Winter Backpacking: Greyson Highlands

What is the first thing one does after quitting a job? Go backpacking, of course!

Despite it being January, despite the weather calling for snow, I jumped up to Greyson Highlands State Park in Virginia to meet a daring friend for a little winter backpacking. This was the first time I had ever willingly gone out knowing I was about to be trudging through snow. It was liberating to be prepared, unlike my first big snow experience in the Smokies. When thru hiking you just deal with what happens, this time I had the previous knowledge to reference and I could bring all the right gear for snow and leave all the wrong gear back at home. Such a nice feeling!

But, as one expects, things always get a little hairy when relying on the weather of the backcountry to go your way. I had set a meeting point in the park, the overnight backpacker's parking lot, but my car could not even make it up the road to the lot. My little car was spinning out far below the elevation of my final destination. I managed to turn back around with out getting stuck and ease my way back down to the ranger station to leave my car. I loaded up my pack, threw on my rain gear and set out into the freezing rain to start my backpacking trip with a nice road walk up to the parking lot. By this time it was far past our meeting time and it was only a short few hours until dark. I secretly hoped that my friend would be heading down the mountain soon to see if I was still alive and save me from a boring, slippery road walk. Sure enough, he did. Perks of having all wheel drive, I guess.

My car could never... 
We returned to the proper parking lot and walked up into the woods a bit to set up camp. Some good old stealth camping where it's illegal surely won't hurt anybody on a friday night in the snow and rain. Beer, whiskey, comics, cell phone tunes, and pee runs between rain breaks. It felt good to be backpacking again. The simple life always wins over for me.

We did the most fun thing the next morning a ripped down and tent whose poles were frozen together and we broke our little fingers trying to unclip the frozen plastic fasteners. My favorite wintertime backpacking task! It brought back all the mornings early on during the AT where I would have to take breaks to warm my hands up to functionality again.  That day our goal was Thomas Knob shelter. Back in the parking lot (after making coffee and breakfast in the back of the car like good, resourceful hiker trash does) we set out in a soft snow. I really should not have been so surprised, but I was. I have been to the Greyson's before and on a beautiful day I whined about the wind. I should have known better. I should have known!!

As soon as we jumped off the spur trail leading to the AT, we were standing at a socked in opening, being blasted by a violent wind, twirling around looking for a white blaze. On the sunny days I have been the highlands before, I don't recall yammering on in a rage about the necessity for more blazes, but I went through the list all those who could possibly be at fault. "The ATC needs to get on this! Who the hell is the trail maintenance crew around here?! Isn't the state park responsible for the safety of folks around here?! I can't believe the Virginia DCR let's this slide!" There is something about not being able to tell if I am standing on a trail that really pisses me off! But when your visibility is about fifteen feet ahead of you, it's a constant fight to stay on trail on a wide open rolling mountain top. It was only about 4 miles to the shelter but they were a brutal and scary and slow 4 miles of back tracking and double guessing and making sure that we hadn't taken the wrong way. What was a light snow in the parking lot was a winter storm up on the exposed ridges. It was easily the sort of situation that got backpackers lost and worse.

After much bitching and whining, after gasping into the mean wind as it knocks you off balance on the slick ice, after nearly breaking my leg off at the knee, after too many I-don't-think-this-is-it's, we finally made it to the shelter.

Much later after our arrival, I had the guts to go back outside and take some pictures when the storm died down. 
I just stood inside and puffed a bit, rubbing my hands together, twitching my legs in hopes of warmth. Thomas Knob is a two story shelter and standing there I suddenly remember something. Is this the place where Lady Grey said she had experienced her coldest night on the entire AT?! Don't I remember someone else saying that too? Saying that someone had it better -- the people on the top or the people on the bottom. But which was it? In remembering that I reckoned that it must have been in late April, around the same time I went through. I could only imagine what we were going to be up against in the middle of January. I voted on the top being warmer and slowly began to lay out camp in the loft. And then I didn't get out of my sleeping bag until I was forced by the need to pee.

Soon, a young guy and his dad showed up. Not long after that three older guys joined us up in the loft. It made me feel good to know that there were other potentially clinically insane people out there trudging through this mess, repeating under their labored breath, "I love hiking. I love the outdoors. This is fun." There is something about the camaraderie in a shelter after a bad storm that I know I'll never grow tired of. We sat and talked gear with the old guys, and swapped stories and cooked dinner until it was dark and then there was nothing to do but sleep. Just as we were settling in bed, I heard the son down below say, "My thermometer says 8°." "Yeah well, that doesn't even factor in wind chill," his father replied. I slipped in my ear plugs because I couldn't stand the sound of the wind berating the side of the little shelter. I was sure we were all coming down at some point in the night.

In the morning, the day before became well worth it. The sun rise from right behind the shelter was incredible!

Oh, what a couple of hours can do!

