Last Friday morning I woke up early… like 4 am early (yeah, I know that’s not super early…) I had already packed away some things in my car, but not all. I showered, dressed, then grabbed the ice from the freezer, some beers and cheese from the fridge, and finished loading my car. Then I drove…
I arrived at my buddy Benny’s (Plug It In on the AT) house around 11 am. Both he and his son hoped in the car, and then guess what… We drove some more! Yeah, we stopped for food and gas along the way, but eventually we made it to our destination: Black Balsam Knob, just off the famed Blueridge Parkway. And along the way, much to Benny and my surprise, we actually reached another “peak”… well, the highest elevation on the Blueridge Parkway!
By the time we arrived (just after 4 pm), a few other’s had already showed up, including my buddy Craig and Ben Smith (from Goosefeet Gear). Over the next couple of hours, I would make a number of other new friends, as well as reunite with some others I hadn’t seen in a while, including Jeremy Puskas (from Bonefire Gear). Jeremy was the reason for the get-together we were having that night. He was leading us in a mens bible study on the book of Hebrew’s.
By the time the sun was setting, campfire smoke-filled the sky, and tents and hammocks (ok, mostly hammocks) were popping up all over the place! By dark, everyone (around 20 of us) had congregated around the fire while Conner (Benny’s son) stirred the pot of Jeremy’s homemade spaghetti, sitting right in the fire. It was delish! By the time we had all eaten and got settled in a little more, Jeremy began the study. Over the next 2 hours or so we talked about the entire book of Hebrew’s, including other (Bible) book references, and even a number of personal stories. God is good, and the time fellowshipping with the other guys around the fire was good. This was the first mens Bible study I have gotten to make that Jeremy has put on, but I will definitely make plans to attend the following ones!
Eventually, folks began roasting some marshmallows over the fire for Smore’s. As well, Jeremy and I had opened a delightfully good crowler of Seminar Pixels, an unfiltered IPA. Sometime after a few of us decided to head up to the summit, although, we were nestled in cloud cover, so views weren’t expected… but we went anyway. While standing about midway up the summit talking with a few of the other’s, I realized it was 12:08! Wow, it got late fast! So we headed back down and eventually crawled into our homes for the night.
The next morning I slept in. I woke up around 7 am, but laid there for another 30 minutes before getting up. A few of the others had went up to the summit again to catch the sunrise, while a couple of others began making breakfast (eggs and bacon… Jeremy, you rock!) I eventually crawled out of my warm, snuggly, ZPacks sleeping bag (it got to the mid 40’s that night) and got dressed, then crawled out of the tent and went to check out breakfast!
Jeremy and 3 others had decided that they were going to do a trail run from the Daniel Boone camp, about 10 or 12 miles away, back to the camp site. So once we all ate and they got ready, I drove them to the beginning of their hike… The morning drive through this area was B-E-A-U-tiful! Especially on the cool, somewhat cloudy morning, with all the leaves changing colors! WOW!
Once I got back to camp from dropping the runner’s off, I began packing up my gear. After getting everything packed away, we spent some more time hanging out with some of the others before leaving the camp. Eventually though, me, Benny and his son loaded up in my car, and Ben and Craig followed us to Asheville. Once in Asheville, Ben suggested that we head to the White Duck Taco Shop for lunch. They have some good taco’s! Then when we walked out of the taco shop, Benny and I walked right into a Marble Slab Creamery and grabbed some most awesome ice cream cones!
We eventually made our way to the Wicked Weed Brewing company, which is where we were meeting Jeremy and some of the other’s. While waiting I picked up a few of their brew’s to being home for a share with friends. Once Jeremy and the other’s arrived, Benny and I said our good byes and headed on. We still had to drive into VA that evening and was planning to camp at the Hurricane Campgrounds that night.
We arrived at the campgrounds around 7-ish, and from a different direction than I had anticipated… but we made it. We talked with the campground host and he instructed us to follow him to one more site that he thought was open… When we got there, it was filled, however, he let us stay at one of the empty host sites, complete with a ton of firewood!
We set up camp by the light of our headlamps. As well, this was the first time I set up my Hexanet with the precious cuben fiber floor on those rocky, tent pads found at campsites. But Benny let me use his tyvek ground sheet, and I used my polycro. I was nervous all night, but I made it without a hole in my floor! After we got set up we did build a fire, and then relaxed for a while… It was nice.
The next morning I got up a little earlier. The reason we stayed at the campgrounds was so that we would have access to showers before beginning our hike, which I took advantage of. Once I finished showering I began taking my Hexamid and Hexanet down and repacking my backpack… today was the day we began our hike!
