This is part of our Hiking Guide series rolling out this spring and summer.
I stared the beast down from just five or six feet away, our eyes locked, his nostrils twitching, neither of us moving.
He wanted my food. The trail mix in my right pocket, presumably. Every time I turned to go around him, he turned his body, ready to block me.
This is it, I thought. It’s me or the pony.
Yes, the herd of wild ponies at Grayson Highlands and the surrounding wilderness areas outside Damascus, Va., are justifiably famous. Standing barely more than four feet tall, they’re impossibly cute, seemingly made for your Instagram. But they’re not the only spectacular part of a hike in this not-far-off-the-beaten path stretch of mountains barely more than two hours from Charlotte.
The rolling balds and broad plateaus reveal vistas that unfurl almost endlessly, and the area contains Virginia’s high point, the 5,728-foot Mount Rogers. Expect to see swarms of day hikers, through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and weekend warriors seeking solitude without a punishing march.
The ponies are kept on the land, which is actually divided between a state park and federal lands, and allowed to roam and graze. They keep the balds naturally mowed, and those views pristine. Keep in mind, as tame as they appear, they are wild: They’ll kick, bite and generally ruin your day if they’re in a bad mood, and you’re not supposed to touch or feed them.
And, as I discovered, they will try to get in your pack and go for any food they smell, if they’re hungry, so try to steer a wide course around any particularly persistent equine trailmates.
Aside from the ponies and the sumptuous, Scottish Highlands-style scenery, the other thing that really sets this area apart is the abundance of trails. It’s a feast even for the most gluttonous hiker. There’s a reason nearby Damascus sports the nickname “Trail Town USA.”
The Appalachian Trail cuts a long, meandering, looping curve through the area, intersecting with literally dozens of other generally well-maintained, easy-to-follow trails that allow you to create an almost endless choice of routes. And the famed Virginia Creeper Trail is nearby too, a great option for a day of biking.
Here are some easy ways to get out and see the ponies, highlands and mountains in this beautiful area:
Do it as a day trip
The ride from Charlotte is generally easy and short enough that you can do this in a day and be home around dark in the summer. This is also a pretty kid-friendly destination, and it’s easy to jump straight out of your car into some of the best hiking in the Southeast. Park at Massie Gap.
From there, it’s only a mile on the Rhododendron Trail to the Appalachian Trail. Turn left (technically, southbound, but actually west) on the Appalachian Trail, and you can hike for about two more miles along Wilburn Ridge, with spectacular views and a good chance of pony-spotting. After that, you can head back the way you came, loop around and come back by a different route on the adjacent Crest Trail and Virginia Highland Trail, or push on for another 1.7 miles to tag Mt. Rogers’ summit before calling it a day.
Do it as a camping trip
Like I said, there are almost endless options here. You can camp off-trail basically anywhere you want in the federal lands here, including along most of the 60 miles or so of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the area. There are also developed campgrounds with showers and other facilities in the state park, if that’s more to your taste.
The simplest way to do a camping trip here is to start out by parking in the same lot, Massie Gap, where I suggested you start a day hike. From there, you can follow the Appalachian Trail southbound (it’s technically west through this area) for about six miles past Deep Gap onto the Elk Garden Ridge, another stunningly beautiful line of balds and knobby peaks west of Mt. Rogers. Any site you pick to camp here is basically guaranteed to be a stunner. You can hike to where the Appalachian Trail intersects with the Virginia Highlands Trail, at the Elk Garden parking area (about 8 miles in) and come back on the Virginia Highlands Trail, for a roughly 16 mile loop over two days.
Or, you can do my favorite route through here, which starts at the parking area on Whitetop Mountain Road. This is just a large gravel parking lot adjacent to the Appalachian Trail.
Head northbound on the Appalachian Trail (east) from here, and you’ll pass through dense forest before emerging on the Elk Garden Ridge, heading the opposite direction of the previous described hike. After walking over this heavenly ridge, take the Mount Rogers Trail into the Lewis Fork Wilderness. From there, the Lewis Fork and Crest Trail will loop you back to the Appalachian Trail, allowing you to pass over many of the most scenic parts as you head back towards your car. Again, camp anywhere on these ridges (as long as it’s not storming) and you won’t be disappointed. This loop is also a bit more than 16 miles, and you can tack on an out-and-back trip about 1.5 miles further west on the Appalachian Trail from the parking lot where you started to the high knob of Buzzard Rock to soak up more views if you’re still craving miles when you’re done.
If you visit the area via the Grayson Highlands State Park, there’s a daily parking fee of $7 for out of state vehicles. If you leave your car overnight, that will cost you $10 for up to three days. Parking at other access points along the Appalachian Trail is generally free.
The southern part of the Appalachian Trail and surrounding areas here (generally below Fairwood Road) is much more scenic than the areas farther north. Above that, you can explore and make other loops with other trails, but the views are few and far between, and much less breathtaking, as the area is wooded and the trails dip into valleys.
Speaking of no views, there aren’t any on the top of Mt. Rogers. That’s because it’s heavily wooded. So you’ll get the pride of touching a state’s high point and seeing that marker, but that’s about all. And Whitetop Mountain, marked as a scenic point on the map and near the parking area I suggested? It’s some kind of FAA control apparatus in the middle of a forest, and about as scenic as a power substation.
Buy the map for this one (National Geographic 318, $11.95 on Amazon, also at REI and Great Outdoor Provision Co.). There are so many trails you can make loops with that it’s a worthwhile investment to plan future trips, even though navigation is generally a cinch here. And the map includes segment mileages, a rare treat that takes the guesswork out of planning.
Photos: Ely Portillo