Feb 27, 2013 at 10:33 am #1299767
Greetings all. I'm planning to take my two boys (ages 8 & 9) on a two night, 10-15 mile backpacking trip in the Grayson Highlands in Southwest Virginia in early June. Any advice or guidance for that area during that time of year?
I'm particularly interested in nighttime temps and water availability. I've heard it can be cold and windy even in June at the higher elevations that time of year. From a gear perspective they will each be carrying very light loads, probably just light packs, down quilts, water, and some rain gear. I'll be hauling everything else. I'm going to suck it up and invest in some lightweight down bags for them and have been debating on playing it safe and getting 20 degree bags vs just going with 30-40 degree bags.
Thanks for any advice/tips.Feb 27, 2013 at 12:47 pm #1959332
@mocs123Locale: Southeast Tennessee
I was in the Highlands 5 or 6 years ago in mid June and it was 33* one night. I was also there in late July and it was 37*. That isn't normal but not unheard of. I would expect normal temps around 45* at night.
Water can be a little hard to come by but there are reliable springs at the AT shelters and really nice springs at Deep Gap and along the AT near Whitetop mountain (on the way to Buzzard Rock).Feb 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm #1959387
Thanks Bradford for the insight. I'll definitely pick up 20 degree bags then. The last thing I want to do is have two cold kids on their first overnight backpacking adventure!Feb 27, 2013 at 3:04 pm #1959402
Get the Trails Illustrated Map of the area. It shows all the springs. I've never failed to find water in them.
Check out google "Grayson Highlands state park weather.com" if you look up "monthly forecast" they list the record highs, lows and averages for the area.
Another resource is the state park. If you call they usually give you an idea of the current weather and how much water there is.
Where are you hiking? Definately do the Pine Mountain Trail/AT loop. That will hit some of the best scnery (and the wild ponies). Also I really, really like the AT from Elk Garden to Massie Gap.
There are a number of trip reports here about Grayson Highlands if you want to see some pictures of the area. If you go in June you might see the flowers blooming. That makes an pretty area even better.Feb 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm #1959494
When I take my kids to Grayson/Mt Rogers I usually stay in the high country section and just hike a bunch of different trails. This gives me a lot of options for changing the distance if the kids get tired, etc.
1. Great views on the 2.5 miles section from Rho Gap and Scales. Water at the halfway point on a side trail that is marked. You have to hike through the campsite and around a rock. Reliable. Campsites at several places, but might favorite is just shy of the scales on your left if you are hiking toward the scales from rho gap. Dry camp, but you can get water on the way
2. Stone mountain dry camp. From scales go south on AT. You will climb a short hill and then cross over stone mtn. Great campsite on your right before going back in the woods
3. Bearpen trail. Great campsite behind a huge rock.
4. AT south of Rho gap and on the crest have plenty of spots but overused.
5. Pine mtn trail has some good spots in the woods
6. If weather is nice you can find several real nice spots just off AT on wilburn ridge.
7. Hiking south on AT after passing stone mtn, but just prior to reaching stream and Wise shelter. Sites off to the right
1. Off crest trail between Rho Gap and scales. This one is in the edge of the woods on a short side trail THROUGH campsites, not the lower trail around campsites. Reliable. Signed and on map
2. Off crest trail south of Rho gap short distance. Fenced in from ponies. Signed on map
3. Streams around Wise shelter, before AT Spur trail and VHA all reliable
4. From scales take the forest road a short distance. Water on the right hand side of the road
5. Thomas Knob Shelter
6. Old Orchard Shelter
7. If you go as far as whitetop mountain. Pipe on side of trail/road
A few not to use.
– The one on the Crest Trail I described above, not the fenced in water area close to the big horse campsite (intersection of Crest, Pine and Cliffside trail). Nice campsite in edge of woods, but do not use water source
– Scales trail (I think it is the one). Maps shows a source. Pick another one
Let me know if you have questions. I have spent a lot of time in this area.
