Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dolce - Hiking Back to Grayson Highlands State Park

October 14, 2012

Just as a good multi-course ends with dolce - desert, like a cannoli - so our four day hike ended on Sunday with a "desert course."  My day started in wonderful fashion.  As I lay snug in my sleeping bag in predawn darkness, I was serenaded by a barred owl: "Who cooks for you?  Who cooks for you all?"  I loved hearing him and wished he would go on for a half hour or so - but it was only for a few minutes.

After a morning fire and breakfast (oatmeal with apples, pecans, cinnamon, and nutmeg), we broke camp about 10:15 - what a great camping spot it was - crossed Little Wilson Creek easily, and hit the trail.  For a while it was smooth going through the wilderness area, then we hit a spot where the only trail seemed to continue straight ahead. 

To the right, was a wide and rocky stream / wet area.  I walked across and didn't see any trail there to pick up.  At around this point, our map showed our trail taking a short jog to the right.  We forged ahead - there was clearly a trail there, including definite use by horses.  But after a while, it became easier to walk through the thick woods than on the "trail."  Clearly, we were wrong again, and we turned back.  There was a trail across that wide wet area after all, and we decided that has to be right, so we followed it.  Remember, there are no blazes and few if any trail signs in wilderness areas, and as we found on all three days, it can get very confusing.

Here is the map of our route on Sunday.  Note the little stop sign: that is where it became difficult to pick out the trail, and you can see a short track where we went the wrong way. The purple arrow marks our camping area on Little Wilson Creek, and the track out is in lavender and generally heads southwest.

Here is the elevation profile of our trek out and back to civilization.  It was mostly downhill but with a marked incline at the end:

We reached this trail sign at Wilson Creek.  It was not very helpful because it pointed only back the way we had come from, but was clear from our map that we had to cross the creek, and it seemed like this had to be the spot.

Wilson Creek is beautiful.  And from this photo, doesn't it look like a piece of cake to cross it with dry feet?  Guess again.  I think it was the hardest stream I've ever crossed and managed to stay dry.
Hawkeye explores a way across Wilson Creek to see if he can find the trail on the other side.  He left his pack on this side.  He managed to cross but it was so hard even without his pack that he took off his boots to wade back and retrieve his pack.
Here is a view of Wilson Creek as it races through the woods.  When it was my turn to cross, it took me five minutes of exploring to find a potential route.  Then it probably took another five minutes to cross.  I have moderately long and very strong legs, and pretty good balance, but without my treking poles, I never would have made it across without dry boots.  Hawkeye applauded when I took that final step on to the bank.
Please enjoy these next three photos, because the effort to get them was extreme.  From the trail, I could hear Wilson Creek roaring along down through the woods.  So I took off my pack and went down the 40 foot near vertical distance - probably a 60 degree slope - to reach the stream and shoot these photos.

We reached Grayson Highlands State Park, and there was a sign to a picnic area.  It was still a two mile walk, but we made a snap decision to abandon the back country trail at this point.  It was later than we had hoped already, and we had a long drive back.  We figured it would be easier to walk to the car along the road when we got back.  The trail along the way was beautiful hardwoods.
We finally reached the picnic area, and there was the true "dolce:" beautiful trees and views in autumnal regalia.  I think this is a display of what a pioneer's cabin would have been like back when this area was raw wilderness and was being settled by the Scotch-Irish.  I remember an excellent museum here at the park from my last time her 19 years ago.  It explored the natural history and human culture of the region, including, of course, bluegrass music.
 Here are two more views of "desert."  From here, we had a two mile walk, mostly uphill, to the car.  With the still heavy packs and Hawkeye's blistered feet, I volunteered to do the walk and he could stay and watch the packs.  I was only a quarter mile into the walk back when a pickup truck drove by.  I did what any self-respecting and tired hiker would do: I stuck out my thumb.  It was a couple and their teen aged daughter.  She did not look exactly thrilled when this unwashed and unshaven guy climbed into the back seat with her, but it only took a few minutes of driving and I was at my car.  I had deodorant in my bag in the car, and a clean cotton shirt, so that made me feel better, as did fresh socks and my running shoes.  Our great four day back country trip, a true multi-course feast for the eyes and the spirit, had come to an end.  All that remained was a tough 7.5 hour drive home to Richmond, snarled in three major traffic jams - one 12 miles long on I-81 - along the way.


  1. Wow those pictures are absolutely gorgeous. I think the trees this year are especially beautiful!!
    Love it along the river. What a great hike!!

  2. Thanks Karen. I had such a great time on the whole trip. And I agree, the trees do look especially pretty.

  3. This looks so fun! I hope you had a wonderful time during the trip to Grayson. It makes me green with envy looking at all these beautiful pictures.

  4. Thanks Patrick. I did indeed have a wonderful time hiking there for four days. I need to plan a return trip.

  5. I have to say, when I attempted to do the Kabel/Bearpen trail, returning to the Grayson Highlands campground area, I got lost in the exact same area you did- the wide, wet area and then Wilson Creek. I didn't have a GPS at the time. I ended up having to cross the creek at a point where there was sort of a manmade wall and got over to the road side. Even though it's Wilderness with no blazes, you'd think the trail would have been more obvious and not just peter out! Glad you made it back safely too.

    1. Yes, wilderness areas can be confusing. It's a mixed bag but I remember this trip as one of my favorite hikes of all time. I keep trying to top it, though.