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Grayson Highlands celebrates 50 years

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By Shaina Stockton

MOUTH OF WILSON - Grayson Highlands State Park has become well known for its gorgeous scenic views, rigorous trails and unique outdoor programs over the past 50 years. And the best part is, this is just the beginning of what park officials and supporters of the landmark have in store for their visitors.

Although the park has been around for half a century, there are continually new programs and facilities to explore. Canoe trips along the New River, biking and ziplining activities on the Virginia Creeper Trail and bouldering are just some of the new developments in the area for outdoor enthusiasts.

On July 11, visitors are invited to join in celebrating the attraction’s Golden Anniversary, and there are plenty of activities planned for the day. The festivities, which include a picnic, field games and musical performances, will begin at 11 a.m., and continue until 10 p.m.

History of Grayson Highlands

The park, located near both Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain (Virginia’s two highest peaks), is comprised of 4,500 acres of unique landscapes, and offers scenic views at a 5,000-foot elevation. Additionally, the park offers a number of facilities, including campgrounds, hiking and horse trails, bouldering trails and seasonal activities throughout the year.

It also provides a year-round access to the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail.

Visitors who discover the park have plenty to look at, and return trips are required if they want to see everything.

Park Manager Harvey Thompson, who is well-versed in Grayson Highlands’ history, has been employed at the park for more than 20 years.

“I came in around 1991, and we were averaging around 120,000 visitors a year,” he said. “Due to the location being an hour from the nearest interstate, I don’t foresee [a major increase].”

Rather, the visitor count rises steadily each year. There were 140,000 visitors in 2014, and Thompson predicted the count to reach 145,000 this year.

The park is made up of 44 tracts of farmland that were acquired in the 1960s, Thompson said.

The park provided the closest access to the summit of Mount Rogers, so it was first named Mount Rogers State Park. “Most tied the name in to the Mount Rogers Recreation Area, and it caused some confusion, so they changed it to Grayson Highlands after about three or four years,” Thompson said.

The landscape drastically changed during that time, after a blight moved through the area and destroyed acres of American chestnut trees, Thompson said. In order to utilize the wood, the timber was cut and farmers burned the area to encourage grass growth to feed livestock. “That kind of impacted the animal life,” said Thompson. “I don’t even see any snakes up here due to the coolness and how barren the ground is.”

Instead, the changed landscape now attracts hikers, photographers and outdoor enthusiasts of all types, who travel just to experience the beauty of the overlooks. Thompson says that visitors can see for miles from these spots.

“You can see Beech Mountain on a clear night, which is 70-some miles away. Some come just to hike the trails and see those.

“In the past, Grayson Highlands has been the gateway to Mount Rogers. I get a lot of backpackers from all over the country to get to Virginia’s highest point,” Thompson said.

Park Programs

“Grayson Highlands is an epic experience full of alpine vistas, rich history and extraordinary adventure,” said Amelia Hulth, education support specialist for the park, in a news release.

She delved into details about some of the more notable areas that are sought after by the visitors. “The cascading waterfalls of Cabin Creek provide a beautiful backdrop for hikers, as well as a pristine habitat for native brook trout. At [more than] 5,000 feet in elevation, the view from the Big Pinnacle will take your breath away as you gaze into the depths of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“The distinctive boreal forests are filled with red spruce and fraser fir trees towering and reminiscent of something magical. Wild ponies wander between boulders and blueberries on the grassy balds of Wilburn Ridge. The log timbers of the Spencer cabin in the homestead are a reminder of the rugged pioneers that challenged the harsh elements throughout history,” she said in the release.

In an interview, she spoke of some of the newest programs offered through the park. “We now have canoe trips along the New River, and biking and ziplining on the Virginia Creeper Trail. And our most popular activity is bouldering,” she said.

The park opened two bouldering trails in 2013, and supplies like crash pad rentals were made available.

It didn’t take long for the trails to find success. Recently, The Active Times, a sports and recreation website, named Grayson Highlands as one of the 11 best rock climbing spots in the United States. VirginiaOutdoors.com and other sites also refer to the trails as the best site for bouldering in the state.

The park also offers a number of educational programs.

“I’m not sure how many realize this, but Grayson Highlands is a hot spot for salamander biodiversity,” Hulth said. “We have several programs about salamanders, and we also have programs on owls and guided hikes, such as our wild pony hikes.

“Blueberries are another staple to the park,” she continued. “When they ripen, it’s one of the few times that people can go to a state park and pick as much of something as they want, otherwise it’s considered poaching. But we have enough to go around.”

The blueberries typically ripen by the end of July, she noted.

In addition to these activities, individuals and groups are also invited to discover the 50-plus geocaches — hidden containers that are located using GPS coordinates — hidden throughout the park. This year, Virginia State Parks developed a Civil War geocaching program where numerous parks were asked to develop themed geocaches educating about the Civil War. Grayson Highlands joined the initiative, and so their featured geocache, “Civil War Adventure,” can also be searched out by seasoned treasure hunters.

Instilling Memories

When asked what visitors typically say about the park, Hulth laughed and said, “That we have the cleanest facilities in any state park that they’ve been in!”

But that is just one of the many compliments she hears from visitors on a daily basis. “The views here are so spectacular. I recently read another article that this is the best place on the East Coast for stargazing, as well as photographing the night sky. You can capture things that are just not anywhere else,” she said.

“The ponies are another big attraction for the visitors,” she said, referring to the wild ponies that are so friendly and tame, most of them will trot right up to a visitor to say hello.

Hulth credits not just the location’s natural beauty for its success, but the staff members who see to it that visitors enjoy their stay, for whatever reason they’ve stopped by.

“We pride ourselves in giving our visitors the best experience that we can. When I come in to work every day, my job is to make sure that everyone I encounter, that their experience here is unforgettable.”

Grayson Highlands 50th Anniversary Celebration

Schedule of events for July 11

11 a.m.-noon: Wilburn Ridge hike with Wilburn Waters at Massie Gap. Join this famous “bear rassler,” played by Roald Kirby, along the rocks of Wilburn Ridge.

Noon-2 p.m.: Picnic with the pioneers at Massie Gap. Bring a basket of food and picnic with pioneer re-enactors.

3-5 p.m.: Field games at the campground field. The best way to celebrate is with some good old fashioned friendly competition.

8-10 p.m.: Musical entertainment at the amphitheater. Performances by The David Bates Band, followed by The Whitetop Mountain Band.

8:40-9:10 p.m.: Cake and ice cream with Ranger Parker Red Fox at the amphitheater. Virginia State Parks’ mascot will be serving up free slices and scoops to show appreciation to the visitors.

Grayson Highlands State Park is located at 829 Grayson Highland Lane in Mouth of Wilson. Financial support for this event is provided by the National Environmental Education Foundation, Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. and the Friends of Grayson Highlands. For more information, call (276) 579-7092. Directions: From I-77, take Hillsville Exit 14 to U.S. 58. Travel west on U.S. 58, 40 miles to Volney. Turn left to stay on U.S. 58 and go eight miles to the park entrance.