After Benny and I was showered and all packed back up, we headed out to look for a plate of breakfast before beginning our hike. I initially planned to go into Troutdale for breakfast, but learned that it was a much smaller town that I thought, and didn’t have much to offer, actually nothing. Luckily though, about 5 miles south of Troutdale along Hwy 16 was a sole restaurant… and it had very good breakfast! We had pancakes, eggs, bacon, hash browns, coffee, and maybe some more stuff… we filled up!
Then, we headed on… to Day 1
I can’t remember what time we started hiking, but it wasn’t late. The parking area at Fox Creek was beautiful. The area was gravel, however, it was covered in leaves of many colors… The sun wasn’t very high just yet, so that morning glow was still going, which made it even more beautiful. Benny and I pulled our packs out, I checked that I had my car key and then we started down the trail…
Being that it was a Sunday morning, it didn’t take us long to start meeting hikers headed our way. We figured many of them were hiking out that morning. The trail was mostly uphill, but in a slow, gradual kind of way. As we walked throughout the forest, the winds were blowing leaves out of random trees. The trail was still rocky and rooted, but there were some leaves along the trail too. Then, only just over 1.5 miles into our hike, we arrived at the Old Orchard shelter. We stopped here for a moment.
Our hike was a lollipop, which was going to put us staying here at the shelter a few nights later. While we ended up NOT staying here our last night, there were indeed many very cozy looking spots to set up tents in this area… Just in case you’re wondering.
After Benny went and assessed the water conditions here at the shelter, we pushed on. Another couple of miles south along the AT and we came to our first clearing.
This is the moment we had been waiting for. We had expected lots of open balds in this area, and this was our first one we came too! Just through the stiles we felt our world opened up… and it was glorious! The AT actually made a hard left and continued heading south, but we weren’t studying it… Most of our hikes, we are gung-ho about following the AT. This hike was not about that. It was about exploring open fields and large rock outcroppings, and mingling with wild ponies. It was now time to explore! We could get back to the AT later…
We walked around this wide open space for a while, but eventually did find our way back to the AT. From there, we headed about another 1.5 miles to our next open space. This area was still beautiful, with the red, orange, yellow, green and other colored leaves, both in the trees, and on the forest floor… not to mention, cushioning the trail that we walked along. As well, Benny pointed out a small puddle of water, which was actually pretty clear. This allowed me to go ahead and refill now, rather than having to go search down another trail for some water! We had planed on staying somewhere on top of Stone Mountain that night, and along the AT, there was no other water until a couple of miles past Stone Mountain.
As I mentioned, just over another mile later and we came out upon another opening. This one looking directly at Stone Mountain, and a fenced in area with a restroom down in the valley below. We followed the trail to the fenced in area where we found several other’s on horse’s as well as 2 men and their son’s out for family time. Benny and I ventured into the fenced in area, and I began doing some video. Benny walked up and started talking with the other’s. He eventually called me over and we all spoke for a while. The other hiker’s gave us some info on water and on both wild pony sightings, and even some longhorn cattle sightings!
After we talked with the other hikers for a bit, we continued heading south along the AT. We walked through the fenced in parking area, and out the gate on the other side. From this point, we began climbing up to the top of Stone Mountain. There was one particular rock that I spotted when coming out of the woods earlier that appeared to be balancing on another rock. So, once we got to the top of the first summit of Stone Mountain, we again went off trail and began climbing rocks, and just walking around the open fields!
After exploring around for a while longer, we proceed farther south along the AT. At this point, we were also looking for a good place to set up camp for the night. After hiking a little ways farther, we came atop an opening on what appeared to be the highest point on the AT atop Stone Mountain. There were 2 small trees and a few spots to set up, so we took it… We relaxed for a while, taking int he views, and just simply being amazed at where we were at, and then finally began setting up camp for the night, before waiting for the sun to go down…
Once we got our homes set-up for the night, we simply sat back and just gawked at our surroundings. It was magnificent. As the sun was getting closer to setting, I decided I had better go ahead and eat my dinner, or actually, my lunch (we had a really big breakfast!). After we finished eating, Benny decided to start staging some photos as the sun was setting.
Eventually though, the sun did set. It was beautiful, falling over what we though was Mt Roger’s, but actually turned out to be the Wilburn Ridge. Regardless, we sat back and enjoyed…
While the temperatures didn’t drop considerably low, they did fall pretty fast once the sun went down. However, as the moon came out in all of its glory, the temps actually came back up a little. I unzipped my ZPacks sleeping bags to vent off some of the heat, and soon enough was sleeping…
The next morning, we both enjoyed a cup of Joe from our tents, while discussing the events for that day, and watching the sun come up. Being that we were on the top of an open bald, and on a clear night, both of our shelters was saturated in condensation, both inside and out. Once the sun was up a little, we crawled out and began breaking down our camp.
