Category Archives: Virginia State Parks

Visit to Grayson Highlands State Park, Part 1

You know that whole quote about best laid plans… that’s what spring break was for me and my son. As our leaving day grew closer, I noticed that southern Virginia planned to receive almost a foot of snow. I panicked a bit because I wondered what that would mean for our drive, hike, etc. I had rented a cabin near Grayson Highlands and was in contact with the owner. That helped. At first, they maybe suggested to hold off a day. I couldn’t do that as we had reservations elsewhere. Then, they said the roads were clear so off we went.

It was interesting because as we drove south on dreaded I-81 you could clearly see where the storm either stopped or diverged.  Buchanan, VA – clear.  Go just a bit more south and boom, 8 inches of snow. Thankfully, the roads were clear. We made one quick stop in Buchanan so I could show my son the swinging bridge. He made it all the way across. For some reason, I get nervous and don’t venture out too far.  As we exited I-81, the roads were clear. In fact, I think VDOT does a better job clearing those roads than they do the ones near us.

 

We arrived at the cabin and unpacked. There is no true driveway to the cabin. It is grass. And it hadn’t been shoveled or plowed but my little car made it up there okay. Having grown up in Michigan I was confident that I wouldn’t get stuck (mostly). The cabin itself was amazing. My son instantly fell in love with it.  The size of it was perfect for us. There was one bedroom, an open space with a tv, small kitchen, a bathroom, and a loft bedroom.  One heater was enough for the whole space.  If you are headed to Grayson Highlands and want a cabin, I highly recommend Highland Hideaways. They have a number of cabins available.

When we arrived, we drove over to Grayson to check it out. I wanted to check the conditions for hiking and see how the roads would be. I stopped twice on my way there because the views are incredible. Mountains for days.

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One of the views located on the way to the park

When we finally arrived at the park, the road had been plowed – at least for one car. We got to the parking lot and the ponies were close by. I flipped. Thankfully, it wasn’t too cold because we didn’t exactly dress for too much walking around. When we got near the ponies, one basically came running up to me. I scratched it on its nose a bit and then realized that wasn’t allowed. It was hard to resist petting it more because it was so friendly. I spent some time taking photos. I seriously want to be a professional pony photographer now. They are extremely photogenic.

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The pony loved me

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I loved all the different hair styles worn by the ponies. I used to feel like this before getting my hair cut.

We walked up the Rhododendron Trail a bit and found even more ponies. Another came over to us to say hi. As I reviewed photos of the ponies on Instagram, I see why they come running. There are a lot of photos of people feeding, petting, and hugging them – all illegal and fineable. They are wild and hopefully, if you are reading this, you’ll know not to do that. The ponies have to rely on eating from the park – not people.

I will keep saying beautiful, incredible, amazing… over and over. I guess I could go with outstanding, phenomenal, or another word to describe how the mountains looked covered in snow. I was not thrilled with the idea of hiking in snow but had to admit the mountains looked… gorgeous.  We made our way back down to the car.  I hadn’t had service in quite some time but Grayson does have a little bit. I did what I had to do to let people know we arrived safely and we made our way back to the cabin. We played games, watched tv, and turned in early to prepare for the next day’s adventure.

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Breaks Interstate Park Hiking

Wow. That’s my response to Breaks Interstate Park in Breaks, Virginia. My son and I showed up last weekend after a quick stop at Dismal Falls in Bland, Virginia. Our plan was to get there in time for the Elk Tour we had signed up for that was to take place that evening. The drive into the park was pretty amazing and then you turn the corner and there is this overlook that can almost take your breath away. They call it the “Grand Canyon of the South” due to the deep canyon that has been carved out by the Russell Fork River. We showed up, checked in, and made our way to the Catawba lodge. We were told by the woman at the front desk that our room had the best view out of all of the rooms. After walking in and looking over the balcony I’m sure she wasn’t lying. It was so impressive. We had a wonderful view of the river and the mountains over in Kentucky. We headed to the Visitor Center to prepare for the Elk Tour. In the last few years they have worked to reintroduce elk to Virginia. They hang out in an area that has been set aside for them. They ring 25 a year and the herd has grown to 400 elk.  We rode in a van with others to the location. We could get out and walk around to see the elk and rode further around the wildlife management area. The elk did not care about the van but were skittish with people. It was impressive to see them so close, though.  And we were treated to a beautiful sunset that evening as well. The tour provides you with a sack lunch. It was a very good tuna on croissant sandwich with an apple, chips, cookies, and a bottle of water.  I think for the adult price of $25 it was well worth it. elkbuckclose

 

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The lodge room was very comfortable. Because it is still low season the place was virtually empty. We heard nothing during the night (which is how I like it). The next morning we got up and went to the restaurant for breakfast. They offered a buffet or ordering off the menu. We chose the menu and had a yummy start to our day.  Our day was supposed to be an easy hike day. We started out on the Geological trail and were immediately impressed. The rock formations were exciting. We had so much fun exploring and climbing on rocks.