BradFeb 28, 2013 at 9:59 am #1959716
@luke Thanks for the great tips. Truth be told a few of your posts about Grayson and hiking with your brother are what inspired me to take my boys there! I've already ordered a copy of the Nat Geo Trails Illustrated map of the area. I haven't planned the exact route yet, but based on some reviews and trip reports the Pine Mountain Trail/AT Loop sounds like a good one.Feb 28, 2013 at 10:26 am #1959724
@brad Thanks for the excellent recommendations! Regarding the water sources you recommend not using – are they known to be contaminated or too close to livestock?Feb 28, 2013 at 1:52 pm #1959782
Thanks Christ, that's encouraging to hear.
About those water sources. The one on the Scales trail seems to flow pretty consistently but its also shallow and muddy. I'd actually avoid the Scales trail and take the AT instead. The Scales Trail (and the VA Horse Trail which it parallels) get pretty nasty right before the Scales. Both trails are usually flooded by seeps and you are forced to wade through all the muck. The AT is a longer route to Scales but its cleaner and more scenic.
The spring by the campsite off Pine Mtn. Trail doesn't seem to have as much flow as the others so the water isn't as nice. I have used it though.
Remember with all the ponies the chance of water contamination is higher. I'd be sure to treat all water thoroughly.
Brad mentioned Whitetop Mtn. its nice but if you're looking for a starter trip I'd just focus on the Grayson Highlands area.Feb 28, 2013 at 3:56 pm #1959825
Agree with Luke to avoid Scales trail. The VHA away from scales is not too bad.
Agree I wouldn't do Whitetop just giving you a data point
Lets clarify the water sources on Pine and Crest trail:
– Pine mtn runs from AT (close to scales) to RHO gap. The bad water supply is at the junction of Pine Mtn/Crest/Cliffside trails. I would personally avoid all together
– from the water source above if you just continue on crest trail toward RHO gap you will see a sign for a water source off to your left. Just before a turn and steep short climb on crest. The tricky part is the path to water source will lead your more to the left away from source. When things are flowing well the spring will run down to this trail. However the better thing to do is stay more right and walk through the campsites. The spring is behind some rocks a short distance. It took me 3 or 4 attempts to find it. It's less than 50 yards from crest trail.
Your kids are going to most enjoy scrambling on the rocks so allocate some time for this.
I usually plan on dry camping because this is where the best sites are. Those close to water are very over used. You can find some great sites 1-2 miles from water and that is not a bad haulFeb 28, 2013 at 6:48 pm #1959901
Okay here is my complete guide to Grayson. Basically the best scenery is on the Pine Mtn. Trail/AT loop and the AT between Elk Gardens Trailhead and Rhodedendron Gap(not part of the loop). If you opt to skip the AT from Elk Garden then its just a question of where you'd rather access the loop. Massie Gap TH in the state park is the quickest route to the high country.
I'll give you the highlights starting from Elk Garden
1. Elk Garden TH to Deep Gap
The route begins in a meadow with nice views of Whitetop Mtn. After the meadow the trail is mostly in the forest to Deep Gap. Not real exciting. If you want you can take the Horse Trail which parallels the AT. The Horse Trail is a bit more direct and easier. If its been raining this trail could be pretty nasty.
2. Deep Gap to Thomas Knob Shelter
After Deep Gap the AT climbs up around Mt. Rogers. As you pass Cabin Ridge there will be a side trail leading off to the left to a meadow with nice views. This is the first place you can expect to encounter wild ponies.
About this time you start to entire the evergreen forests which are cool because they are different from normal VA forests.
The trail goes out into the open just before Thomas Knob Shelter. There are several nice spots to camp near the shelter (see picture above). Other sites are farther back in the trees.
Thomas Knob Shelter to Rhododendron Gap
After Thomas Knob the trail goes along a ridge with through mostly open meadows with great views off to hte right (east).
This is one of my favorite areas here. There are numerous campsites and several rock outcrops you can climb around on. You'll probably see ponies in the area too. There is water at the springs below the Crest Trail. You can find it pretty easy by cutting through a meadow to the Crest Trail and looking for the sign. There are firepits but not a lot of firewood. This area sees more people so it won't be as quiet but we've always found a place to camp. You are trading solitude for scenery. Don't leave anything out the ponies might eat! They love this area.
Rhododendron Gap to Massie Gap
This is the beginning of the loop. There is a cool rock outcropping above the gap which is fun to climb on. I believe I saw a campsite off to the right on the Crest Trail in a meadow.
