The sun was getting low in the sky, covering my campsite in a cool shadow from the towering, thick evergreens. I sat perched on an old log as the blue flame from my propane backpacker stove quickly boiled some water for my dinner. The air was still and quiet; not a sound to be heard for miles. But as the aroma of the chicken flavored rice wafted through the air I heard the sounds of snapping twigs and heavy footfalls. I looked up just in time to see three wild ponies emerge from the dark woods, slowly trotting across my campsite, heading right for my food.
The wild ponies of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in Virginia have become one of the most iconic and recognizable features of the Appalachian Trail. These large, gentle animals are fun to watch, they make excellent photographic subjects, and are fairly unique among the wildlife of the Appalachian Mountains. Two herds of wild ponies, about 150 altogether, roam across the mountains, ridges, and gaps throughout the Mount Rogers High Country and the Crest Zone. The ponies are left unattended throughout the year as they graze on the foliage, maintaining the bald mountains in the region.
One of the reasons they have become such iconic figures is because of how easy it is to find them during a day hike from Grayson Highlands State Park. Visitors can park at the Massie Gap Parking Lot and take one of three trails ranging from 4-8 miles round trip for a half or full day adventure. During the time on the trails hikers will see panorama views from the top of Wilburn Ridge, spot the gentle slopes of Mount Rogers, the tallest mountain in Virginia, and hopefully come across a small herd of wild ponies.
While the wild ponies are left unattended throughout the year they have become accustomed to the presence of day hikers. They will frequently graze on or near the trails without the usual skittishness of wild animals. They will also tug on backpacks full of food, so be careful if you walk away from your pack. The friendly staff at the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area Headquarters in Marion pointed out a rule printed on every map and brochure: do not feed or harass the ponies. While children will squeal with excitement and adults will admire their rugged cuteness, everyone should resist the desire to feed, pet, or ride the wild ponies. A wild pony may follow you for a mile or two, tug on your backpack, walk into your campsite at dinner, but they are gentle, peaceful animals. It’s part of the charm that has made them icons of the Appalachian Trail.
Even if you never wanted a pony for your 16th birthday, this is something exciting to see. A day hike from Grayson Highlands State Park takes about 3-4 hours, longer if you really spend some time exploring the various trails. Just be sure to wear comfortable hiking shoes, bring a set of trekking poles to maintain your balance, pack some food (not for the wild ponies), but most importantly bring an extra memory card for your camera. You’re going to need it.
Finding the Wild Ponies
Finding the wild ponies is often a hit-or-miss affair. They are free roaming, wild ponies after all. There are a few trails, however, that offer the best chances of spotting them. Here are some detailed directions on various trails, but to help make sense of this you can also grab a few maps. You can download the free Grayson Highlands State Park trail map here, or you can stop at the Visitor Center at the park to buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map #786 – Mount Rogers NRA, or Map #318 – Mount Rogers High Country.
Begin at Grayson Highlands State Park and Massie Gap Trail
Mileage: 0.5 miles Time: 30 minutes
Grayson Highlands State Park is the easiest and safest way to hike out to the areas where the wild ponies roam. Use the Massie Gap Parking Lot or, if that lot is full during the warmer summer months, try the Overnight Backpacker’s Lot.
The Massie Gap Trail, also called the Rhododendron Gap Trail on some maps, is a ½-mile trail that begins across a flat field before ascending a large hill. At the top of this hill the trail intersections the Horse Trail North and Appalachian Trail. All three routes take about the same amount of time, but some are more strenuous than others.
Option #1 – Horse Trail North and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail
Mileage: 3.5 miles Time: 1-2 hours
The horse trails are the easiest to walk since they are often wide, flat, and only a little bit rocky (just watch out for the little bits of nature left behind by the horses). Although these two trails are the easiest to hike, they are also the longest of the three options. The Virginia Highlands Horse Trail skirts the western edge of Wilburn Ridge, looping around the ridge to the opposite side.
From Massie Gap, take the Horse Trail North for 1 mile to the edge of the state park, where it meets up with the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. Turn left and continue south for about 2 miles until you see a wooden sign for the Crest Trail. The ½-mile Crest Trail will lead to the Appalachian Trail at Rhododendron Gap.
Option #2 – Appalachian Trail
Mileage: 1.5 miles Time: 1-2 hours
The Appalachian Trail is the most-often traveled route, leading across Wilburn Ridge to Rhododendron Gap. You will have the best chances of spotting wild ponies on this trail, but it is also the most difficult of the three. Entire sections of the trail are so rocky your feet won’t touch dirt for quiet a while, making it difficult for children to hike. But while this is the most difficult route, it is also the shortest.
From Massie Gap take the AT south for about 1 mile to the edge of the state park at a wooden fence. After exiting the park the trail crosses over the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail and begins the first ascension of Wilburn Ridge. The trail continues 1-½ miles across the ridge to Rhododendron Gap. The ridge has three distinctive knobs, but you only cross over the first and last knob on the AT (if you’re up for a strenuous hike, take the Wilburn Ridge Trail over the second knob).
Option #3 – Rhododendron Gap Trail
Mileage: 2 miles Time: 1-2 hours
The Rhododendron Gap Trail is the easiest of the three options. It skirts around the eastern side of Wilburn Ridge before crossing over the middle of the ridge. This trail is longer than taking the Appalachian Trail, but easier and still offers a good chance of seeing some wild ponies.
From Massie Gap take the Appalachian Trail for about 1 mile to the edge of the park. Look for the Rhododendron Gap Trail off to the right, running parallel to the Appalachian Trail. The Rhododendron Gap Trail continues for about a ½ mile before turning left and ascending across the middle of Wilburn Ridge. Once on the other side of the ridge the trail continues for another ½ mile before ending at the Crest Trail and looping around to Rhododendron Gap.