Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Return to the Highlands

“Spring Break 2011” marked our 6th backpacking trip to the Grayson Highlands/ Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.


We would ultimately spend 4 days in the backcountry as we traveled in and out of designated wilderness areas via multiple trails systems and spur trails with the Appalachian Trail being the most recognized among them.

Our outing would see us cover 17 miles of trail as it twisted through varying terrain including the Grayson area “high country” and the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest that blankets Mount Roger’s peak.

While each of our excursions into the Highlands has been a unique experience unto themselves, we resolved from the beginning that all of our trips to the Highlands would be centered on the experience of being “in” the Highlands and not to simply transverse them.

That being said, the point of this trip, or of the previous ones for that matter, has never been to travel as far as possible at a frenetic pace in the vein of “Ultra light backpacking”.

We always travel “heavy” with our pack weights tipping the scales at an estimated 30 to 35 pounds.


We packed in wine, because frankly there is nothing more awe inspiring than to toast one another in the vast openness of the Highlands, or as this trip would dictate from the confines of our MSR “Hubba Hubba” as we sought shelter from both high winds on one evening to spitting skies and encroaching darkness on another.

My wife carried items that you might find on a gourmet menu, like her smoked salmon with tomato sauce over sweet potato gnocchi, a meal which was so rudely interrupted by the alpha male pony who I engaged in a staring and posturing contest with as my food grew cold.

The wild ponies of the Highlands
In other words, we bring items that we feel enhance the experience.
Could we exist for days on Cliff bars? Sure, but then that’s not the point.

It’s still primitive wilderness camping, and as such we filtered water out of mountain streams and springs that crisscrossed the trail, and built camp fires for warmth and “back country ambiance”.

Filtering water at one of many springs that dot the AT

The MSR by the camp fire light on our 3rd night
The Highlands never fail to impress with their erratic weather patterns, and this trip was no exception in that it brought sunshine, which would ultimately yield to howling winds that spawned bands of heavy rain.
This place can go from unlimited visibility to fog so thick that you could cut it with Bear Grylls’ survival knife in a matter of minutes.

Into the mist as we move towards Mount Rogers
It can be quite intense, and this particular trip gave us one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever experienced.

One of those profound instances where everything comes together and Mother Nature reveals some of her most majestic attributes in a subtle acknowledgement to the wayward traveler.


We made a point to summit Mount Rogers on this trip, which is something we had woefully omitted on past outings and as we meandered towards the peak we passed many gorgeous camp sites on the “AT” prior to the spur trail which leads to the top of Virginia.

Through thickening fog and periodic rain bans we made our way into the canopy of firs that blanket Mount Rogers and conceal its peak.

The forest did not fail to impress.

After the trek up to Mount Rogers we made our way back down and across Wilburn Ridge to a secluded site nestled beneath a group of pines just off of Spring Trail which doesn’t appear to get the same amount of foot or hoof traffic as the primary routes as it is a “path to nowhere” that fades into obscurity with the scenery a short way in, but the intrepid traveler will find a lively namesake spring amongst the rhododendron a few minutes’ walk from the campsite.

It is impossible for me to convey in words the vastness and indescribable beauty that we find in the Highlands and I can only imagine what others must feel when they travel to that special place in their own lives that reignites the fire that reminds us all of what is…(or is not) important.

It’s incredible that such a diverse and wild place exists only 5 hours from our home and no matter how many times we go it continues to goad us into exploring it further.