After this the trail goes over and around several knobs. Its in the open about 70% of the time. I would not camp here personally due to the area's popularity and it its openness. You'd have little privacy.
Massie Gap to Wilson Creek/Wise Shelter
Massie Gap is another access point if you start from the state park. There are a few campsites but there will be other people around.
After Massie Gap the trail follows the ridge down with good views until it descends towards Quebec Branch. There is water at Quebec Branch and later at Wilson Creek after Wise Shelter. If I recall camping is not allowed right around the shelter. I remember at least one campsite near Wilson Creek. The creek is big enough the kids might like to play in it but it's fast moving so keep an eye on them.
Wilson Creek to Scales (via AT)
After Wilson Creek the AT crosses several other trails and stays in the forest for a while. Sometime after you pass the boundary of the Wilson Creek Wilderness you climb out onto Stone Mtn.
Stone Mountain isn't as dramatic as Wilburn Ridge but its a nice place and there are far fewer people here. Its not a bad place for a dry camp (a good spot is beside that tree in the picture above). Be aware there was a hive of wasps or bees in or under that tree.. We heard them buzzing and stayed away. This would be the perfect campsite if it had a rock pile too climb on.
From Stone Mtn. the trail goes down to Scales. Here you leave the AT and begin the Crest Trail. There are outhouses at Scales. I would not drive up to Scales because its a very long, narrow and rough dirt road.
Scales to Rhododendron Gap
The trail climbs back up onto Pine Mtn after Scales.
Its a pretty easy trail at first. Scenery is nice.
There is camping near the springs marked on the map (the one Brad discussed). The campsite by the fenced in spring is used a lot but in general this area gets less use. I'd camp farther back in the forest.
After the springs/campsite area there are a few rocks to climb on but here you have to push through some brush to get to them.
The last mile or so back to Rhododendron Gap the trail is quit rough and there isn't much scenery. Once you're back at the gap you've completed the loop.
Hope this helps.Mar 1, 2013 at 9:02 am #1960100
Good stuff and get pictures.
Thomas Knob to Rho Gap:
– Great views and occasionally I will camp along the AT/Crest in this section off season. It can be crowded. What I really hate is now they let the cows graze in the area and it's just become kinda filthy. Staying closer to Thomas Knob off the AT seems to be the better option. Around Rho Gap is just out of control.
– This is my favorite site. From the crest trail (not far from scales) this very open site is great. Not easily noticed from the trail and most people just hike by and never see it. The Pine Mtn trail runs behind it. Dry spot.
– If it is windy you can camp in the grove of trees on the opposite side of the trail. Has a nice view looking toward scales, but you can't actually see the scales. More of a Stone Mountain view.
Scales to Bearpen Trail:
– Luke showed you a picture of the nice campsite on stone mountain. Very open and just great views back toward Wilburn Ridge
– Another very nice spot about halfway across Bearpen trail (trail contacts AT and Scales Trail). Again the spot is not noticed from the trail and most people just see the big rock and not the secluded campsite.
Camping on Wilburn Ridge:
– Luke is correct that this is the busiest area in all of Grayson/Mt Rogers. However I have 2 really good sites that I like to use. The key is to just show up late evening and most people are gone. Doesn't usually get busy until mid morning.
– Campsite 1: From Massie Gap hike the Rho trail to the AT and then following AT toward ridge. Once you pass through gate and leave Grayson State Park you will climb to the first peak(rock mound). Nice campsite about 30 feet of the trail by the rock. My favorite approach is a night hike with headlamps from the backpackers parking lot. The hike is all open and easy to do in the dark. – Campsite 2: from campsite 1 continue south on AT over 2nd peak toward 3rd peak. When you get to the top of the 3rd peak you will notice the AT continues through a neat opening in the rocks(not the fat man's squeeze,but just a open with rocks on both sides. Before going through the opening if you will look toward your right you will see a faint trail leading to the top of the ridge. You can camp on the ridge in good weather.