We found that the moon was still up over the Wilburn Ridge, high and bright, which was interesting with the sun coming up just on the other side of us. As expected, we snapped some more pics, finished breakfast and refilling water bottles, then finished up with our packing. I had left my tarp up till the last minute hoping the sun would dry it out, however, I ended up using the wind to blow most of the condensation off (see pics below). Soon we were all packed up, and super excited about the views coming up that day, climbing all the large rocks, summiting Mt Roger’s, and hoping to see some ponies…
And then we walked away…
The night before I had walked a little ways farther south down the trail and noticed that not far from where we camped was another open field. It was in this field where we came across our first herd of wild ponies, which was just a few hundred yards from where we were set up the night before!
We walked towards them and they were immediately drawn to Benny (he thinks that they thought his beard was cotton candy…lol!) However, when I walked towards them they kind of walked away… so I didn’t chase them. I just shot some video, took some pics, and eventually some did come up to me.
After hanging with the herd for a bit, we continued down the trail. We soon came to another stile, which led us back into the woods again. This was ok though, as we were back under the multicolored leaves, which also covered the trail, and was very pretty. We met a few other hikers by this time, and had stopped near the stiles to talk with one of them. While there, another pony snuck up behind us, and we eventually moved towards it. This was another approachable pony, so we took some more pics, and then continued on. We were excited… we had already met several ponies so early in the morning, and even got to pet some of them! Woohoo!
Our first stop for the day was at the Wise shelter, just inside the Grayson Highland State Park, and about 2 miles from where we set up the night before. The trail led us down through the woods towards a valley, where we eventually came to a large junction. We immediately saw a large creek and assumed this was the direction we needed to head in… after some walking around, we found it wasn’t… However, we eventually did find our way back to the AT, and finally into the Grayson Highlands, and to the Wise Shelter.
Once we arrived at the shelter, I took advantage of the privy, and then had some more (cold) coffee and a little more breakfast. I also laid my tarp out in a sunny area to let it continue to dry from the night before. Benny spotted a large hornets nest in a tree hanging nearly right over the shelter, and we also found a sign that officially welcomed us to the Wilburn Ridge! We were so excited!
We soon climbed back up onto some openings. These opening’s had some large rocks, which we eventually were able to climb on some of them! This worked out great for the views, and of course photos. For the next couple of hours we walked across these open fields, climbed rocks, met other hikers, came across a couple of ponies, and realized that what we thought was Mt Rogers, what actually, not Mt Roger’s, but actually the Wilburn Ridge! LOL…
The AT only runs about 2 miles though the Grayson Highlands State Park, so it didn’t take long to hike through, but it sure was pretty. We also met a lot of day hikers in this area (apparently, Massey Gap is a popular place to hike in from), as well as one other quite friendly pony as we neared the edge of the park! Once we officially left the park we began climbing up towards Fat Man Squeeze, which was actually on the peak that we had been calling Mt Roger’s the whole time so far… Whoops.
We crossed paths with Smiles and Olive Oil, which we had met a couple of times the day before. Then we kept climbing… I was actually beginning to think that the Fat Man Squeeze wasn’t the one I had watched in a YouTube video before leaving of the hike… So, we came to a large rock with some most awesome views and figured we would go ahead and plop down right there and have lunch… and we did. Just minutes later, another SOBO hiker named Humdinger (from Canada) joined us. We all sat there, enjoying lunch, taking in the views, and talking with Humdinger about her adventure thus far!
Just around the corner from where we sat and had lunch, was Fat Man Squeeze! We were so excited! 🙂
After pushing through the squeeze, we pressed on. The landscape up here on Wilburn Ridge was just amazing. It was hard to walk because we wanted to look at everything and just soak it all up. It was beautiful!
We soon came to another large junction of several trails, but in particular, the AT and the Crest Trail. Our plan was to hike farther south down the AT to the Mt Roger’s spur trail, then summit Mt Roger’s. After that we would hike back to somewhere in this area and spend the night. Then the next morning, we would take the Crest Trail and intersect with the AT again, near Old Orchard Shelter.
After figuring out the trails at the junction, we pressed on along the AT, and almost immediately came upon another small herd of ponies staying in, and alongside the trail. Of course we stopped to pet them and take some pictures!
