The plan was simple. Just get a few girlfriends together and camp out two nights around Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. Really. That’s all it was. It was THAT simple. Camping and hiking with the wild ponies of Grayson. It wasn’t a crazy idea. Lots of folks do it. I have watched the videos for years. So, what could possibly go wrong?
Count on the unexpected
After countless hours planning out the camping and the route we would take during the hike, I decided that I should call the rangers office at Grayson just to be sure that everything was good to go for back country camping. There is NO CAMPING inside the boundaries of Grayson Highland State Park. You have to hike over towards the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Center or the George Washington or Jefferson National Forest areas to do the camping.
When I called on a Monday and asked about the overnight parking lot and back country camping she said, ‘Oh, they have closed off that entire area to back country camping because of bear activity. You can camp in the actual campground, but not in the back country.”
She said they had just closed it off on Friday.
Now what? So, I began trying to figure out how we could do this. I did not want to stay in an actual campground. I really wanted to get out away from tons of people and just really be able to take in nature. The alternative plan I came up with sounded like that would be the case. It turned out to be anything but that.
Keep the itinerary small
After going over things in my head and knowing the area a ‘little’ from the previous years day hiking I had done out there, I came up with an alternate plan. While it was doable, in retrospect, it really was too much for a 4 day trip.
I desperately wanted to keep Grayson in the mix if at all possible. I also had come with the a doozy of a second hike. I thought, what if we did Grayson one day and then drove down to Roan Mountain, back in Tennessee, to hike the section of the Appalachian Trail from Carver’s Gap to 19E. This is the section that a lot of thru-hikers consider to be one of the prettiest of the AT. Yes! That’s it! WE CAN DO IT!
So, after many, many revisions the following plan came together.
Day 1. Thursday. Leave late, after work, grab a drive thru dinner, go to a campsite two hours away called Rhea Springs Campground in Spring City, Tn. The reason was the drive to Grayson was 5 hours and it would be too much for me after having worked all day.
Day 2. Friday. Get up in Spring City and drive the 3 hours to Grayson. Arrive early and hike to Mt. Rogers and then back to the car. Mileage would be around 9-10 miles depending on trails. Leave Grayson and drive to Mtn. Harbor Hostel in Roan Mountain, TN to tent camp and then ride their shuttle to Carver’s Gap at 10 am on Saturday morning.
Day 3. Saturday. Get up, eat, take shuttle to Carver’s Gap and begin the hike to Overmountain Shelter. 5.9 miles and camp there for the night.
Day 4. Sunday. Leave Overmountain Shelter and hike ten miles back to Mtn. Harbor and my car. Go grab a burger and head home..four hour drive.
Simple, huh? Yeah. Simple.
Not everything on the internet is as perfect as it sounds
I am cheap. Really cheap. Like I pretty much look for free whenever possible. So, I thought there has to be free campsites available. I found a website called FreeCampsites.net . It’s a neat little website. Who knew that most Walmarts allow free camping in their parking lots for RV’s and cars? I did not want to stay in a Walmart parking lot in my car. You can plan out an entire trip using this site. If I had an RV this would definitely come in handy. I was looking for a site somewhere near I40 east two hours from Lebanon, TN. I found one and the reviews made it sound like I had hit pay dirt on a great site. So, down on paper went the Rhea Springs Campground campsite for our very late arrival on Thursday night.
The campsite. We roll in very, very late to a packed campground. There are lots of RV’s and tents and zero spots to park. I ended up parking right next to the bathrooms. Kristie had driven her own car and opted to just sleep in hers and another, that rode with me, decided to sleep in my car. Another set up her tent and another and myself opted to find some place to throw up our hammocks.
We all settle in and then it starts. First, the nuts falling from the trees hitting the top of the bathrooms; then the train that went by at least twice an hour. There was talking of other campers that I could hear from my hammock. And so it went all.night.long. I turned on my white noise on my phone on full blast and stuck it up by my ear. I fell asleep and woke up suddenly at 6:46. The plan had been to leave by 6.
We got out of there around 8:30 or so.
I knew from our oversleeping that the full hike to Mt. Rogers was not going to happen. In all reality I knew it had to be changed. I had looked at the map for hours and hours over the course of the previous weeks so I loosely had an idea of what we could change to make the hike still doable and not kill us all in miles. We ended up doing just over 7 miles. We hit the trail at 11:44 and ended around 5:15.
Enjoy the Journey
Remember the whole reason you are there and just go with the flow. So much goes into planning one of these trips and you are at the mercy of not only nature, but of parks, traffic, and weather. If your trip changes on the fly just remember that you will still see amazing things and you can still have a great time.
