Grayson Highlands in the Snow

Grayson Highlands in the Snow

The weather report called for temperatures in the low 30's and light rain. I awoke in the trail shelter Sunday morning to several inches of snow! The weekend of December 3 - 4, 2016, I went backpacking in Grayson Highland State Park, VA. The Park is part of the Virginia Highlands Recreation Area, and contains the highest mountain in VA. The trail started at the backpacker's parking lot on the driveway to the main front country camp ground, called the Appalachia Spur Trail, It went up hill to the east of the main trail in Massie Gap and joined the Appalachian Trail on Wilburn Ridge just northeast of Massie Gap.


From there I followed the Appalachian Trail north east across Grayson Highland Park. I immediately ran into hoar frost (ground ice) on the trail; and I saw many acres of trees on the mountain ahead of me covered in frost. I had prepared for a winter trip, but this situation was a little colder than I expected. I put on all my clothes and could barely keep warm. Along the way I encountered several of the famous Wilburn Ridge wild ponies. You can observe and photograph them, but the rangers warn against touching them, since they will bite and kick.

When I got to the Wise AT shelter about mid-day Saturday, I had it all to myself. After setting up my abode in a corner of the shelter I went searching for the privy and found in the woods to the north a composting outhouse. Then I searched for water. I have an app on my iPhone that describes the features along the trail. The app placed the water source as being to the south of the shelter. After following several false south ward trails that petered out in the woods and nearly getting lost, I finally found the correct blue blazed water trail lying to the west of the shelter.

Lunch was cold snack food like beef jerky and pemmican type granola and fruit bars. By then it was only early afternoon with about 4 hours of daylight left. To occupy my time, learn the lay of the land and burn calories to heat my body, I explored the AT a mile or so to the north. I found a very nice non-shelter camp site outside the Grayson Park boundary, beside a creek, in a flat meadow interspersed with trees and boulders. Mike Cooper, this is where I am taking you next spring!

Despite my penchant for being fully prepared for any eventuality, and generally over-packing, I did not have quite enough clothes to stay warm while sitting around. So I got in my super-warm sleeping bag [North Face, down, rated to 0 degrees] and read a canoeing magazine. I still got bored, so I ate an early supper of freeze dried Shepherds' Pie reconstituted with boiling water and went to bed before sundown. I dozed for several hours and was awakened after dark by a crew of 4 young men with headlamps on from Winston-Salem out for a 4 day backpack. They were camping nearby and wanted to use the shelter to cook supper. We had a nice chat on numerous subjects. It turns out their group leader is a Doc Watson fan and comes to MerleFest. He promised to eat one of my Kiwanis Club Philly steak and cheese sandwiches next April.

I was in bed for too long, and woke up long before daylight Sunday morning. I tossed and turned for a while and my back and thighs got sore lying on the thin sleeping pad. Then I was joined again by the same 4 young men who came back to the shelter to cook breakfast. In the daylight I saw how unprepared they were. Only 1 of the 4, the leader, had on appropriate winter clothes - Patagonia jacket, Outdoor Research gaiters and Merrell boots. The other 3 were wearing cotton hooded sweatshirts, cotton Carhartt pants and non-waterproof running shoes. They were mostly shivering. During their breakfast preparation, they ran out of stove fuel and had to skip two of the main dishes, fried bacon and scrambled eggs. They ate their muffins and drank their coffee.

I found that the batteries in my camping designed gear - GPS, headlamp, personal locator beacon - survived the cold night fine and they still worked Sunday morning. But the cold killed my iPhone battery; it was dead as a doornail. Next time I will need to keep the phone in my sleeping bag.

Looking around I saw several inches of snow on the ground and more falling steadily. I hurriedly jumped up, ate breakfast and packed to leave. The trail was already snow covered and I wanted to hike out before it was obliterated from view. I will claim to have backpacked in much worse conditions than this trip, including temperatures down to 0 degrees [this trip got down to maybe 25 degrees], 3 feet of snow [this trip was 3 inches] and much longer mileage [this trip was about 5 miles]. But I was not 64 years old then. I have found that the older I get, then the more sensitive I am to cold, the stiffer are my joints, the tighter are my muscles and the less dependable is my balance. This trip was all that I wanted to handle. Hiking out was difficult. The trail was slick and often invisible under the snow. It took all my navigation skills to stay on track. Being alone, I was nervous a couple times.

Regarding my breathing disability, it showed itself multiple times while hiking uphill, but almost never or the flats or downhill. I was probably 25% slower than I would have been several years ago. It also affected me around camp any time I squatted down - to tie my boots, light a stove or pick up a bag off the ground. I don't know why. Go figure.

Luckily, there was another backpacker who had traversed the same trail just a few minutes in front of me, going the same direction, so I followed his boot prints for several miles. Eventually I started to lose his prints as the continually falling snow covered them. Even more luckily, I then passed another backpacker going in the opposite direction, and he came from where I was going! I followed his prints the rest of the way to the parking lot.

All in all it was a fine trip and I hope to repeat something like it before too long.

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Bob Laney

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Bob is the site curator and writer of Blue Ridge Outing. Since starting the Blue Ridge Outing travel blog in 2002, Bob has written, recorded and documented countless expeditions in the US and around the world.