After walking away from the ponies, we almost immediately started noticing all sorts of great places to camp along the trail. Many area’s that were established with packed grass and fire rings. And lots of great places with views, not all of which would allow us to view the “perfect” sun rise or sun set, but of mountains as far as we could see. We weren’t worried about having to look all that hard for spots to set up. So we pressed on.
The Thomas Knob shelter snuck up on us faster than we thought. When we arrived we found Humdinger there, just about to go and grab some water. We took some pics and talked with her for a bit, then we continued on. The Spur trail to Mt Roger’s was only another 0.2 miles father away, and then 0.5 miles up to the top!
We found the climb up to Mt Roger’s to resemble sections of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a bit of a denser area, with all the spruce/firs, many laid over throughout the forest floor. Green moss along the side of the trail, and on the fallen trees. The summit wasn’t a hard climb, and we arrived rather quickly. We heard some express disappointment in the fact that there are no views from the tallest point in VA, Benny and I found it to be perfect though! This area reminded us of so many of our past hikes, and was a bit different from what we had been hiking though on this trip so far. It was a welcome change, plus, we were on top of Virginia! Woohoo! 🙂
After a bit, we headed back. We arrived at the Thomas Knob shelter and decided to pull off our packs and grab some water. I also found an immediate need to use the privy, so timing really was great! lol… Anyway, we climbed over the large rock behind the shelter, then followed the footpath down the side of the mountain to the water source. We sat there, just taking in the views, the colors, the mountains… breathing in the air, and enjoying our water. Then we climbed back towards the shelter.
We found Smiles and Olive Oil at the shelter again and spoke with them some more before leaving out. This would be the last time we saw them as they were continuing south towards Elk Gardens, and now we were headed NOBO. We came across a couple of other groups of hikers that we had met earlier that day, and some even the day before. There really was a lot of folks out in this area… but we could understand why. It was beautiful.
We eventually made our way back near the junction of the Crest Trail and the AT. At this point we walked out and picked our camp spot out. I tried to set up under a small tree, thinking it may help with some of the condensation, while Benny took another wide open spot, with awesome views of the mountains.
Once we got set up, Benny decided to go and explore a large rock outcropping near our camp. We ha been seeing folks climbing on it while sitting at camp, so he headed out. I opted to stay behind and protect our camp from the wild ponies wandering about. While Benny was gone I also had my dinner, and then collected some wood for a fire. It was another fine day… with a most awesome camp!
By the time Benny returned to camp the sun had began to set over the trees near us. There were several ponies that had showed up near us as well. Benny told me that the rock he climbed on was on the back side of the same peak where Fat Man Squeeze was, which again, is what we called Mt. Roger’s for the first part of our hike. After a bit we went ahead and got the fire going, then talked as the sun finished setting.
Once the sun had disappeared the stars were out in all of their glory, and we say the Milky Way perfectly clear! Before the moon came out we decided to play with our camera’s long exposure shots, and even happened to catch the Space Station flying over us in one of them (the long blur in the photo directly below)! Sure, it is nowhere near professional grade, but this was just too cool!
Our plan was to sleep in the next morning, nice and long. We only had about 4 miles to go that day, so there was absolutely no reason to be in a rush… However, funny thing about plans…
I woke up around 1:30 am to go pee… When I crawled out of my tent I noticed a pony between me and Benny’s tent, and too more just on the other side of his, near the fire pit. I stood there and just watched it for a moment… I clicked my light on just to let them see that we were around (not that they couldn’t see us by the light of the moon!). Soon after they walked through our camp and then I heard Benny start laughing… He was awake to and heard theirs hooves on the ground near his tent. He crawled out of his tent and we watched the ponies for a bit longer, then crawled back in. The night was a little cool…
Then, around 5 am I was woken up again, this time by the wind! It was pounding on my tent! I laid there for a bit, thinking it would die down, but it didn’t. Instead, it sounded like waves at an ocean… the way it came and went, and listening to it blow the trees above and around us was mesmerizing… You can hear the winds in the beginning of my final video for the tip, posted immediately below (although, it seemed much worse than it sounded on the video!)
The good thing is the inside of my tent was dry, although, oddly enough, there was some condensation on one side of my tarp on the outside, and it happened to be the side that the wind was hitting. If I remember correctly, Benny said his tent was again full of condensation, so maybe even just the small amount of tree cover did help. However, I don’t believe even his was near as wet as was from the night before, but that was likely due to all the wind!
The wind didn’t stop, so we didn’t hang around camp long… We snapped a few pics, then refilled our water (there happened to be a source right near us), packed up and moved along. We wanted to try to find a spot out of the wind to make our coffee!
