I don’t remember when I first heard about the Grayson Highlands wild ponies (it may have been the open letter to the “wild” ponies of Grayson Highlands State Park on McSweeney’s), but I knew I wanted them to be on my short list when I went back to visit my family in Tennessee. I kind of got a little obsessed with the ponies. Or maybe with just saying the word “pony”.
I mentioned the ponies to a lot of people while I was back east. No one knew what I was talking about. At some point during the visit, my relatives thought I was mentioning the ponies a little too often and started mocking me. (“Oh, the ponies!” and “Is today Pony day?”) It was unseasonably cold and rainy in Tennessee this spring. It was not optimal pony-viewing weather. Otherwise, I would have gotten the ponies out my system a lot sooner than last Monday.
The moment the weather cleared, Bill and I set off for Grayson Highlands State Park with the Steep Canyon Rangers on the iPod and ponies on our mind. Our drive took us through Damascus, Virginia, where they will be hosting Trails Days this weekend for Appalachian Trail hikers (we passed a lot of thru hikers on our short hike).
Our objective, besides an up-close and personal experience with some wild ponies, was also Mt. Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia (5,728′). We parked at the Overnight Backpacker trailhead parking lot near Massie Gap and hiked up the AT Spur Trail to the Appalachian Trail through woods that I would still plunk solidly in the “early spring” or “late winter” category. Nothing but the grass showed signs of life. It was sunny, but windy and cold. We hadn’t brought our regular hiking gear and felt a little naked without all of our layers and extras. We hiked quickly with our hands in our pockets to compensate.
Once on the Appalachian Trail, we headed north (which was really the southbound AT, confusing) and soon spotted a small herd of ponies on a distant ridge. “Oh, I hope they don’t leave before we get over there!” I said to Bill as we picked up the pace. It ended up being on of those days where, by the time we had finished our hike, we were tripping over ponies around every corner, but in the beginning, we didn’t know if the distant ponies were going to be our only sighting.
The herd had only wandered slightly by the time we reached them. Immediately, a pony trotted over to Bill, who had set his backpack down.
“Don’t molest them!” I yelled over the wind. “They bite!”
“I’m not going to do anything!” Bill yelled back, as he stuck out his fist and rubbed the pony’s nose.
I wandered around the herd, taking photos of them like pony paparazzi. They snorted a little, weaved a little, but were mostly disinterested in what I was doing. A little foal made kissy noises at me.
Sated with pony viewing, we continued up the AT to the Wilber Ridge Trail and scrambled over some fun rock outcroppings, rejoining the AT in several hundred yards.
This section of the AT is great fun. Rocky, short bouldery climbs and descents, great open views along a beautiful series of balds that reminded us of northern England and Scotland. It was getting colder and windier as we climbed, so I was a little relieved to drop down off the ridge into the shelter of of thick rhododendrons and stubby alpine balsam trees at the junction with the Crest Trail. In time, we arrived at Thomas Knob shelter (with privy) and the junction to the Mt. Rogers summit.
It took about 15-20 minutes to climb to the top of Mt. Rogers, which is one of the least-spectacular peaks I’ve climbed. But, we did it. Check that off the bucket list.
There were more ponies on the way back to the car. Ponies blocking the trail. Ponies at beautiful viewpoints. Ponies nibbling sweet new grass on the balds. Old ponies, young ponies. Ponies sleeping, ponies pooping. Ponies, ponies, ponies.
Suffice it to say, I got my fill of ponies. So much, that our next hike (my favorite little hike near Greeneville, TN) featured zero ponies.