Both sites give you a sunset and sunrise view. Also boys can play on the rocks until dark. Then stargaze.Mar 1, 2013 at 9:57 am #1960129
Luke and Brad you guys are amazing for taking the time to share all of this information! Quick question about your food and the number of critters in the area – do you typically hang your food at night?Mar 1, 2013 at 3:24 pm #1960235
The ponies are in the habit of getting handouts from hikers. Its not unusual to have them visit your campsite in the dark. I don't know if they would have bothered the food bag or not because I always hung it.Mar 1, 2013 at 7:55 pm #1960335
I ask the ranger about bears one time and he said they had them, but rarely see them. He said ponies were the bigger problem. However rodents can be an issue, so I ALWAYS hang my food and never leave unattended.
bradMar 1, 2013 at 8:54 pm #1960351
Y'all are making me want to take my son there the second week of June. I'd been considering the Smokies again or Roan Mtn area but that's more of a thru-hike or out and back and I prefer loops. Is it easy to add in some other trails to make it 3-4 nights? Nothing over 10 mpd (unless it's mostly flat or downhill).
Is the TI map preferred or could I just use normal topos?Mar 1, 2013 at 9:32 pm #1960361
Michael the loop we've been discussing is about 18-25 miles depending on where you start. Here are two options for a longer trip
1. Do the loop through Grayson Highlands but start from the Grindstone Campground on State Route 603. This is the western side of the wild area below Mt. Rogers. There are several interconnecting trails that lead south from SR 603 to link up with the AT. From there you just do the normal loop.
2. Combine the Iron Mtn. Trail with the AT for a big loop. Here is the link to a TR I did on it.
I think our total mileage was about 46 miles so it might be a bit long for you. If you look at the TR you'll know it was a tough hike. Taking a bit longer to complete it and planning more carefully would make it a lot easier.
You don't have to have the Trails Illustrated map but I liked mine. It covered the entire area and had a more detailed section covering Grayson Highlands.Mar 1, 2013 at 10:08 pm #1960367
Thanks, Luke. Link is bad, but if Iron Mtn was tough on you then it's not for my 6 yo. :) I think I'd want 6 days to do 46 miles (assuming there's lots of gain/loss) and don't think he'd stay out that long yet.
Do normal topos mark all the springs you guys mentioned? I'm not averse to getting the TI if it's superior. I just know I wasn't too impressed with their Maroon Bells one (my only other experience with them) so I used a different vendor for that area.Mar 1, 2013 at 10:37 pm #1960369
Here are some maps I made for Chris and Michael
1. Easiest route
This is the shortest easiest route and the one that gets you to the high country the fastest. It starts at the Massie Gap TH and might be 13-15 miles total. This might be the best route for Chris and his boys.
2. Luke's Traditional Route
Here is a map of the loop I've done most at Grayson Highlands. Its a bit longer but it includes all the good scenery. This is the route I described when I gave all the details. Basically you start at Elk Garden and go around the loop in a counter clockwise direction.
3. New route idea for Michael (if the Iron Mt./AT loop is too much)
This route is a bit longer because you access the loop from a different starting point and I've added a bit to the actual loop. Instead of staying on the AT this route takes you over First Peak and Second Peak and then back across Stone Mt. to Scales (see the right side of the map).
There was another trail not shown on my mapping program that leads from the AT trailhead on SR603 to the Mt. Rogers Trail. I drew it and highlighted it it yellow so you'll have a rough idea where it is. It adds a bit of distance to the hike as well and you can park at the AT trailhead. I have not visited this side of the wilderness much. I believe its mostly thick forest but if you aren't on the AT I imagine it would be pretty quiet.
I don't know exactly how far this loop would be but it might be 30-35 miles. If your younger boys is going this might be a safer bet for a 3-4 day trip then the Iron Mt./AT loop.
Edit – bummer I guess these maps don't show up so well here. Hopefully they give you a general idea what we are talking about. Saving the images so you can zoom in helps.Mar 2, 2013 at 6:24 am #1960426
The maps are a little hard to read but give them a good idea of the loops you outlined. All good. One thing that I did notice was a reference to the Mt Rogers Spur trail. You have it located on the crest trail close to scales. The trail is actually very close to the Thomas Knob shelter.
You mentioned a big loop and this is the one I like. Park at Beartree Campground. Take the access trail to the AT and then hike north to RHO gap (approx 18 miles). The either take Pine Mtn/Crest to AT or continue on AT. Take the AT north to Iron Mtn trail (old AT before routing over Mt Rogers/Grayson). Take Iron Mtn back to Beartree. You have a few options for trails back to Beartree. It's around 40 miles round trip.
