By Whitney Cooper

About a month ago, the warm weather inspired some friends of mine and I to plan an all-female backpacking trip to kick off the season.

Being rather petite in stature, I’m rarely pegged as the backpacking type and typically surprise people when I can recommend extended trips based on experience. I find the hiking community flush with women, and have friends that extend the interest into the world of backpacking – but it is surprisingly less common than one would guess to find women in the backpacking community.

I started backpacking in high school on local trails in the Turkey Pen and Pink Beds area of Pisgah National Forest, and continue to do small weekend trips and an extended backpacking excursion each year. I usually try to solicit friends to join in on the adventure, but up until recently, I’ve only successfully recruited two friends to get out in the woods for more than an overnight trip.

When two of my friends expressed interest in learning how to take to the woods for more than an evening, I jumped on the opportunity to have some company for a weekend trip and to grow the female backpacking community.

For the past few years, I’ve been interested in exploring an area in southwestern Virginia called Grayson Highlands. The area is a state park that is popular because of its vast mountaintop meadows (hikers know them as balds) and large population of wild miniature ponies.

The ponies were released by the U.S. Forest Service in the mid-1970s to control the brush in the area – in the early 19th century the area was heavily logged, and then used for cattle ranching up until the 1960s. To maintain the ascetic, the ponies were introduced and have grown to a population of approximately 150 at last count.

The herd is now maintained by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association and visitors to the area and park have open access to the animals.

The state park also borders a national wilderness area, and has a unique environment because of the balds (very similar to the look of the Scottish Highlands – peaks and ridges that are rocky, bare of trees, and full of sweeping views in a less technical hiking environment), which is what initially attracted me to the area.

Because I was working with two friends that were new to the backpacking world, and because I was venturing into an area that I wasn’t familiar with, we decided on a short twelve mile loop through the park, hiking the majority of the trip on the Appalachian Trail.

Despite the weather forecast of rain followed by snow, the three of us plus one dog made the two and half hour drive up to the park through Boone and West Jefferson on Saturday morning . We stopped at the front kiosk to purchase an overnight backpacking parking permit, where a park volunteer gave great information about the area, ongoing activities (there are regular tours and nature walks through the area for visitors), horse etiquette (namely, don’t fee d or pet the ponies), and outlined where water sources and best camping spots would be.

Overall, I found the staff to be both helpful and enthusiastic, and the entire park and trail system to be well maintained and easily marked. After parking the car, we started our six mile hike into the loop. The trail was incredibly easy to follow, but because the area has heavy foot traffic, I would highly recommend investing in a map to make sure you don’t get off course following an unmarked spur trail or footpath.

We stumbled upon the ponies with in the first two miles of our trek, and saw them fairly regularly throughout the rest of the trip. The animals are extremely docile, and almost ambivalent to the presence of people and dogs. We got within 10 feet of them to take a few pictures, and continued our hike. It was a really interesting experience to hike along a trail, only to come around a bend to a herd of five to ten ponies at a time.

The terrain was easy to navigate and breathtaking – I’m so used to being under tree cover for most of my hikes in North Carolina, that the open views were a treat. Despite drizzles that turned into rain, we were able to set up camp and get a small fire going for the evening.

Upon waking the next day, we were treated to snow and heavy fog in the area, but were still able to enjoy small pockets of clear views along the ridgelines as we hiked back to the car.

While I’m a Carolina girl at heart, Grayson Highlands is my new favorite place to hike. The wildlife, well-marked trails, views, and open meadows were a treat and made for an excellent backpacking experience despite rain, snow, and freezing temperatures. Whether you’re with a family, looking for a short and easy hike, or looking to plan an extended trip, I highly recommend Grayson Highlands as a destination for a new park system to enjoy.

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