Hiking the High Country

Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance toward the summit keeps the goal in mind, but many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point.

~Harold B Melchart

Seems like just a little over a week ago that I was struggling to climb a mountain with a heavy load on my back…wait, it was just a little over a week ago! And this past weekend, we did it again. This time, in one of our favorite areas, the Mt. Rogers-Grayson Highlands region of southwest Virginia. My back was a bit sore from chainsawing fallen trees after the remnants of Hurricane Michael passed through, but we had planned this trip for some time. Melissa’s sister and boyfriend were going to meet us at Grayson Highlands State Park for a two-night adventure in the high country of Virginia. The weather forecast was a bit iffy, but off we went, ever hoping for the best. Our first day was a short one and after a hike of only a couple of miles, we found a great campsite along a beautiful mountain stream (Wilson Creek, I believe).

campsite first night

Campsite for our first night along a rushing stream (click photos to enlarge)

The overcast skies soon turned to rain after dark, but we were comfortable under a stretched tarp and the fire continued until a break in the rain let us get into our tents.

sunrise day 2

Sunrise in the high country

The next morning dawned clear and cool, with a mist drifting through the trees. It finally felt a little like Fall.

sunrise mist

Early morning mist in the boggy meadow near camp

spider web

Invertebrate designs – a dewy spider web

I love early mornings – the quiet, the morning coffee, the first stirrings of the wildlife around you, and the softness of the light that gently touches everything, especially if there has been condensation overnight. I spotted a couple of shimmering orb weaver spider webs at the edge of the trees and we walked over. One was a particularly odd design. At first, we thought the spider was still busy weaving, but a closer look showed it was sitting in the center and the interior spirals of silk were there, just not glistening with dew like the rest of the web.

morning scene

A scene near camp in the early morning light

moss and fern

The greens of mosses, club mosses, lichens, and ferns added a rich backdrop to every scene

I suppose backpacking on wet, rocky trails does have one advantage – I tend to not look around too much in order to keep my feet under me and the rest of me upright. Though I may miss some beautiful scenery or treetop wildlife, I do see a lot of interesting things on the ground. The lushness of moss hummocks and beds of club mosses were particularly noticeable on this trip. And there are still caterpillars out there to be found!

Hickory tussock moth caterpillar

Hickory tussock moth larva

Fall webworm?

A Fall webworm (I think) covered in dew

Our day 2 hike was about 7 miles, with a steady climb through the forest to the more open high country for which this region is so well known. In addition to the expansive mountain views, the other major tourist attraction in this area are the herds of wild ponies. I saw an article stating this region is “the only place on the Appalachian Trail where you can see wild ponies”. Depending on which reference you use, the ponies are believed to have been introduced in the early 1940’s by locals wanting to keep the area open, or by the Forest Service decades later for the same land management purpose. There are believed to be about 100 ponies spread out over thousands of acres of high grassy balds and forests. They live up here year-round, but are watched over and rounded up once a year by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. The Fall round-up serves to check the health of the herd and to auction off some of the ponies (mostly males) to keep the population under control. Park rules ask visitors to observe the ponies from a distance and to not feed them. We had to step aside a couple of times as ponies walked by on the trail.

nursing pony

A foal nursing along the trail

Grazing of cattle in the highlands has long been a part of the local way of life, and in 2012, the Forest Service allowed herds of longhorn cattle to graze alongside the wild ponies during the growing season. The cattle are removed every winter, but the ponies stay through the bitter cold months.

grass competition

This grass patch isn’t big enough for the two of us

As we approached the rocky outcrops of Wilburn Ridge, the strong winds caused us to rethink our plans for camping on the crest. So, we searched for something a little more protected in the open landscape. We ended up picking a spot of the leeward side of the ridge, partially protected by a large rock outcrop and a small grove of trees.

Wilburn Ridge

Our home for the night – not a bad view

There were a couple of campfire rings and a few relatively flat spots without too much pony poo, so we were able to set up camp, gather firewood, and relax and enjoy the spectacular views.

campsite 2

Sitting by our protected campfire looking out toward our tents

Shortly after dark, it started to rain, so we had an early end to the evening, climbing into our tents and hoping the gusty winds would subside before a tent wall collapsed under the strain. At one point during the night, I woke up to a sky full of stars. But by sunrise (well, when it got light anyway), it was a different story.

cloud camp

Inside a cloud on Wilburn Ridge

We were socked in and the view was a bit different from the sunset the night before. The wind was gently blowing as the clouds blew around us. A couple of ponies were barely visible100 feet away, and there was an eerie silence, save for the whap, whap, whap of a tent flap. It was only a couple of miles to the cars, so we grabbed a quick breakfast, packed up our wet gear, and headed out.

below the couds

Below the clouds on our way out

The trail down the ridge is rocky but we were soon below the cloud deck and could see rolling ridges of highlands stretching to the gray horizon. Though the skies had been leaden for much of the trip, we appreciated the solitude and serenity of our time in the high country and are looking forward to a return trip. In case you go, our hike took us from the Overnight Backpackers Parking Area near Massie Gap (you must register and pay at the entrance station to Grayson Highlands State Park), up the AT to the Scales Trail, then to the Pine Mountain Trail, and finally rejoining the AT back to the parking area.

