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  • Michael Hanson

A Solo 14-Mile Backpacking Trip Through the Grayson Highlands, VA

I had been wanting to do an overnight trip through the Grayson Highlands since I had heard about it in college (2014 I think). Wide open views, rolling hills, and wild ponies!? I didn't know such a place existed, especially in MY home state, where I didn't think there was really that much interesting stuff.


The combination of fall color and wild ponies made this a perfect location to finish out the 2019 backpacking season.


This was the plan. It's actually a 12 mile loop, but with SERIOUS rain predicted in the forecast for Saturday night and Sunday morning, I decided to do an extra mile to the Thomas Knob Shelter. That way I could sleep under an actual roof and keep myself and my gear dry, instead of sleeping outside in the pouring rain and having to pack up a sopping wet tent in the morning. Plus I knew there would most likely be a bunch of people there also trying to get out of the rain, so it would be nice meet other hikers!


I was worried that the fall color I wanted for my photographs wouldn't be as vibrant as I predicted. Leading up to this trip there had been a drought, which doesn't help the leaves change to nice orange, red, and yellow tones - they just kinda go straight to brown. Which is NO GOOD for photos!


But my worries were squashed as I soon as I got there. The fall color was peaking everywhere I Iooked...

After a small climb out of the parking lot, I was instantly treated to insanely vibrant fall color everywhere

The first couple miles just flew by. The trail was completely enclosed in trees, but I didn't care because I got to hike through tunnels of bright yellow and orange leaves.


Pretty surreal. Kinda felt like I was walking through a Disney movie set.

After a couple of hours hiking through the tree tunnels, I decided to stop at the Wise Shelter for lunch. Since the State Park is currently under a fire ban (due to the drought) that means I can't have an open flame. Period. No camp fires and no camp stove. All the food I brought had to be non-cook food. So I brought a sandwich.


The Italian is the best Harris Teeter pre-packaged sandwich. Don't @ me.

After lunch, I threw my pack back on and started my hike to where I was going to camp that night. After a little while longer in the tree tunnels, the hike opened up to expansive views of the surrounding mountains and rolling hills.



I even saw some local folk riding horses

As I continued on my route to the Thomas Knob Shelter, it started to sprinkle on me. Remembering back to the forecasted hurricane (not really, but close) I started to book it.


The problem was, I "booked it" in the wrong direction *face palm*. C'mon Mike, why can't you go on just one trip where you don't hike the wrong way.


After hiking for 30 mins or so, I came across an open field with tents that looked exactly like the one above. I thought "hmmmmm.....that field looks eerily similar to the field I just left." Checked my map and realized I had hiked in a loop straight back to where I had come from.


Now, with an ever approaching thunderstorm, I REALLY had to book it to make up for the lost time AND I had to hike the extra mile back to where I made a wrong turn. My mind started to spiral with thoughts like "What if I end up having to camp out here exposed in the pouring rain?" "What if I can't make the mileage I want to, how much more will I need to do tomorrow?" "What if I get struck by lightning?" etc. etc. All the while, the wind is picking up and the temperature dropped significantly.

But alas! I ended up making it before the downpour started.


I got to the shelter around 4:45 or so, and at 5pm it started raining cats and dogs.


For those who don't know what shelters on the AT are like, they have 3 walls and a roof with platforms inside to lay out your sleeping pad and sleeping bag on. Some shelters are bigger and more elaborate than others, and some are small and falling apart. The one above happened to be a double-shelter, which means it has an upstairs and a downstairs, and each floor can sleep about 6 or 7 people.


Since I arrived a little bit later than everyone else, I was one of the last people to grab a spot. The bottom floor was already full and there was a group of 11 college kids (the max group size is supposed to be 10 I might add!) that already had most of the top floor. They welcomed me and I made some room for myself up on the top floor with them.


If you're wondering what it looks like to sleep head-to-head in a tiny room with 11 other people, this is it!

One of my favorite parts of backpacking is getting to the shelter, eating dinner, and getting to hangout with other hikers. The stories that are told and the conversations had bring about a sense of camaraderie, even if it is with total strangers.


There were a couple SoBo (Southbound - meaning they started in Maine and are going to Georgia, instead of the more typical Georgia to Maine) AT thru-hikers. I met First Blood, Ash, and Pinecone. They all started at Mt. Katahdin and had been on trail for the last 4 months or so. Very cool to hear the stories of what they have been through so far and how far they have come!


It continued to rain all night and I swear it was the LOUDEST rain I had ever heard.



I took this video from my sleeping bag. That's the rain on the metal roof of the shelter. Definitely makes it a little more difficult to sleep! But I somehow managed to get a couple hours in.


In the morning it had finally stopped raining, but it was foggy as hell and still misting a little bit. I enjoyed my cold soaked oatmeal with dried fruit (remember, no flames), packed up my stuff and headed back out to hike the remaining 4 miles back to my car.


The trail was a sopping wet, puddle-filled mess


The trail was more of a river than it was a trail. Low-lying areas I had passed by the previous day were now filled with muddy water, and any loose dirt had become thick mud.


The wind was blowing me sideways and the mist/light rain had soaked through my "waterproof" jacket, leaving all my clothes underneath soaking wet. I only had to hike 4 miles (which is like 2 hrs) back to my car, and I knew I had dry clothes to change into, so it wasn't the worst thing in the world.

I passed through these Pine forests and it smelled so strongly of Christmas trees! So cool to actually see wild Christmas trees that aren't being grown in bulk on a farm.


After hiking all day yesterday and a little bit in the morning, I was pretty pissed that I still hadn't seen any wild ponies! Where are they! I demand to see the ponies!


But just to my luck, about 0.5 mile from my car......



This one came up to me and wanted snacks

....I came across a pack of them!


It's absurd how accustomed to humans these ponies are. I keep my camera inside a ziploc bag when I hike so that it doesn't get ruined when it rains. I took my camera out of the bag and a pack of ponies heard the crinkling and came running.


One pony came up to me, and then another, and another, and then 2 more, and eventually I found myself inside a pony ambush. I didn't really know what I was supposed to do, so I just slowly reached my hand out, petted their heads and then left.


I finally made it back to my car, changed into some dry clothes, and headed home happy that I was able to make this trip work even with the cold weather and rain!


Another successful trip and a great one to finish out the season!

- Michael

All photographs property of Michael Hanson

hansonmichael84@gmail.com    |     703-853-3042

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