We woke early and ate breakfast so we could get Mount Rogers early. The hike was to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Katherine was excited about the hike, especially the wild ponies that are said to be plentiful along the trail. But I knew a thirty percent chance of showers might dampen her spirit.
Several short showers drenched our hour ride to Mount Rogers, damping Katherine’s spirit about the hike we were partaking in. When we arrived at the Grayson Highlands State Park, we searched for a bathroom before hitting the trail. We found a nice viewing platform at a picnic area at the far end of the park near the visitor center. After taking a few pictures there and using the bathrooms, we finally arrived at the Massie Parking Lot.
The clouds looked menacing and the temperature was quite cool (46 degrees) while I put on my hiking shoes and loaded my backpack and Katherine collected the camera and its accessories. I almost forgot our maps (which we would later need), but I returned to the car to retrieve them before we actually hit the trail. Before we headed up the trail that connects the Massie Parking Lot with the Appalachian Trail, we observed a sign that warned that drastic temperature changes were common on the trail to Mount Rogers. I thought to myself, “I hope Katherine isn’t freaking out about that sign since it is quite chilly already.” I think she was…
The connector trail to the AT was short and laden with gorgeous views. The trail itself was smooth and well-travelled, making it easy to navigate the uphill climb. We stopped to take dozens of pictures. The clouds and mountains off to the east made a beautiful view near the top of the connector trail. Once at the top, the trail merged into the AT. The AT was very wide and worn. Alongside the trail were vast open plains with small bushes here and there, perfect for ponies.
But, no ponies we saw. We were so busy looking for ponies that we missed the sign for the AT. Now on a different trail that ran parallel to the AT, we were oblivious to the fact that we were about to make another, more serious, wrong turn.
The trail continued through Grayson Highlands State Park toward Jefferson National Forest without a pony to see. I could see Katherine becoming a little worried that we might not see a pony as we exited the state park. The trail split into two separate directions. This seemed odd since I thought the trail would split into four or five directions based upon my map. We determined that we were about 100 feet from the trail intersection we needed after looking around for a few minutes.
After a short break to wet our whistles, we headed up the Rhododendron Trail. The Rhododendron Trail runs parallel to the AT and the two meet back together a little less than a mile up the path. We stopped several times during this section of the trail to take photos from the many scenic spots. Slight drizzles (lasting less than a few minutes) fell several times on us as we navigated up the trail. One portion of the trail was completely covered in water, like a shallow lake. We had to walk off trail to avoid wet feet. Katherine still did not avoid wet feet.
We merged back with the AT and stayed on it until the half mile spur trail to the summit. After rejoining the AT, the trail proceeds over a rocky outcropping called Wilber Ridge. The AT snakes around the side of the rocky knob while the Rhododendron Trail scrambles over the massive boulders. The rain kept us on the more solid AT, but this section of the AT is not without its fair share of rocky paths, passageways and overhangs. The trail exits the rocky knob and enters a large field with many small rhododendron bushes. Once in the mountain top plain, several wild ponies came into view, several of them with foals. Katherine excitedly pulled out her camera to snap some pictures. This was the major selling point for the hike. But as soon as she retrieved her camera from its bag, the rain resumed. This time the rain was a cold drizzle that was harder than any of the other small showers that we had seen. Upset that the rain had ruined our photo opportunity, we headed on into the driving rain after taking only a few pictures. The rain was cold. The temperature had fallen some since we had climbed further up the mountain and were now over a mile above sea level. The wind, which had also picked up since we were not sheltered by the side of the mountains, was driving the heavy drizzle into our faces. It was quite cold. My cheeks were wet and nearing the point of shivering, but we pressed on.
The rain stopped after about five minutes, but the clouds still looked ominous. We hiked down a small slope and arrived at an intersection where three trails meet. We took the appropriate trail (the AT) into a wooded area. Small pine trees, no more than ten feet high, littered the landscape. The trees slowly started to disappear, revealing dozens of campsites scattered in between the trees. A few of the camp sites were occupied. The trees became fewer and fewer as we continued along.
We climbed over a rise and observed three ponies on the path directly in front of us. One was a foal that was maybe a year old. Another, the foal’s mother, appeared to be great with child again. The third, I’m guessing a male, was just off the path munching on grass. As we approached, the little foal moved away – anxious about our presence. The foal’s mother ignored us completely and continued to eat along the path’s edge. The last pony walked up to Katherine and starting sniffing and licking her camera bag. Katherine was quite excited about the personal encounter with this pony. We continued on after spending fifteen minutes with her four legged friends.
The path continued for about another mile, passing a shelter that Katherine hoped had bathrooms (it did not), before arriving at the spur trail to the summit. I warned Katherine that the trail would be steeper here. We took a short break to eat a snack and started our ascent. The trail became a stream bed for a small portion of the climb. Water from the recent rain was flowing down the trail, making it hard to avoid getting wet feet. But, although the sky still looked menacing, at least it was not raining on us.
The landscape changed to a dense forest filled with tall pines about halfway to the summit. It felt like we were on an entirely different trail, but we finally arrived at the summit.
The summit had no views (I knew this, Katherine apparently did not). There was only a small bronze marker placed on the rock that is the summit. The highest point in Virginia, over 5,700 feet above sea level, was an arduous five mile trek through rain, wind, cold and wild ponies. We posed for pictures and proceeded back.
We saw that everything had changed when we exited the tree line on Mount Rogers. The sky, ominous before, had turned to bright blue with a few random puffy clouds. The sun was bright and almost directly over us. The hike back would be very different from the hike up.
Retracing our steps, we saw the same friendly ponies that tried to eat Katherine’s camera bag. We saw the ponies that we could not stop for due to the downpour (but they were a hundred yards off the trail). We climbed down the AT and saw about 20 more ponies near the entrance to Grayson Highlands State Park. We paused for several minutes with three of the ponies that were especially close to our trail. We also saw several ponies off the trail in Grayson Highlands State Park.
We finally arrived back at the car almost seven hours after we left – our legs sore and Katherine’s bladder full. A great day of hiking.