Shining Rock

Backpacking: An extended form of hiking in which people carry double the amount of gear they need for half the distance they planned to go in twice the time it should take.

~Author unknown

Melissa loves to backpack. That is an understatement. And I love to be in the places that backpacking takes us. It is the getting there that sometimes gets me. So, Melissa, the quote above is just a joke (sort of). This trip was planned between our birthdays (a several year tradition for us) to be an outing to one of our favorite spots, Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia (see previous post). But the weather forecast looked rainy in WV, and we are not fans of long hikes in the rain, so we changed plans at the last minute and headed to an area Melissa had visited on a recent Museum workshop – the Shining Rock Wilderness. This is the largest wilderness area in North Carolina at about 18,000 acres. It is well-known as being one of the most scenic hiking areas in our state, with excellent views from several mountaintops over 6000 feet. There is easy access from areas near the Blue Ridge Parkway, making this a very popular destination on weekends. We decided to start from a lower elevation at the Big East Fork Trailhead and had planned to hike the Old Butt Trail (no comments, please) up to Shining Rock. But, as is apparently common in this area, we missed that trail juncture and ended up on its loop counterpart, the Shining Creek Trail. Both of these sections are described as difficult. I agree with that judgement as they climb about 2600 feet in a few miles over very rocky terrain. But Shining Creek is absolutely beautiful and, being on a weekday, we had no company on the way up.

Tributary to Shining Creek

A tributary to Shining Creek (click photos to enlarge)

Crown of thorns slug caterpillar

Crowned Slug, the first of many caterpillars we found along the trail

Pipevine swallowtail larva

Pipevine Swallowtail larvae were a common sight in the woods feeding on their host, Pipevine

Hickory tussock moth larva

A Hickory Tussock Moth larva

With the late start, we didn’t make it far up the trail before deciding to camp at a relatively flat spot above the creek. While sitting at camp, Melissa found a Blue¬† Ridge Two-lined Salamander crawling up her leg. That evening, we went down to the creek to wash up, and I got distracted by other salamanders crawling about in search of their evening meal. It really is amazing how many salamanders must live in these mountains!

Gray-cheeked salamander

Gray-cheeked Salamander

Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander dorsal view

One of three Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamanders we saw down by the creek. This species often climbs up on vegetation at night (or a hiker’s legs) looking for invertebrate prey.

Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander male with cirri

This is a male with swollen cirri (those snout appendages) which occurs during the breeding season

Black-bellied salamander

We spotted a couple of large Black-bellied Salamanders in the creek during our hike

The next day’s hike was a difficult one for me (somehow, our birthdays seem to have taken some umpf out of my legs, and added zip to hers) but we made it up to Shining Rock Gap with plenty of time to set up camp in a sheltered spruce grove. We took our stove and fixed dinner atop an outcrop of brilliantly white quartz that gives this mountaintop its name.

Quartz outcrop at Shining Rock

Outcrops of white quartz shine in the late day sun at the summit of Shining Rock (elevation – 6000 ft.)

View from Shining Rock

The mood changed dramatically as mist drifted through the valley with the approach of sunset

Sunset from Shining Rock as mist rolls in

A beautiful sunset view from Shining Rock

The next morning we hit a section of the famed Art Loeb Trail in search of views from a grassy bald. It turns out, there aren’t that many places through this stretch with that type of scenery. You are mainly hiking through rhododendron thickets and vast expanses of waist-high blueberries and blackberries. We broke out into the open at Flower Gap, but another couple had claimed that spot for the night. We weren’t keen on that spot anyway as we had heard from two guys at the trailhead that a bear had raided their supplies in this gap two nights ago, a fact we shared with the couple. It turns out, those guys had not brought a bear canister, a requirement when camping in the Shining Rock Wilderness. We went on a bit further and climbed a side trail up to the summit of Grassy Cove Top (elevation – 6049 ft.). There were a couple of tent-sized grassy patches, so we claimed one for the evening and had time to relax and enjoy the stunning views. We were hoping to see some raptors migrating, but it seems we missed the peak migration by a week or so. We did manage an American Kestrel, a Northern Harrier, an unidentified Buteo, and two Broad-winged Hawks, along with dozens of Cloudless Sulphur butterflies, and some mystery critters at sunset (they looked like large insects, but we couldn’t tell for sure in the low light).

Our tent nesteled among the blueberry shrubs

Our tent nestled in a small grassy area surrounded by blueberry shrubs atop Grassy Cove Top

bumblebee on gentian

Bumblebees were quite common in the balds, and here is one on a Gentian along the woodland trail

We strung our hammocks in a nearby stand of spruce to have some time in the shade, and then went back out to a rock outcrop for dinner and an amazing sunset.

sunset iphone

A spectacular sunset from Grassy Cove Top

sunset behind campsite

Looking north from our camp after sunset

That night, we sat and looked at stars, got great views of Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, and were thankful to be here rather than in the distant lights of towns and cities on the horizon.

sunrise

The incredible view at sunrise from our campsite on Grassy Cove Top

Melissa mentioned the beauty of simple things like the scent of spruce and fir, an unobstructed view of the night sky, and the quiet of a mountaintop. She is right, this is why we do this. A more appropriate quote for backpacking these rugged hills might be this one by the muse of the mountains, John Muir…

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.

Looking forward to our next birthday adventure (but we don’t have to wait that long, honest).