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WHITETOP — Grayson Highlands State Park is a beautiful place to visit, hike, camp or just get away from your regular routine. Just be sure to keep your eye to the sky for fast changing weather conditions and always go prepared.
After my many visits there, I always had a lingering disappointment in the back of my mind every time I was about to make my way down the long winding road out of the park – I still had yet to see the infamous wild ponies that inhabit the balds of the mountain top, which I had heard so many stories about.
I took a vacation day to visit the park this April and, after hiking a couple trails, I saw something moving on the distant mountainside – there were the ponies! By the time I got over the ridgetop they had all disappeared, but as I rounded the corner toward the balds, there they were – scattered about here and there grazing and not paying attention to my excitement of finally seeing them.
I probably spent three or more hours watching them, taking photos, following them around and just taking it all in. The best part was that one of the mares had a foal alongside her that was playing and running around until it finally wore itself out and laid down in the sunshine while its mother continued to graze.
It seems that we too often have to travel to a zoo just to see animals locked in cages or behind glass walls, but here at Grayson Highlands, they are wild and free.
One downside of being wild is having a very harsh environment to live in. At over 5,000 feet in elevation, the mountain can have brutal winter conditions to survive in. There have been years when the herds suffered many losses and dwindled down to around 45-50. At the most, the herds have been around 120.
The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association holds an auction each year in the fall to keep the herd’s population in check. The proceeds go toward sustaining the herd and to helping other local charities. It is part of the Grayson Highlands Fall Festival held each year in September at the park.
There was something very peaceful about watching the ponies and them not paying a bit of attention to my presence.
By the time I left that afternoon, I had hiked and/or walked almost 6 miles total according to the trail guide map. The Rhododendron Trail is about a mile round-trip total and an easy hike – well worth it if you’re lucky enough to see and spend time with the wild ponies of Grayson Highlands State Park. You will never forget the first time you see them.
• You can find more general park information at www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/gra.shtml
• For more photos of the ponies visit www.facebook.com/Danny.Redd.Photography