Grayson Highlands State Park
Nestled in the southernmost reaches of the Jefferson National Forest and not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grayson Highlands State Park stands watch over Mount Rogers– Virginia's highest peak– and has access to some true wild Virginia treasures.
Welcome to Grayson Highlands where the wild ponies roam free and the trails take you to breathtaking views or blissful waterfalls. Perhaps more reminiscent of rural England than most anywhere you will find on the East Coast, Grayson Highlands State Park serves as a hub for almost two dozen trails for all sorts of adventure.
Grayson Highlands State Park
Hiking, Biking, Horse-Riding, Fishing, Bouldering
Hikers have access to nearly three miles of the famed 2150 mile Appalachian Trail that winds through the park's northern border as well as a vast network of trails; equestrians' pursuits are met by dedicated trails and connection spurs to the 52-mile Virginia Highland's Horse Trail; mountain bikers can ride miles of orchard and logging trails from either of the two park campgrounds; and anglers can choose from ten miles of sparkling mountain streams swimming with native brook and wild rainbow trout. If that's not enough, Grayson Highlands is considered one of the best bouldering sites in Virginia and has four main boulder fields plus three smaller ones.
If you find yourself camping at either Hickory Ridge or Chestnut Hollow Campground, then you won't find a better jumping off point for adventure than Massie Gap. Named for a family that occupied the land back in the day, Massie Gap (and its parking area) gives you access to a number of great trails and may be the only place you need to go to begin a day or two in the outback and experience the best that the Virginia Highlands have to offer.
If you are new to hiking, or you are a hiker and want to get your spouse or kids excited about the pursuit, then know there is nothing like a carrot to dangle out in front to inspire your crew - and each of the Highlands Trifecta has a big juicy one indeed.
Rhododendron Trail - Boulders and Wild Ponies
At only one-third of a mile and not much elevation gain, the Rhododendron Trail may be the perfect introduction to a life of exploration. If by chance the wild ponies are gathered in the meadow near the trailhead, then you might be inspired to call it a day --- but you'd be missing out on a great hike and some other iconic opportunities.
After a steep climb, the trail levels off to a comfortable grade. Keep an eye east for some huge boulders that are great for a mid-hike scramble that are just challenging enough to make you glad you came, but not so much that you are inclined to turn back. Continue on the Horse Trail North or take a turn on the famous Appalachian Trail (AT) which runs parallel. In most cases you are bound to run into the wild ponies that have occupied the area since 1975.
If you a feeling especially adventurous (and prepared) this is a good jumping off point for a few days on the AT. Or a full day's hike (9 plus miles round trip) will get you from Massie Gap to Thomas Knob Shelter and the top of Mount Rogers with a good taste of the storied trail.
Things to Know:
- Be prepared for wild temperature swings and sudden precipitation.
- Do not feed the wild ponies.
- Thomas Knob Shelter has a water source 150 yards behind it.
- Leashed dogs allowed on the trail.
Cabin Creek Trail - Waterfalls
If you've come looking for water and a little more of a challenge, then take up the Cabin Creek Trail, a 2-mile loop, just west of the Massie Gap hub. An enchanting green tunnel of rhododendron greets you through first stretch giving way to a rolling trail over fern embanked slopes and the streams run with stocked brown and wild rainbow trout.
The payoff at mid-way point are the tiered waterfalls which offer a lot of opportunity for bouldering, cooling off, or some fun water play.
Big Pinnacle and Little Pinnacle Trail - Magnificent Summit Overlooks
Two options present themselves as jumping off points to make the twin summits of Big and Little Pinnacle, but one is the clear winner in our never to be humble opinions. One trailhead has you leaving from the visitor center at the top of Massie Gap and, on the surface, looks to be the best option. But trust us when we say that starting at the top and working the first leg down will give you a false sense of ease when you make the turn for home.
Start from the upper Massie Gap parking area and find the not-so-well-marked Big Pinnacle trailhead located across from Massie Gap. A rather steep climb greets you on the first leg taking you to Big Pinnacle, about half-mile from the lot and rewards your effort with stunning 180-degree views of Mount Rogers and the Virginia Highlands north. We made this our second hike of the day, after a warm up on the Cabin Creek trail and a picnic lunch at the Visitor Center. This late Sunday afternoon trek gave us the whole leg to ourselves and a private viewing of Big Pinnacle.
After the short descent from the top the trail breaks east which takes you another half-mile up to Little Pinnacle (5,089 feet) and eventually the visitor center. You know you are getting close to the second stop at Little Pinnacle when the towering oak and pine forest dramatically give way to lower growth as you begin heading above the tree line.
Little Pinnacle is equally beautiful and on a clear day gives you unobstructed views west southwest on past Virginia into eastern Tennessee. Take a nice long rest here and enjoy the beautiful views knowing that the path home is mostly down hill. You can make this a loop, but we opted for the shorter out-and-back.
While the visitors center has the customary gift shop full of all sorts of local artisan crafts, the building also houses a fascinating array of Virginia Highlands pioneer history and introductions to the area flora and fauna. Questions are eagerly answered by the knowledgeable and courteous center staff and the southeast view of the valley as taken in from the comfy oak rockers should not be wasted. It also turns out that the center is a good jumping off point for the Little and Big Pinnacle hike but do take our word that the trek is better started from the Massie Gap parking area, as you'll tackle the hardest uphill climb first.
Things to Know:
- Hours: 9am-6pm (mid-May through mid-October)
- Trailhead Access: Little & Big Pinnacle Loop; Listening Rock Trail; Stamper's Branch Trail
- Picnic tables and flush toilets available