Off to Grayson Highlands State Park at 4 a.m.
By Lawrence Jordan
Special to the News & Press
Grayson Highlands State Park, Va., is a place that my wife, Shannon, and I have both enjoyed visiting before we met. Shannon has visited to hike with her family while I went on trips with the Boy Scouts. Shannon and I picked the first weekend of November to go together and we packed our bags to hike and camp in the area. Since we had obligations on Friday, we left Dillon at 4 a.m. Saturday to maximize our time on the trail. The car was packed so that all we had to do Saturday morning was wake up, pour coffee, and stumble into the car for the early drive. As we drove nearer to the mountains, we noticed that the leaves in the trees were more vibrant with the fall colors, but the trees became bare as we drove higher into the mountains. Later in the drive we crossed the New River and saw the stretch that we paddled on the second day of the New River Expedition in 2019. Shannon and I reached Grayson Highlands and were on the trail at 9:30. The hike started with a long uphill climb on the Appalachian Trail along Wilburn Ridge where the vegetation is low, and hikers can enjoy a mountain top view throughout the hike. Shannon and I scrambled the rocks and came across the wild ponies that live in the highlands. We have all seen horses but there is something special about uncaged horses in the mountains that makes you want to sit and watch them. Shannon pulled up some grass and one mountain pony came to eat from her hand. The trail continued to take us to higher elevations and we came across more ponies along the way. Wilburn Ridge had multiple rocky peaks where we could sit to enjoy the view and recharge with a snack/water break. The Appalachian Trail took us past great rock formations, high elevation plains, and even through rocky tunnels. MRE meals were on the menu for lunch and took a break to sit and eat. This was Shannon’s first MRE meal and we enjoyed our main course of Asian beef strips which came with a heat pack, and many sides. The meal gave us a boost of energy and suddenly Mount Rogers, the tallest mountain of Virginia, didn’t look so tough. Three mountains sat between us and our new goal and so we hit the trail for Mount Rogers. Shannon and I hiked past the borders of Grayson Highlands into the Lewis Fork Wilderness area. We passed multiple camps where hikers had settled for the evening to camp along the trail. We hiked through the woods and open fields, but Mount Rogers seemed as far as ever. Finally, we were on the mountain and making our way up. The vegetation changed from grassy meadows to moss covered cedar trees as we hiked higher and we felt the temperature drop by about 10 degrees. We finally reached the top of the mountain and found the plaque on a rock indicating that the elevation was 5,729 feet. Shannon said that the hike to the mountain was harder than the actual ascent. The mountaintop was wooded and so there was no overlook, but the forest was unique compared to the rest of our hike. The forest was so peaceful that you could hear the silence. After a quick break, we were back on the trail heading downhill. The morning was spent leisurely walking around the trails and climbing rocks but the hike back to the cars was done at a much faster pace. It is always easier to pitch a tent and start cooking supper in daylight and so we hiked quickly to be off of the trail by dark. Soon we were back on Wilburn Ridge and could see past several peaks to the valley where we parked the car. Even at our fast pace, there was time to take in the views of the mountains, but their stretching shadows, cast by the late afternoon sun, reminded us that we were on a schedule. Our hike to Mount Rogers and back totaled 10.5 miles in all. I started the car and drove off to our campsite. Our tent was pitched on the riverbank at the Helton Creek Campground. Fly fishermen waded past our campsite while we lit a fire and prepared to cook. Coals were heated by the fire, which we used to cook an enchilada tower in the Dutch oven. We always say that meals outside are best which could be because expectations are lower, however, Dutch oven cooking often beats an entire kitchen. We crawled into the tent early since it was such a long and exerting day. We slept like a rock, or should I say on a rock, for 10 hours. I stepped out of the tent early and restarted the fire with ease. Soon logs were on the flame with eggs, bacon, biscuits, and coffee heating up. Breakfast was finished and we broke camp for our last mission on the trip … the trout. Shannon shut the trunk with the last of our camping gear stowed away and we strapped our waders on. I had my lightweight fly-fishing waders and Shannon was wearing heavy, neoprene ladies’ hunting waders. My first bite was right in front of our campsite, but the fish got away. We hiked to a more remote section of river and fished across from a great rock face. This section was deep, fast flowing water between two rapids. I caught a rainbow trout first, which I guided towards Shannon who was ready with the net. Soon another trout ate the fly, this time a larger brook trout. The brook trout fought with splendid jumps and took line all the way across the stream. Time was on our side and soon Shannon was scooping the brook trout up in the net. We hiked and looked at another spot and I wanted to move on, but Shannon insisted that there might be a trout behind the rapids. I stepped up to cast and Shannon was ready with the net downstream from me. Sure enough, I did get a bite, but I lost the trout. Even though that trout was lost, Shannon considered it a win that she directed me onto a fish. We hiked on to another place and Shannon was slowing down. Between the hike the day before and her heavy waders now, I could tell that she was ready to relax. I fished that last area and caught a small rainbow trout. I walked up to Shannon after releasing the trout and she had found a baby snapping turtle that fit in the palm of her hand. We loaded up into the car for the ride home, only to stop once to catch a final brown trout, which completed the grand slam. Overall, this trip was one for the books — or should I say brooks. It is always fun to experience the ultimate hike, camping, and trout fishing — but the best part was sharing the adventure with Shannon.