-3 hours Usage: Hiking Difficulty: Strenuous
When I was a kid my parents would bring the entire family (including the dog) to this trail. This trail is actually my favorite because you pass multiple waterfalls, one at a time, for about a half mile as you hike up the creek. At the bottom of a few of these waterfalls is a small wading area. The entire family picked on me relentlessly one day when I was about 15 years old because I had spent my allowance money to buy a daypack from Walmart. My dad told me I didn’t want to bring too much weight with me because of the trail. But after my brother, my sister, and I climbed out of the pool dripping wet and a bit cold, I reached into my bag and pulled out a towel. One towel. Dry socks, fresh shoes, and another t-shirt. They stopped picking on me.
The Wilson Creek Trail is a beautiful hike, but it’s a little bit misleading. It will start out easy as you walk down into the forest, further away from the camp store where you park, and closer to the creek. What you don’t really think about is the fact you are descending down the mountain for the first 20 minutes. As they say in mountain hiking: what goes down, must also climb back up again.
Once you reach the creek you’ll stay alongside it for about a half mile. There are many different waterfalls ranging from a few feet to about 10′ high. Some are easy to look at, but others require a bit of effort to get out to them. Be careful getting out there! The rocks can be slippery. One of the very last waterfalls you can see has a fantastic spot on a large boulder where you can watch the water. This is a great place for a picnic because after this you have a very long hike back.
The initial journey away from the creek will make you appreciate those days you spent an extra ten minutes on the stair master at the gym. It goes up, and it goes up in a hurry. But the nice thing about this trail is that about halfway back you connect with the Horse Trail East. At this point the trail becomes wide, flat, and easier to climb. That’s why I always walk this direction: easier hike back.
3. Cabin Creek Trail
Blaze: Yellow Distance: 1.8 miles Time: 1-2 hours Usage: Hiking Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
The Cabin Creek Trail tricked me good a couple of years ago during my first hike here. I knew there was a magnificent waterfall on this trail, so I came prepared with a tripod, camera, and equipment to capture a long exposure of the falls. I started out hiking (and after ten minutes realized I had left the mounting bracket for the tripod in the car, so I had to perform a quick return trip) down the mountain trail. It’s much like the Wilson Creek Trail: you spent the first 20-30 minutes doing nothing but descending.
That’s when I came across the waterfall. It was about six inches high, right alongside the trail. I was a bit disappointed because I though the “magnificent waterfall” would have been a bit bigger. So I broke out the tripod, attached the camera, pulled out the shutter release cable, and started shooting. Took about ten minutes to get the photos I wanted. I packed everything up and started hiking again.
For awhile the trail crisscrossed the small creek with the tiny waterfall, but I kept wondering why I was hearing a louder rushing noise far below. Finally the trail took a sharp turn and I saw it: the waterfall. It was kinda hidden behind some rhododendron bushes but still easy to view. It was about three feet high and more like a cascade than a waterfall. So I broke out the tripod, mounted the camera, and captured a few more photos. After packing everything up I started hiking again.
At this point the trail becomes flat as it winds along the edge of the large creek. After about fifteen minutes I saw it. While my heart leaped with joy, my shoulders slumped. It was another waterfall! The waterfall! The magnificent waterfall! This was was about 12′ high, split into three different streams, all tumbling across the exposed rocks. Once again, I broke out the equipment, captured a few photos, and packed it all up. Satisfied with the photos I had captured, I continued the hike.
That’s when I saw it. 30′ high. Roaring louder than all the previous falls put together. It was absolutely magnificent. But to be honest, at this point I couldn’t break out all that equipment again. Instead, I climbed out on a boulder in front of this amazing waterfall and just enjoyed the view, the rushing waters, the roaring sounds. It was moist, but not uncomfortable. The rock was covered with a bit of moss so it was soft to sit on. I sat here for about a half hour before beginning the journey back.
From here, the trail begins a long and steep upward climb. It was wet and slippery in a few places, so be careful with children. Keep a close eye on them, and keep them in front of you. But once you reach the top of the waterfall, the trail levels off a bit and runs fairly straight. It is actually much quicker to return to the parking area from this end of the trail. So, when you are first starting the trail, you can go left to follow the route I just described. Or you can go right to get straight to the heart of the trail and enjoy the waterfall.
4. Wilburn Branch Trail
Blaze: Green Distance: 2.2 miles Time: 2-3 hours Usage: Biking Difficulty: Strenuous
I’ll admit I have not biked this particular trail, but I have a few friends who have. I walked it once just so I could see the trail. You access the Wilburn Branch Trail from either the Stamper’s Branch or Upchurch Road Trails. For the most part this trail is used by fishermen hoping to catch some wild trout. But the trail is also wide enough to allow mountain bikers a fun time for the 2.2-mile length.
The trail runs from the campground area through the center of the park to the Homestead Area. Either way is just about as easy to traverse, but you’ll have an easier time finding parking at the Homestead Area (not to mention this is a nice place to explore while cooling down from your ride).
5. Horse Trail North and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail
Blaze: Orange Distance: 0.9/52 miles Time: 4-5 hours Usage: Hiking & Horseback Riding Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
I’ve only ever gone horseback riding at Grayson Highlands State Park once, and this was the route we took. At the time I didn’t know any of my fellow riders since I had met them about twenty minutes before hopping onto the horse. I passed them while returning from the Wilson Creek Trail. They were taking the Horse Trail East to Massie Gap, where they would then join up with the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. After chatting for a few minutes, one of the riders (who was an avid amateur photographer and wanted to pick my brain) offered to get me a horse and take me with them.
Twenty minutes later I’m standing outside the gate at Massie Gap waiting for my ride to arrive. I was about as ill-prepared for such a trip as you could be: I was wearing shorts, simple tennis shoes, and I had to wear my photography backpack because there was just no way to settle it on the horse. After a few minutes of adjusting the saddle and learning how not to destroy my lower back and legs (they decided it was easier to tell a first-time horseback rider what not to do rather than how to do it properly) we were off. It was the most interesting way I had ever traveled through nature.
The Horse Trail North is just a short spur that connects riders staying inside the park with the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. The Highlands Trail is 52 miles long, running sort of parallel with the Appalachian Trail. Since you’re on horseback the ride is easy (as long as you know how to ride a horse) and the views stunning. If you take the Highlands Trail south you’ll move along the edge of Wilburn Ridge, close to Thomas Knob, and then past Mt. Rogers toward Whitetop Mountain. There are several excellent camping sites along the way, and plenty of water for the horses. From what I was told that day, the first thing first-time riders forget about is water for the horses. Don’t forget this.
The best part about riding horseback along this trail is that it’s a lot like driving the Blue Ridge Parkway: you’re not physically exerting yourself, so you get to enjoy the views more. At points the horse trail breaks through an overgrown area and you are treated with stunning vistas. It’s also not difficult to use spur trails for a short hike to higher vantage points for better views. Then again, when you’re about 10′ high off the ground riding a powerful animal through nature, the view just about can’t get any better!
These are just five of my favorite trails at Grayson Highlands State Park, but the park has so much more to offer. There are shorter, easier trails like the Rock House Ridge Trail. There are longer, more strenuous trails like the Twin Pinnacles Trail. Whatever your desire, however much you may want to walk, and however far you want to cover, there is a trail for you at this park. Now stop reading and get out there! Nature is happening.