Seeing as we had had such a rough time the day before and I had seriously janked up my knee slipping and sliding around, we decided to head back to the parking lot. We knew there were hand dryers in the bathrooms down at the ranger station and that just sounded so good right then! Plus my sleeping bag was soaked from snow that had blown in through the cracks in the shelter all night and the tent was still frozen from the morning before. Drying these things off was a priority. If the hand dryers couldn't do it, then the sun could. We set off into the Narnia like wonderland.

The coolest thing about the Greyson Highlands, the real attraction, is the ponies! We had seen a cluster the day before and gotten a lot of glee from hearing one winnie (is that even how you spell that) but it was just too damn nasty out to actually play with any. But with no fierce weather in the way, we had plenty of fun with them!

Pony selfie. Jean Genie started it
 We made it back to the car and took the road back down to the ranger station. It was still closed (and had been since about 30 minutes before I needed a ride up the mountain a few days prior). So we laid our wet gear out in the empty parking lot. Just laying out in the warm sun on the pavement was an excellent feeling. That's one of the things that I love about backpacking. It transforms laying down on the ground, flat on your back from a childish act into an okay thing to do. Not only is it okay, it feels SO GOOD! What if we could just lay on the warm ground and feel good during our every day lives?!

But we didn't come just to lay down, we wanted to hike. So we hit the trail again after things dried up and headed to Wise shelter. This shelter sits on exactly mile 500.0 of the AT, or at least it did the year I hiked and the milage only ever changes by tenths of a mile. Needless to say, its always a big check point for thru hikers. I remember having a big party there when I passed by on my thru hike. A clip board back at the parking lot depicting the weather had told us that a front was moving in during the night but it was hard to believe. The sky was loosely dotted with puffy clouds and the sun was setting behind the ridges in a way that illuminated a golden line along their edges, silhouetting the naked trees. It didn't seem like a few more inches of snow could be on its way after such a beautiful day. Even at 1am in the morning, when I awoke to go to the bathroom, the sky was so clear and so dark in that way that seems to happen only in winter, that I could see the milky way defined against the splatter of all the other stars in the night.

Yet still, in the morning we woke to find a few more inches of snow and no sign of it slowing. We made a slow go of making coffee and breakfast and finally decided on a route for the day. That's the cool thing about backpacking now versus thru hiking. Taking your time and just enjoying the actions of being out in the wilderness and living off the of bare bones of things. When I thru hiked I ate a cold breakfast with no coffee and was walking less than thirty minutes after waking up. Some times you just want to sip black coffee from a titanium cup while watching the snow fall from inside your sleeping bag.

We chose a route that a fellow REI co-worker had said was his favorite in this area and it proved to be very beautiful. Instead of traipsing the exposed ridges of rolling mountains with rock outcroppings and tiny wind blasted shrubs, it followed a rhododendron sheltered trail over several creeks. I like this sort of trail so much better. I understand why people like the big vistas and all that, but there is something about the forest that I innately gravitate towards. It's intimate, it holds you in, it brushes up against you. My heart feels more open inside of it.

The snow fell with a consistency and the hiking was made hard by the general fact of hiking in winter. It's really cold so you wear several layers, so then you get hot and sweat and then you strip a layer but then the bottom layers are wet with sweat so you get cold and you put on the other layer and then you get hot again. There is no winning and you are generally uncomfortable no matter what. The upside of suffering through this is that if you are thinking "God, I'm too hot! Now I'm too cold!" then it means that you are not currently thinking "Is this still the trail?! Am I going to make it to the shelter?! Am I going to die out here?! This is how these types of stories start, isn't it?! There is going to be a dramatization on TV of this moment!" So, I guess being sweaty and cold at the same time isn't the worst thing ever. Also, you see beautiful things.

We made it to our intended camp spot but passed it by. We hadn't totally committed to it while looking at the map back at the shelter and when we came across it, it just seemed like such a hassle to set up a tent and then have to spend hours in it waiting for sleep. The alternative was a pretty good trek down the AT to the next shelter but my knee was still in bad shape. So we looped around to make a much shorter day and returned to the car. We had been out for four frozen days and though we both had the time take, we gave in. There is a fine line between scratching an itch and torturing yourself and winter backpacking skirts that line pretty well. We ended the journey properly by typing in 'mexican restaurant' into a gps and through some unlikely magic landed at a southwestern caribbean soulfood place tucked away in the mountains that catered perfectly to a hungry vegan and vegetarian. A different sort of trail magic than I usually see, but I'll take it.


  1. Yes, definitely one of the coldest nights I spent on the trail! I was up in the loft along with Mudmouth, Yardsale, Patriot, Tek, ZZ, Cody, and a few others, and Ambassador, Li'l Engine, Timber, and Northern braved the cold downstairs. 19 degrees when we woke up! Here's a link to my journal from that morning:

    Love the pictures and your adventure. Can't wait to hear about your experiences at Neels Gap with the new crop of AT hikers!

  2. "Some times you just want to sip black coffee from a titanium cup while watching the snow fall from inside your sleeping bag."

    That is the best sentence i've ever read.


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