The Appalachian Trail Conservancy initiated a 14-State Challenge to anyone who wanted to experience a little bit of the AT in each of the 14 states from Georgia to Maine (Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine). It is done on an honors system with time frame involved. Rocky and I decided we would walk right in and begin our trek this summer. We decided to move NOBO (northbound) by starting in Georgia and touching the first four states along the trail.
Day Seven (Saturday, June 23) completed our first leg of the challenge as we visited Grayson Highlands State Park in southern Virginia. The state of Virginia comprises some 550 miles of the AT making it the longest state of the 14. It is so long that some thru-hiker get the “Virginia Blues” longing for the next state to arrive. There is so much to see in this wonderful state, that Rocky and I will most likely return to Virginia when we begin part two of our journey. When I thru-hiked the trail in 2014 I divided the state up into three “states” (each comprising about 183 miles) to create smaller hiking goals. I call the first “state” was Southern Virginia, followed by Middle-Earth Virginia, and concluding with Doah Virginia (in honor of the Shenandoah National Park and a great fellow-hiker, Princess Doah). All of our hiking on this first leg was in Southern Virginia, so Rocky and I want to touch Middle Earth and Doah on our next adventure.
All of that aside, Grayson Highlands was fantastic! The ponies greeted us, the rocks cried out to us, the rain showered its blessing on us, the wind blew almost blew our hats off, and the clouds almost engulfed us during our incredible hike through the rocky terrain. As Rocky and I drove the 30 minutes from our motel in Marion, Virginia, the rain began to sprinkle on the windshield. By the time we reached the state park, it was raining a constant gentle rain. Pulling into a parking place, Rocky did not hesitate – she was out of the car and wanting to get her trekking poles out of the trunk.
The initial 20-minutes was a little wet and a little cold, but the weather began to cooperate, the rain subsided, and the hike became quite comfortable. The cloud cover and the wind (which was rather intense at times) continued all morning giving us a fantastic cover from the sun’s heat. Most of the highlands is open without tree cover, so the sun can make a hike rather sweltering.
We encountered several wild ponies along the way. There were a number of foals that were full of life and had fun with each other testing out their legs with zestful games of tag. Rocky and I watched and laughed as they played totally ignoring the two retired folks with walking sticks. As we moved north, we encountered a few ponies standing right on the path. Rocky used her Mimi skills and “lovingly pushed” the horses off the trail so that we could pass on by.
The elevation change through the highlands is less than 600 feet, but the rocky terrain made the hike a nice challenge for us. Add to the terrain some blustery winds and some wet rocks, and the trail presented some adventure that translated into some special memories for us. Rocky was such a trooper and we laughed, marveled, prayed, and enjoyed the entire trek without one word of complaint or negativity. She is such a special hiking buddy!
After completing the trail, we returned to our car and drove to the Virgil J. Cox Visitor Center. Rocky and I got our AT Passports stamped at the center and then enjoyed a drive through the country roads back toward Marion. Sunday is a travel day as we end this portion of the challenge and return to the comfort of home. The adventure was remarkable, but there is no place like home. As we reflected on the last week, Rocky and I also projected the journey ahead of us as we begin to plan for stage two of the challenge. I have heard that the Shenandoah Valley is glorious in the fall.