Grayson Highland State Park, Mouth of Wilson, VA
- Parked at Massie Gap
- Followed the Appalachian Trail until it intersected with the Crest Trail
- Crest Trail as it turned into a horse trail and then followed signs to back to Massie Gap
- Click here for my Alltrails Map
The trail was very hard in certain spots. You have to climb up on huge boulders as you follow the Appalachian Trail. Give yourself plenty of time, not just for resting, but for picture-taking. It is breathtaking.
I believe we saw about 4 or 5 different ‘herds’ of ponies throughout the park. They are very laid back and I am pretty sure they are used to being the main attraction. They seemed to stop and pose for photos.
Next Stop Mountain Harbor Hostel, Roan Mountain, TN
Click here for my Alltrails map of Carver’s Gap to the OverMountain Shelter
Click here for my Alltrails map of OverMountain Shelter to 19E
We drove a couple of hours south and arrived around 8:30 at Mtn .Harbor. It is located just off of 19E and if you are like me you will probably drive right past it and have to turn around. The gravel driveway brings you to the parking area and the bed and breakfast sits on the top of the hill while the Hostel sits to the right of the parking lot. The tent camping area is behind the hostel. It’s a short walk back to the woods from the hostel. The parking fee for you car is $10 and the tent camping fee is $10. You get the use of the hostel with that $10 and one free shower ( I believe to sleep inside it there is an additional fee.) There is also a laundry room with three washers and dryers that you can use.
The camping area was cramped. There were several campers already set up and it was hard for three of us to find good trees to hang hammocks from. We did find some, but it was a little difficult at night. 19E runs RIGHT next to the camping area and it was very loud all night. I can’t remember ever hearing about this in any of the reviews or videos I have watched on YouTube. Had I known just how loud I am not sure we would have stayed in the camping area. We probably would have opted for the hostel or maybe even a hotel.
You need to be sure to make reservations for the shuttle a week or so in advance. They fill up quickly. That’s why our time was 10:00. It was ok to start at that time because we did get to the Overmountain Shelter way before dark, but I don’t think I would have wanted to start much later than that.
The drive was 20 or so minutes to get from Mtn. Harbor to Carver’s Gap. As usual, the area was packed. We unloaded and we were off.
From the get go, the hike to the Roan Highlands is uphill. We were passed by several groups of kids and teenagers that seemed to not have any problem whatsoever trekking on up the hills. Oh, to be young again. As usual, I was the last in line. My group doesn’t necessarily follow the hiking rule of letting the slowest person set the pace up front (for the very reason as to not leave them behind). I usually tell them to just go ahead because I am so slow. Hills kill me. I hate them. I really, really hate them. If everyone were behind me I would just be as miserable as they would be. For this reason, I pretty much hike large sections by myself. Which is fine. I tell them to if there is a junction to stop and wait for me so we can all make sure we are going in the right direction.
From this point the photos are not necessarily in order.
This was the sunset from OverMountain Shelter. It was gorgeous!! Leave it to me to pick a weekend when every scout on the planet would be there. There was a sea of tents and a bazillion kids running around. They were climbing up to the loft in the barn and then climbing out of the windows. They were fun to watch and I just kept thinking what a cool memory this would be for them.
Mike and Jeff were awesome. Jeff, the younger one, had his yellow hammock in the picture. It ripped in the middle of the night and he hit the ground hard. He was ok though. Although, it did sound like the whole barn was falling down.
My friends opted to stay in the shelter on the opposite platform from Jeff. I set my hammock up outside because I knew the shelter was going to be not such a great place to sleep. WAYYYYY too noisy with people going up and down the loft steps all night.
Looking back down to Overmountain shelter after the morning climb out. This is a HARD hike. Beware. Coming out of the valley where the shelter is will be one of the hardest sections. There is a good water supply down near the shelter.
At this point you can start to hear the traffic of 19E and the hike is very easy the half mile or so. Once you get to the road go to your left and road hike for about .3 miles back to Mtn. Harbor. It will be on your right.
This is a trip I will never forget. It was four long days and none of us were able to really sleep well. From the awful campground in Spring City, to the noisy camping at Mtn. Harbor, by the time we finally got on the road to actually do the hike we were already exhausted. However, I can say that we all learned a lot on this trip. We know our gear much better now and most of us have already started making improvements to our systems. I know better how to plan now and what to look for in a camping area. And, I have learned to not over plan the activities. It’s better to just do one trip and do it well then it is to cram too many things into a few days.
Both of these trips are worth doing again. I want to go back and just do the Grayson sections that we didn’t see before. There are waterfalls we didn’t get to see and just more of the area that I would like to explore. I want to take my husband on both of these hikes eventhough I know it will be kicking and screaming.
But next time they will be one at a time.