The Highlands of Virginia

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.

~John Muir

I think thousands of people must have read this quote last Sunday and headed to my favorite Virginia state park, Grayson Highlands.

campsite at Grayson Highlands

Our campsite at Grayson Highlands State Park (click photos to enlarge)

The parking lots were all packed on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, so we just set up camp and hiked out the short trail to Big and Little Pinnacles, hoping the crowds would die down for our longer hike on Monday.

View from Big Pinnacle

View from Big Pinnacle

View from Little Pinnacle

View from Little Pinnacle

The trail to the Twin Pinnacles is a short 1.6 mile loop that starts behind the Visitor Center at the end of the park road. On the way out to the pinnacles, you walk though a forest with scattered spruce, rhododendron, and abundant yellow birch…

birch roots embracing a boulderincluding one of my all-time favorite trees – a birch that embraces a boulder just down the trail off the Little Pinnacle.

patterns of moss growth on birch bark

Though known for its expansive views, the park also offers beauty when viewed up close

After a blustery night in the campground, we headed up to a now almost deserted parking lot at Massie Gap on Monday morning. I have been going up to this area for as long as I can remember, visiting my grandparents and my Aunt Ruth every summer when I was a kid. I fondly remember climbing over the boulders and picking (and eating) the sweet huckleberries that are so abundant in late summer. I have been back many times since, but usually for short visits or just a night of camping. Melissa and her sister backpacked the area two weeks ago and proclaimed it the best hiking in the region (the area was named one of the top ten hiking areas in America in a Backpacker Magazine article in 2011), so we decided to go back and take in some of the many miles of trails that crisscross this mountain paradise. Our route would take us roughly along the trails that Melissa had walked two weeks ago, but, since we were doing it in a single day instead of two, we took a few shortcuts, making our total hike about 10 miles.

mount-rogers-map-with-our-route

Our 10-mile day hike

Our route took us from Massie Gap (just off bottom center of map) up to the Appalachian Trail (AT, purple line). We hiked northeast to the Wise shelter; then took the Scales Trail (dark red dashed line) to Scales; the Crest Trail northwest to its juncture with the Pine Mountain Trail (black dashed line); Pine Mountain Trail southwest to Rhododendron Gap; then the Wilburn Ridge Trail south and back to Massie Gap.

starting the trail above Massie Gap

The first ridge above Massie Gap offers spectacular views

The weather was perfect as we started our hike up from the popular starting point at Massie Gap, although the wind was pretty strong, with gusts approaching 20+mph on occasion. The views in this area are spectacular and the terrain reminds me of being out West, with big Montana-like skies, and a mix of conifers, open meadows and huge rock outcrops.

witch hazel flower and old seed pod

Witch hazel flower and open seed capsule

witch hazel in bloom

Witch hazel blooms stand out against a blue sky

All along the lower pars of the trail, we saw the odd-looking late blooms of witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. The flowers are much more noticeable on trees that already had lost their leaves. This widespread shrub/small tree blooms later than almost all other plants in the region and, surprisingly, relies on whatever insects may still be active for pollination. The genus name, Hamamelis, means “together with fruit”, since this year’s flowers occur simultaneously with the ripening fruit from last year. Fruit capsule splits explosively with an audible pop, ejecting the seeds up to several feet.

Along the Scales trail

Down off the ridges, the forest is beautiful

We appreciated the times the trail traversed through the trees, sharing the beauty of the forest, and giving us a break from the winds.

Wise sheter on AT

Wise shelter on the AT

I was impressed by the Wise shelter on the AT – a nice structure in a beautiful setting next to a creek.

cotton-grass

Seed heads of cotton grass indicate a boggy habitat

Near the Wise shelter and all along the Scales Trail, we saw seed heads of cotton grass, Eriophorum virginicum. This is one of several species found in the scattered mountain bogs in the area. I definitely want to come back in the spring and see what interesting wildflowers may occur in them.

Virgin's bower seed pods

Virgin’s bower seed heads

From a distance, the seed puffs of virgin’s bower, Clematis virginiana, look a little like the round seed heads of cotton grass. But, close-up, they are a light, feathery head of white “hairs” that occur in groupings along a twisting vine. This is a native Clematis with male and female flowers on separate plants.

fern shadow

Sunny days make for interesting shadows and highlights along the trail

The combination of wind and sun made for an interesting hike in terms of temperatures – cold in the wind, warm when protected from it. We saw several species of butterflies out and about including buckeyes, commas, and American coppers. Bird life included crows, ravens, a red-tailed hawk, and lots of robins and juncos. We hiked a few miles with only distant glimpses of probably the most famous inhabitants of these mountains, the wild ponies, but that would soon change.

