DATE:
1/23/2021

LOOP
~ 2.3 miles

ELEVATION GAIN
~ 357 ft

LOCATION:
Grayson Highlands State Park
Mouth of Wilson, VA

Massie Gap is a well known spot along the Appalachian Trail where you will likely find yourself in the company of beautiful wild ponies. This hike is a part of Grayson Highlands State Park which contains 13 different hiking trails, including access to the A.T. We took the Massie Gap Loop on this trip, which is made up of multiple different connecting trails. If you follow the map on the “All Trails” app, you will be following the “Massie Gap and Wilburn Ridge” loop trail.

We went on a 30° January day. Even though it was cold, we were layered up well and never felt uncomfortable. The park was spectacular in the snow which made the low temps well worth it. One thing to note, it can be upwards of 20° colder on the mountain than in town. So, make sure you check before you go to be sure you are wearing layers accordingly. We made that mistake the first time we went and ended up purchasing sweatshirts at the gift shop…quite the pricey mistake on our part.

When you enter the park, you will come to a “Contact Station” with a parking fee. It was $7 when we went. There was not an attendant present. Fortunately, we had some cash on us and placed it in the envelopes provided.

You will then follow a short road to the trailhead parking area. This area will fill up quickly, even on a 30° January day, so it’s probably best to get there early. Apparently, you can be fined for parking along the road, so be sure to park in a designated area. Once you park, walk up the road, (to the left of the majority of parking spaces), in the direction of the signs for the visitor’s center. The trail head is across a large open field before you get to the entrance to the visitor’s center road.

Massie Gap Parking Lot
parking at Grayson Highlands

You will begin the trek on the Rhododendron Trail. You might even catch a glimpse of ponies at the very beginning of the trail.

Trail marker post
Wild ponies at Grayson Highlands State Park

The panoramic mountain views begin pretty early along the trail. The trails are well marked with blazes and the area is well maintained. I did read that the ponies like to use the signs as scratching posts, so they can break or be turned around sometimes. We usually download the “all trails” map before we lose service so we can double check that we are following the trail the correct way.

The ponies along the trail give the entire area such a magical feel. The ponies are used to people being around, but they don’t necessarily like close contact. The first time we went to Grayson Highlands, one of our sons got a little too close and the pony gave him a warning kick. It didn’t hurt him but it scared him, big time. So now all three of them are well aware to keep a pretty good distance from the ponies. We chalked that up as a life lesson for them in respecting wildlife and following the rules of the park.

There are a lot of towering, gorgeous rock formations along the trail. Early on, you will see a large rock formation in the distance to your right. There will be a sign for the A.T. northbound in this area. Turn right at that sign and follow the A.T. out toward the rock formation.

(We actually cut across this field before we realized the trail we were going to follow would take us this way. Following the trail would have been much easier. It is also best to stay on trail regardless.)

Appalachian Trail at Massie Gap

This area has some spots to climb and get an amazing view of the park. We stopped here to have hot chocolate and soak in the surrounding mountains.

Yeti keeps it hot!
Hot Chocolate. Leave no trace.
King of Massie Gap

We only let the boys explore the rocks where there was already a path leading to it. We did not disturb any plant growth in order to reach the formation. If there was no path we just admired from a distance.

You will continue to follow the A.T. northbound until you come to a sign that gives you an option to break off onto the A.T. spur trail.

Appalachian Trail Spur

You will now be switching from white A.T. trail blazes to blue. Watch closely because many of the blazes are on low rocks or short wooden posts.

blue trail blaze

The ponies also follow along the trails. This means that they can create a spur trail of their own which could become confusing and lead you off track. It is extra important to keep an eye on the blazes. We accidentally started to go the wrong way a few times, although I think this was exacerbated by the snow covering some of the low blazes.

After you turn right onto the A.T. spur trail, you will go another ~.7 miles through a beautiful forrest. I can not overstate how serene and peaceful it was to walk through these trees in the snow. It was breathtaking the whole way.

You will eventually come to a “backpacker’s parking lot” and see a sign to your right that says “Massie Gap.” This will take you back to where you began at the field in front of the trail head.

Sign at backpackers parking lot.

Overall, our biggest tips for visiting Massie Gap are:

-Be sure to check the weather on the mountain ahead of time as it can vary greatly from town.

-Even in the spring, summer, and fall, be sure to bring layers as the weather can change rapidly on the mountain. We have had good luck with these thermals and these wool socks in cold/snowy weather.

-Look but don’t touch the ponies! Some of them do not like that and they will let you know.

-Arrive early as parking can be limited. You can be fined for parking in unmarked areas.

-If possible, download a trail map that you can follow offline. We use “All Trails.” Sometimes the ponies can knock over the signs or make their own spur trail so you don’t want to get turned around.

-As always, leave no trace. Be sure to pack out your trash!

Grayson Highlands State Park is truly a breathtaking area to explore. There is something there to do for people of all ages and skill levels. There are so many trails that we want to go back and check out, like the Cabin Creek trail which takes you by a 25 ft waterfall. There are also multiple picnic areas, camping, fishing, or anything your outdoorsy heart desires. You can find out more at their website:

https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/grayson-highlands