Spread over a pocket of Appalachian high country, Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park is an alpine Eden. The lofty landscape is embellished by airy mountain meadows, gushing trout streams, rhododendron-filled forests, and a conglomeration of high peaks. Best of all, more than 100 wild ponies roam Grayson Highlands and the neighboring Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, which is a 200,000-acre swath of the massive Jefferson National Forest. If you’re looking for a place to spend the night without camping, the nearby town of Abingdon has a wide variety of options from hotels to bed & breakfasts.
Established in 1965, the 4,502-acre park was originally called the Mount Rogers State Park—long known for providing a portal to the state’s highest peak. Besides offering a route to the forest-shrouded summit of Mount Rogers, today Grayson Highlands is a lofty trail hub with a network of 13 different trails inside the state park, and access to the 2,150-mile Appalachian Trail and 68-mile Virginia Highlands Horse Trail.
Peak baggers won’t be able to resist the temptation to tackle Virginia’s highest peak, the 5,729-foot Mount Rogers. Fortunately, the shortest and arguably the most scenic route to the summit comes courtesy of Grayson Highlands State Park.
Grayson Highlands is also a hotspot for anglers. You’ll find nearly 10 miles of trout streams, featuring brook and rainbow trout, which are part of the Blue Ridge Highlands Fishing Trail. The park’s waterways are designated Special Regulation Wildlife Trout Streams, mandating the use of artificial lures and single hooks, and requiring any trout under 9-inches be released unscathed.
One of the park’s highlights is the band of ponies roving the highlands—including a famous, flaxen-maned stallion named Fabio, renowned for his salon-quality locks. The origin of the equines is somewhat mysterious, but one story suggests the ponies were bred by locals to survive the fickle Appalachian high country with minimal human interference. Inside the park, the herd was introduced by the Forest Service in 1974 to provide a natural landscaping service for the highland balds, first cleared by loggers at the end of the 19th century and later grazed by cattle throughout first half of the 20th century.
Today, the free-wandering herd is managed by the Wilbur Ridge Pony Association. The ponies are rounded up every fall for a health check–and so that a few individuals (usually young males) can be selected for auction at the annual Grayson Highlands Fall Festival.
Grayson Highlands is not just a bucket-list trip for hikers in the Old Dominion—the park is also one of the premier bouldering destinations in Virginia. With nearly 1,000 problems scattered throughout the park, there are enough routes to suit all kinds of climbers. The lofty elevation of the park’s bouldering areas, many more than 5,000 feet, also make Grayson Highlands a prime climbing destination during the summer, when temperatures render many popular routes in the Southeast off-limits.