Pony near Rhododendron Gap

We encountered our first ponies along the Crest Trail

Various online sources state the ponies were released into these highlands by the U.S. Forest Service around 1975. The purpose was to control the growth of shrubs in the balds of the high country. The balds formed in the late 1800’s after extensive logging and fires. Cattle grazing kept the areas open until the creation of the park in the mid-1960’s. The pony herd has grown to over a hundred animals and is now maintained by periodic round-ups and auctions of excess colts.

Wild ponies on Pine Mountain Trail

Wild ponies on Pine Mountain Trail

We came across more of the herd grazing in a meadow along the Pine Mountain Trail. Park regulations prohibit feeding or petting of the ponies, but don’t mention what to do when they start following you, as a couple of them did to us as we passed along the trail.

Pony hair

Sometimes the ponies can be very curious

They seem friendly enough (although park signs warn that they may to bite and kick) and certainly are beautiful, but I have read a few accounts online about some being pests at backpacker campsites. But these just seemed curious about us (probably hoping for a handout) and we soon left them to their grazing.

Rhododendron Gap

The aptly named Rhododendron Gap

Several trails converge at Rhododendron Gap, a saddle in the mountain ridge that is covered in its namesake flowering shrub. Looks like a place we certainly want to visit in June when the display is at its peak.

Wilburn Ridge

Wilburn Ridge

The trail up Wilburn Ridge is a bit of a rocky scramble, but the views are amazing once you break out into the open. The ridge is named for Wilburn Waters, a famous hunter and trapper that called these highlands home in the mid-1800’s. Rumors have it some relatives said my Dad, in his youth, was like Wilburn, for his tendency to be out roaming these mountains in pursuit of fish and game. Who knows, maybe that’s one more reason I find these rocky balds so appealing. The highest peak in Virginia, Mount Rogers, rises nearby and, on a clear day, you can see far into North Carolina with views of iconic peaks like Roan Mountain and Grandfather Mountain on the horizon.

Melissa's campsite

The amazing campsite Melissa had on her last trip

After climbing off the highest rock outcrop (where the wind was blowing a steady 15+ mph), Melissa took me to the campsite she and her sister shard on their recent backpacking trip. What a view it must be of both sunrise and sunset, with rolling ridges of blue as far as the eye can see. We will be back on another trip I am sure, most likely backpacking next time, and, hopefully, when the winds are not as gusty.

snag on Wilburn Ridge

A lone snag stands guard on Wilburn Ridge

The elevation on Wilburn Ridge is somewhere around 5500 feet, but the rock outcrops and balds make it seem much higher.

Mountain Ash and boulder

Iconic fall scene in the highlands – mountain ash berries and boulders

Mountain Ash against sky

Mountain ash berries offer a splash of color all over these balds

The fall colors were past peak on our hike, but the palette was still beautiful with shades of brown, the grays of boulders, the dark greens of spruce and fir, and the bright red berries of mountain ash against a brilliant blue sky. American mountain ash, Sorbus americana, is not related to ash trees, but is a member of the rose family, containing trees such as apples and cherries. The berry-like pomes can remain on the trees much of the winter and are a favorite food of birds such as robins and cedar waxwings.

Mountain ash berries on moss

Cluster of American mountain ash fruit on moss

Whether lying along the trail or swaying in the winds at the tips of branches, the bright red-orange fruit of the mountain ash are emblematic of the high country and brisk mountain air this time of year.

boulder on Wilburn Ridge

Muir was right…the mountains are calling…

We wrapped up our hike about 6 pm and headed back to our campsite. The wind was starting to die down a little, the temperatures were dropping, and our bodies felt that good sort of tiredness that comes from spending a day hiking these hills. It was a great reminder that you don’t have to travel to the far corners of the globe to experience natural wonders and fantastic vistas. They can be found in the memories of childhood not far from home.

 

 

 

 

Elk Garden

View toward Mt. Rogers from Elk Garden

View toward Mt. Rogers from Elk Garden parking lot

My Dad’s birthday and Mother’s Day are both the second week of May so I try to get home each May for a visit. As it turns out, it is also the prime time for a visit to one of my favorite areas in Virginia – the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Covering over 200,000 acres in southwest Virginia, the Mt. Rogers NRA contains four wilderness areas, mountain balds, high elevation spruce-fir forests, 500 miles of hiking trails (including a portion of the Appalachian Trail), beautiful mountain streams, wild ponies, and is adjacent to my favorite Virginia State Park, Grayson Highlands. But in early May, the place to be is Elk Garden. Easily accessible via Rt. 600, Elk Garden lies between the two tallest peaks in Virginia – Whitetop Mountain to the west and Mount Rogers to the east.

