Nestled deep in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia is one of my favorite trails to hike anywhere in the Southeastern United States. The Wilson Creek Trail at Grayson Highland State Park is an easy to hike trail that meanders along a creek with a continuous series of small waterfalls, shallow swimming pools, and beautiful mountain scenery. I think once you read this story you’ll see why this is my favorite, and just might become yours, also.
Grayson Highlands State Park is one of the largest parks in the state, offering a large array of outdoor activities for various travelers. Camping, backpacking, hiking, horseback riding, the park also features a short section of the Appalachian Trail. While the park has many claims to fame, it is perhaps best known as the easiest way to view the wild ponies of the AT, just a few miles hike from the Massie Gap parking lot.
But the one trail that keeps drawing me back to this park is the Wilson Creek Trail. Located in the campground near the Country Store, this 1.78-mile trail is one of the shortest to hike with some of the best views. But before you get started, consider taking lots of water (ironic, considering you’ll be walking along a creek full of water), some swimming shorts and shoes, a towel to dry off, and maybe even a full picnic. With this assortment of gear you’ll be ready to take advantage of everything this trail has to offer.
The hike from the camp store to the creek is easy, but also raises a few red flags. It is a near-continuous drop in elevation from the state of the trail until you first hear the rushing waters of the creek. There is an old saying for hikers: what goes down, must come up. Remember this later. The initial hike down through the thick forest is actually a lot of fun. It’s easy on your legs, the thick canopy of leaves during the summer creates a cool shade from the sun, and you are immediately whisked away from sounds of cars, trucks, or campers.
After hiking for about 10-20 minutes you will eventually hear the sound of rushing water. It’s faint at first, getting louder the closer you approach. You can’t see it until suddenly you break through some foliage and there it is. The rushing waters of Wilson Creek. From here the trail stays on the left with the creek on the right as you hike against the flow of water. You pass one small waterfall after another, each crashing into a shallow pool of water.
These pools are no more than 2-3′ deep, but it’s just enough to get your feet wet. Children love swimming in this water, and each time I have hiked this trail in the summer I have come across families taking advantage of the natural pools. Many people will bring picnics and enjoy a meal on one of the large, flat boulders surrounded by the creek. It’s easy to get out to a few of the boulders by pushing your way through some of the foliage, and makes an unbeatable place to enjoy a meal with a loved one.
When I was fifteen years old my family brought our new puppy, Sassy, to this trail for her first real outdoor adventure. She kept up well that day and had the time of her life. Before we left my dad tossed her into one of the deeper pools, reminding her that she already knew how to swim. She took her first lap around the pool, and didn’t stop. My brother, sister, and I hopped into the cool mountain water to swim with Sassy, and made a day out of this hiking trail.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the hike back. It’s not necessarily bad, but it can hit you when you least expect it. Eventually the trail leaves the creek behind through a series of very steep climbs before eventually joining a horse trail. That first steep climb is the hardest, and can be particularly difficult if you have a sleepy little one strapped to your back or in your arms. But once you get on the wide horse trail you’re set for an easy hike back, taking a little longer than twice the time it took to get down there.
The Wilson Creek Trail is one to enjoy throughout the year. During the summer months it is a great way to escape the harsh sun and humid temperatures. When the leaves start to turn in the fall the entire area is lit like a stained glass window during the mid-day sun. Early spring is a good time to get out for the brisk temps and early blooming flowers. The only time I have not hiked the trail is winter with snow on the ground; I think it would be thrilling to see these waterfalls and pools frozen over, but I also worry about how safe it would be hiking across those rocks and boulders with a layer of ice on top. It’s something I want to try, and you just might be able to get there before me.
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