Last summer, my family spent two weeks traveling Virginia. Being from Wisconsin, I had learned about Virginia in history class but had no appreciation of its diverse terrain and magnificient beauty. I grew up listening to John Denver singing about the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River but since John was from New Mexico and the song was written about West Virginia, I didn’t realize Virginia shared the same level of song writing inspiration. We were in awe as we traveled west to east discovering beautiful lakes, waterfalls, natural forests, wild life and equally breathtaking coastal scenes along the Eastern Shore.
Being an avid horse lover my entire life, one of my favorite spots on the trip was to Grayson Highlands State Park. This park is next to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in the Jefferson National Forest. Grayson Highlands State Park was originally named Mount Rogers State Park and was established in 1965. Since we weren’t able to bring horses on this trip, we spent our time hiking the pedestrian trails. The highest point in the park is only four-tenths of a mile from the visitor’s center on Haw Orchard Mountain. We followed the Rhododendron Trail past dozens of wildflowers, mushrooms, and huckleberries until we found ourselves on top of a jagged rock outcropping with views in every direction. Standing there, we were over 5,000 feet above sea level with a 360-degree view of the peaks and valleys of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Straight in front of us were Massie Gap, Wilburn Ridge and Mount Rogers.
The views were breathtaking but even more exciting for me was chasing the wild ponies. Well, not really chasing, they are so tame they just walked right up to us on the trail and tried to drink our Gatorade. That is, except for the mares with foals at their side. They were much more elusive. We had to sneak up on them to get any chance for a photo or at least a sneak peak but were fortunate to see three foals before the day was over.
Introduced in 1974, the ponies of Wilburn Ridge are responsible for helping maintain the “bald” areas of both Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. At last count the herd numbered about 120. The ponies are rounded up each year for a health checkup, and then some of the males are auctioned off in the fall. It was quite a treat for our entire family.
The park has several horse trails and also offers access to the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail, a beautiful trail that takes horse lovers over 50 miles through the national recreation area. I was very envious when we toured the newly created horse camping and stables area knowing it would be unlikely I’d ever be able to utilize it.
For more information on the horse trails and facilities at Grayson Highlands State Park and other Virginia Outdoors destinations with Horseback Riding , click here