Lush herbaceous layer in the forest at Elk Garden

Lush herbaceous layer in the forest at Elk Garden (click to enlarge)

Each May I always enjoy traveling back in time to early spring (relative to the Piedmont of NC) as we climb the winding road to an elevation of about 4400 ft. Climbing the trail from the parking lot toward Whitetop, the trees are just starting to leaf out and various neotropical migrant songbirds can be seen flitting through the branches. But the show is down below, in the rich herbaceous ground cover lying between the boulders and bordering the numerous small streams cascading down the mountain. This is one of the richest wildflower displays I know and I always love to spend some time with my camera capturing their beauty. This year, the cool weather delayed some of the flowers so the balance of blossoms was slightly different than past seasons. Here are some of my favorites seen a few days ago:

Wake Robin

Wake Robin (click to enlarge)

Everyone seems to love trilliums. They tend to be big and often showy with bright colors. The name trillium refers to the “threeness” of these plants – three leaves, three petals, three sepals, and fruit with three ridges. The name, Wake Robin, refers to the blooming time of this plant (and other species of trillium) which often coincides with the return of robins in early spring. This particular species also goes by several other, less flattering names, including Stinking Willie and Stinking Benjamin, both of which refer to the unpleasant aroma of the blossom (go ahead, get down and stick your nose up to it the next time you find one). Lacking nectar, these flowers rely on deception to bring in pollinators which are primarily flies and beetles that are typically attracted to dead animals.

Wake Robin, red form

Wake Robin, red form

Wake Robin, yellow form

Wake Robin, yellow form

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This species is primarily a red-flowered one, which, when combined with the foul odor, mimics decaying flesh which attracts the pollinators. Less commonly they have white flowers, and even rarer still, are yellow-flowered plants. The petals on all varieties tend to turn pinkish with age. The flowers of this species nod toward the ground making them somewhat less noticeable, although the distinctive leaves quickly draw your attention.

Trout Lilies

Trout Lilies (click to enlarge)

The bright yellow Trout Lilies cannot be overlooked – they stand out against the surrounding greenery for your attention as you hike. Only a small percentage of the plants usually flower in any season (some references say less than 5% typically). Flowering plants have two leaves whereas the vast majority in a population have only a single leaf. The upside down flowers close every night and the petals and sepals re-curve upward again every morning during their short blooming period.

Fringed Phacelia

Fringed Phacelia (click to enlarge)

High on my list of favorites is the Fringed Phacelia, a low-growing annual that can blanket the forest floor with a carpet of white that resembles a late-season dusting of snow. The delicate fringed petals reward any hiker that kneels for a closer look. Some species of Phacelia in the western U.S. apparently contain compounds that can itch and sting causing a skin rash similar to poison ivy and giving the plant the unkind name of Scorpionweed.

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty (click to enlarge)

Spring Beauties appear to pop up from almost every available space in the ground cover at Elk Garden. They can be quite variable in the amount of color in the striped petals (this specimen was noticeably brighter than most).

Spring Beauty Bee

Spring Beauty Bee with loaded pollen baskets (click to enlarge)

They have a tasty edible corm and are the primary source of nectar and pollen for the aptly-named Spring Beauty Bee. This foraging bee looked like it was wearing pinkish chaps due to its full pollen baskets (Spring Beauty pollen is pink).

Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone (click to enlarge)

Like most of the spring ephemerals (those woodland wildflowers that bloom before the trees leaf out reducing the amount of light that reaches the forest floor), Wood Anemone has a short growing season of only a couple of months. Plants spend most of the year dormant as an underground rhizome. Studies have shown that these and many other spring ephemerals are now blooming earlier than they did just decades ago due to warming temperatures associated with climate change. One study of Wood Anemone showed they bloom an average of 15 days earlier now than they did in the early 1970’s.

White Violet

Violet

Yellow Violet

Violet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Violets are scattered all along the Elk Garden trail. In addition to the well known purple-blue colored species, there are white and yellow violet species in this rich cove forest. Violets have two types of flowers – open and closed. The closed flowers (called cleistogamous) are often partially hidden under the leaves and are self-pollinating, ensuring at least some seed production even in years of poor pollinator success.

Squirrel Corn grouping

Squirrel Corn (click to enlarge)

The plant that gives me the greatest delight when I find one along the trail is undoubtedly Squirrel Corn. The delicate, blueish-green foliage and unusual blossoms of this plant often occur in dense patches and immediately catch your eye.

Squirrel Corn

Squirrel Corn (click to enlarge)

The flowers are somewhat heart-shaped with the upper lobes being more rounded than in the plant’s close relative, Dutchman’s Breeches. Squirrel Corn gets its name from its underground food storage structures, which look like corn kernels.

Blue Cohosh

Blue Cohosh (click to enlarge)

A variety of other species carpet the ground throughout early spring along this section of trail including Blue Cohosh, Yellow Mandarin, False Hellebore, Jewelweed, Umbrella Leaf, Solomon and False Solomon’s Seal, Twisted Stalk, and many others. The region is so rich in wildflowers, birds, and other natural wonders that the local community center hosts an annual Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally each May with speakers, hikes and other programs. While this area is beautiful any time of year, spring in these mountains is truly spectacular.