We were camped pretty close to the junction of the AT and the Crest Trail, so we arrived there pretty quickly, and then continued down the Crest Trail. This was a horse trail, or a road, and was quite rocky. It wasn’t near as pleasant to walk along as the leaf covered trails we had been on! But we pushed on… looking for a spot to have our breakfast.
We came across a few more ponies on the trail, so we walked off and checked them out. After all, with the low mileage we had, we were in no hurry to be anywhere so soon.
We eventually came to another junction of the Crest Trail and the Lewis Fork Trail. There was also a large campsite here, with another small herd of ponies. After hanging with the ponies here we followed the Lewis Fork Trail for about 0.1 miles and then followed the Pine Mountain Trail, which later intersected with the AT.
After a small climb up a nearby mountain we ventured out to an open area’s and met another hiker having his morning coffee. We talked with him for a while, then pushed on. We soon crested the small mountain top, and then dropped down into another beautiful wooded area… Again, multicolored leaves everywhere… It was in one of these wooded area’s we finally found a less windy spot to pull over and make our coffee!
Once we got our coffee in our belly, we was happy… not that we weren’t before… but come on, you know what it’s like to have a good cup of joe… especially with such beautiful scenery as we were then surrounded in!
We got packed back up and continued a short way down the trail, and then we were back on the AT, just 1.7 miles south of the Old Orchard Shelter. However, it was still way early… like maybe 9:30 am! So, we ventured back out into the first field we came to. We ended up following the Crest Trail all the way back to the parking area below Stone Mountain. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the long horn cattle that was in that exact area just 2 days before… We never found them, however, we did find a bald (which we saw them standing around on when we were on Stone Mountain a couple of days before) covered in cow patties and straw. It looked like a tractor carried hay into this area, which is why we say them a few days before. But, they were gone now…
So, we walked around the fields for a bit, just enjoying not following a trail, at least not an official trial… more so animal trails. But it was along open balds, and it was very easy to see where we were, where we came from, and where we needed to go when we were done. It was exciting!
While exploring another rocky area off to the edges of one of these fields, we came across a nice camping spot (especially for hammocking), and even a grave marker. This was the only grave marker we happened upon while on this hike, which is a stark contrast to all the grave sites we typically come across scattered along the AT. Although, this grave marker was technically off any trail… I thought maybe this was this person’s favorite spot to camp at maybe…
We eventually made our way back into the woods and continued following the AT north towards Old Orchard Shelter. Along the way we met several other hikers, which we stopped and talked with for a bit. It is fund getting to meet so many different people while on the trail!
We arrived at the Old Orchard Shelter by 12 noon… Way earlier than we planned. So, Benny and I talked and decided to just hike on out that day. It was only another 1.7 miles out, although, it was hard to walk away from that area… Wooded, with all the different colored leaves covering the ground. It was going to be a little warmer that night though, but still… The thought of getting back home to my wife a day earlier was also very enticing, and actually won out this time!
So, we continued north along the AT, and soon after was back at the car parked at Fox Creek…
And that was the end of our hike…
This was our first trip along the AT in the state of VA. All of our hiking so far has been in states farther south, GA, NC & TN, which we have almost completed! So we will be making our way farther north through the state of VA hopefully quite soon. However, this section was one that we definitely will not mind redoing, and likely more than once!
It is a beautiful section, and I believe for me, it has become my all time favorite hike on the east coast so far, at least scenery wise. My favorite up to this one was the Roan Highlands, but there were more open area’s here, not to mention large boulders to climb upon, and WILD PONIES!!! Of course timing played a part too… with all the colors exploding everywhere, but to be fair, the first time I hiked through the Roan Highlands was also during mid October, so the colors were there too! However, my wife accompanied me on the Roan Highlands hike, so between the beautiful scenery there, and having my wife along… well, that is definitely a top hike for me too!
Thanks to everyone for watching my lengthy videos, and reading through all of these words! I believe there are also around 200 photos, including several that are Benny’s which he shared with me, which I hope did a good job at describing this hike on their own.
So, until my next hike, which won’t be soon enough… Happy hiking folks!
A special thanks to Benny Braden for supplying several of his own photo’s (marked with the “@plugitinontheat” watermark in the bottom right-hand corner) for me to include in this write up, as well as taking a number of photo’s for me with my camera. It’s alway’s nice to have photo help, as well as a great hiking buddy! And be sure to check out his Instagram Page, and his Facebook page. He has a story to tell from this hike, and other’s with his photo’s, which are quite spectacular! Thanks Benny!