BradMar 2, 2013 at 6:47 am #1960436
Michael TI maps very some are very good, some not so much. I think the one of Mt. Rogers (which covers the area) is pretty good at covering Grayson Highlands, it
I tried relisting the trip report for you. See if this works.
I was thinking of your 6 year old when I said this big loop is probably too long. Brad seems to think its more like 40 miles but either way you have a very steep climb up Whitetop.
The third map I posted was my idea for your 6 year old if you want a longer trip. There are options to make the trip longer or shorter depending on how things go.
"One thing that I did notice was a reference to the Mt Rogers Spur trail. You have it located on the crest trail close to scales. The trail is actually very close to the Thomas Knob shelter."
Yeah I forgot to mention that. That is an error on the map software, I didn't draw that.Mar 2, 2013 at 8:04 am #1960464
Your trip didn't seem too rough, just cut too close re: food/water. My son could do the trail though it would take us much longer. I don't care for long walks through woods when scenic views can be had though so I may save that for myself later (or do something like the 100 mile version).
Your comment on only having a few granola bars for the day made me chuckle. During my Maroon Bells trip, I'd started at Snowmass Lake, over Trail Rider Pass and over Halsey Pass and when I made camp that night realized I'd only eaten 2 power bars and a piece of jerky the whole day.
I assume you don't need a permit for this area. Are there entry fees if you use a SP trailhead?Mar 2, 2013 at 11:22 am #1960542
@mocs123Locale: Southeast Tennessee
If you park at Massey Gap or in Grayson Highlands State Park, it is a $5 per day parking fee.Mar 2, 2013 at 1:31 pm #1960599
The 40 miles where for the one I did, not sure what the mileage was for your loop.
Agree with Luke the hike up Whitetop would be pretty tough and I wouldn't take a 6 year old on that section. As Luke mentioned focus on the high country area we discussed. Plenty to do in the area without going to Iron Mtn Trail, Whitetop, etc. I just mentioned for information purposes only.
I would suggest planning your trip with what you think the kids can do. Then look at alternatives to shorter/lengthen the day. Most places you don't have this option (ie Smokies because the trails are very spread out), but Grayson/Mt Rogers trail network allows changing your plans on the fly. I rarely preplan trips in this area any more. Just park at Massie Gap backpacking lot and start hiking.
Brad Rogers, mentioned fee to park. I think it is 5 on weekends and 3 during the week. Grayson Highland website will tell you.
Brad.Mar 4, 2013 at 7:43 pm #1961518
midatlantichikes.com indicates the 603 THs have a fair number of breakins. Is that what you hear? Maybe I should go ahead and park at Grindstone or the SP.Mar 4, 2013 at 8:35 pm #1961545
I've heard of break ins at Elk Gardens but I don't know about other areas. I believe both the SP and Grindstone are the most secure. I know people have started from their for that reason.
The more I think about it the more I like the following idea. I really don't think you want to average 10 miles a day with a 6 yr. old. Grayson has some rough trails and you want time to climb on rocks, chase ponies and spell the flowers.
Here is my favorite idea starting from the State Park
Day 1 – From the State Park hike south on AT to the general area of Thomas Knob Shelter and camp with ponies and amazing views.
Day 2 – Backtrack north on AT to Rhododendron Gap and take a left on the Crest Trail going north over Pine Mtn. More ponies and great views. Get water at the springs on Pine Mtn. and dry camp at the spot Brad mentioned above Scales (the one with the picture of a flat meadow).
Day 3 Option A – If things are going well continue to Scales and follow the AT south back to the State Park. There will be decent views from Stone Mtn. and you'll end the trip back on the awesome Wilburn Ridge.
Day 3 Option B – If you are tired out go to Scales and take the VA Horse Trail instead of the AT and head back to the State Park TH. You have a shorter trip but still have great scenery.
Trip Extension – If you need to add mileage take Trail 4524/First Peak Trail over First, Second and Third Peaks, this is basically an extension of the loop.
I like this idea because it saves your bail out option for last so if you do shorten the trip you've still seen plenty of great scenery.
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