If Virginia is for lovers, the state’s Grayson Highlands are for mountain lovers. The high country of southwestern Virginia offers stunning vistas of alpine peaks, hiking through rhododendron-filled forests, some of the best bouldering on the East Coast and herds of wild ponies. The protected area, called Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, includes Grayson Highlands State Park and one of the state’s highest mountains, Mount Rogers.
What Attracts Campers to Virginia’s Grayson Highlands
The region is a treasured favorite among Virginia campers seeking fresh mountain air and wilderness. Here’s why.
1. More than 100 Wild Ponies Roam the Land
The Grayson Highlands area gets attention for one feature above all other: the ponies. More than one hundred wild ponies roam the ridges and meadows of Grayson Highlands State Park and the nearby Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Their origin can be traced to the livestock that farmers tended to in this area a century ago, before it became protected land. The ponies are a managed herd, but they are left to roam wild. Campers have reported the ponies chewing threw tents or backpacks, so it is best to keep your distance.
Horse-loving campers can find a special treat in the region: two horse campgrounds that allow equestrians to saddle up for day-rides through the local hills and set up camp with their horse at night. Both the Fox Creek Horse Camp and the Old Virginia Horse Camp offer easy access to the Virginia Highlands Horse trail and the Virginia Creeper trail, two routes tailor-made for riders.
2. Picturesque Hiking, No Matter the Weather
This is Appalachia country, and the ridges don’t disappoint. There are beautiful ferns and pines and airy meadows called “balds” that were once clear-cut pastures for livestock. When there’s heavy fog, which can happen because of unpredictable weather, it can feel like the Scottish highlands. On sunny days, there are views on endless layers of mountains. In the summer, there are wild blueberries and blackberries, writes The Dyrt camper Kyle B.
The peak of Mount Rogers can be reached in nine miles from the state park. Hikers use part of the Appalachian Trail, which continues on further north. There are dozens of other trails, including the historic Virginia Creeper Trail, a rail-to-trail conversion project spanning much of Virginia’s western edge.
3. The Best Bouldering in the State
The state park offers some of the best bouldering in Virginia–some have called it the state’s “crown jewel”. Aaron James Parlier, a local rock climber, updates a wonderful blog called Grayson Highlands Bouldering with the latest closures, routes and tips.
4. Local, Live Music Gatherings
On the third Saturday of every June, the region’s top bluegrass musicians come to the park to fill the hills with music. The Wayne C. Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition, named after the local legend from Rugby, Virginia, has been going on for more than twenty years.
5. Grayson Highlands is a True Year-Round Destination
The fall colors are striking at the higher altitude. But that’s not the only attraction in the fall. Grayson Highlands’ fall festival takes place every September, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to the park. It’s a celebration of Appalachian culture and autumn, complete with fiddling and apple cider, cake and even “the best apple butter anywhere,” according to The Dyrt camper Sarah C. Cash from the festival goods goes on to support local vendors and the nearby Rugby Volunteer Rescue Squad and Fire Department.
Campers can also love Grayson Highlands in the winter because of, and not despite, the snow and the cold. Because of the higher altitude, the region can get a good layer of snow, which is perfect for cross country skiing or snowshoeing on both the gentle hills or steep peaks.
“In the winter, it is definitely COLD but absolutely stunning with snow falling,” says The Dyrt camper Sarah C., who adds that fall and winter are her favorite seasons to visit.
Five of the Best Grayson Highlands Camping Solutions
The high country of Grayson Highlands has different levels of federal and state protection and it includes Grayson Highlands State Park with more than 4,500 acres of national forest, but also lots of hiking in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Visitors can explore in a day or several, as they have a few options to spends nights in this hilly country.
The campground at Grayson Highlands State Park, with almost 100 sites, is the most popular base camp to explore the Mount Rogers area. RV and tent campers can both find lodging there, and equestrians can bring their horses to a stable area in the campground. There are compostable toilets and showers. Groups can reserve large sites in a separate area. The state park also offers lodging in rustic cabins or in yurts, complete with large wooden decks.
The Raccoon Branch campground is nestled at the base of Dickey Knob, which is a great hike. It is small, with around 20 sites, and not suitable for big rigs.
Earn your Pioneer badge on The Dyrt and be the first to review your stay at the Raccoon Branch campground!
Grindstone Campground has around 100 sites, with several loops. There’s a day use area and several creeks throughout the campground. The main attraction is the direct access to hiking: campers can take the switchbacking trail that passes through the campground to the top of Mount Rogers.
“Though the campground was fairly full, it still felt calm and somewhat private. The wooded area were lovely. It felt safe and family friendly. The bathrooms were clean and the campsites were well kept. Over all, a great experience for those looking for something in the woods, but with a few comforts of civilization.” –The Dyrt camper Faye D.
The Dyrt camper Robin K. calls this campground “truly a hidden gem” in the Mount Rogers area. The sites are large, situated near a rushing mountain stream and are secluded by growths of hemlock and rhododendron. Campers can find easy access to both the Appalachian Trail and certain bouldering sites.
Backpackers can love the Mount Rogers area too. There are dozens of overnight hiking loops, and the Appalachian Trail itself passes through the region, offering shelters and lean-tos used by thru-hikers for years. For those looking to go primitive camping at nearby trails, there’s lots of space along the Springs Trail and the Crest Trail. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website has information and recommendations for those looking to camp in the backcountry.