Back to Backpacking: A Trek Through the Highlands

After two months of not being able to do much backpacking thanks to lots of snow and ice, we were finally able to head out this weekend. The destination was Grayson Highlands National Park in Virginia, the temperature was chilly but bearable, and the weather was probably going to rain. Sounds like fun!

The plan called for us to hike along the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the area, from the parking lot to a camping area a few miles down the trail, and back again the following morning. Simple enough, really, as long as you can actually follow the trail. A winter with lots of ice and snow had rubbed the characteristic white blazes that mark the path of the A.T. off a lot of rocks, and following the trail was not always easy. We never got really lost, although we did occasionally meander a bit.

Grayson Highlands is famous for a couple of things: first, it’s dominated by wide-open meadows (called balds) that give it an Alpine feel, which is unusual for the Southeast U.S. Second, wild ponies are allowed to roam across the entire area. They’re very accustomed to humans, and will usually let you get quite close for pictures, although feeding them is forbidden (A.T. thru-hiker lore tells of people who fed them and were then followed for miles by pesky, hungry ponies.)

There was plenty of snow still on the ground, especially under the shelter of trees. This made things particularly interesting when we reached the campsite, as we had to either pick between a campsite that was out in the open and exposed to the wind or a campsite in the trees which was covered in six inches of snow. In the end, we chose a more exposed campsite, and as a result, that night was marked by fitful bursts of sleep punctuated by long periods of nervous wakefulness. Laying awake, watching the wind warp and bow the side of the tent like a particularly flimsy boat sail, and listening to the velcro-fastened vestibule snap back and forth in the gusts, I wondered how long it would be until the tent just collapsed. But as the light of dawn broke, the tent was still standing proudly. It held up just fine until a few minutes later, when someone tripped over one of the stake lines as they were walking by. (Luckily, by then it was time to pack up anyway.)

All in all, a fun trip. The first day was beautifully clear (albeit windy), and the second day… well, it was fogged in, wet, and cold, but still fun. Let’s face it, if you can’t have fun in bad weather, or at least bravely fight your way through it, then backpacking probably isn’t for you.

That said, I am looking forward to maybe one day having a trip that doesn’t involve testing my tent in rainy, high-wind conditions.

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