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Breaks Interstate Park And then we decided we’d hike to the river. Oops. I guess I didn’t think it would be that bad. I mean it looked like a long ways down there but I didn’t anticipate heading straight down the side of the gorge. And yes, we just kept going. We are experienced hikers. We knew we’d have to go back up but I kept telling myself it wouldn’t be so bad. We found a nice big rock near the river for lunch and I realized my son had drank all of the water. Normally, we have two bladders for water but my other one was leaking. That left us with one Gatorade for the rest of the hike. Ugh. Breaks Interstate Park

We continued on and the sights were still amazing even at the bottom. We spent some time next to the river and decided we should start the hike back up. At first, we wound through rhododendrons and the climb was not bad. I thought, “Yes! We can do this!” And then the trail turned and it was straight up. By this time, the Gatorade was gone and we still had almost a mile to go. My breathing started to get worse (asthma) and my son was fading. At one point he exclaimed, “This is the worst hike I’ve ever done.” That felt really great even though I knew he said it in the moment.

Breaks Interstate Park Although the hike was incredibly hard, it was still beautiful. I was very happy to start seeing the very large rock formations because I knew that meant we were close to the top. When we reached the Geological trail again we opted to walk to the road. We still had more elevation to climb before reaching the car. What a wonderful sight that was. I checked my phone and it said only 3.3 miles. However, we had climbed 1600 feet in elevation.  We had a nice big dinner of pizza and we drank a ton of water to make up for the lack of it over the hike. That evening I headed to Stateline Overlook to catch the sunset. I allowed my son to just chill in the room considering he was still a bit frustrated with me about the hike. Unfortunately, this meant we would not be able to complete the Sand Cave hike the next day. That hike is 8 miles with 2000 feet of elevation and I didn’t think I should put my son through that. Breaks Interstate Park

I really hope to get back to Breaks again in the future – perhaps in the summer so we can enjoy the lake and step foot in the river without freezing. The scenery is some of the best I have ever seen in Virginia. There is a nice run that feeds into the river and I’d love to take time to photograph that.

Breaks Interstate Park

Spring Break Planning

For the past two years my kids and I have gone hiking for a couple of days during spring break. This is the only time I get to spend uninterrupted time with them as they are both so busy with their sports. This year, unfortunately, it will just be my son and I. My daughter will be visiting Peru during spring break and doing both volunteer work and visiting Machu Picchu. I am incredibly jealous because Machu Picchu is number one on my list of places to visit. Alas, I could not afford to go with her as her trip will cost plenty. I am, however, very happy that she gets to go and experience that culture. Hopefully she realizes just how lucky she is.

So my son and I have been working out where we want to go. The places that have crossed our lips are The Grayson Highlands, New River Trail, Kentucky areas, Sand Cave in Virginia and others. I think we are finally narrowing it down.  The sand cave is number one on our list. I’m not sure if we’ll make White Rocks as well but the cave is a sure thing.

Next on our list is Mammoth Caves. I have to remember to ask my parents if we visited there when I was little. I remember a cave of some sort but am unsure of which one it was.  We have now added Breaks Interstate Park to the list. The park looks amazing and they have a lodge where we can stay and it is pretty inexpensive.  In talking to my son the other evening he said he is ready to have “legs of steel” after this hiking trip.  What he doesn’t realize is that it is a lot of driving but I’ll manage. I want him to have a memorable trip and I want some amazing photos as well.

A couple weeks ago my son declared, “No!” to camping in a tent. Just yesterday he changed is mind again so I guess we’ll be planning something for that next spring/summer.

Tubing & Hiking at Shenandoah River State Park

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I think that Virginia State Parks does a fantastic job of advertising their parks and the events happening at all of them. I was excited when I saw a notice for tubing at Shenandoah River State Park. I knew it was going to be a hot weekend and it seemed like something my son would love. I consulted with him and he agreed. I hadn’t ever been to this state park so I was excited to mark another one off of the list. To go tubing you must make reservations with Virginia Canopy Tours that is located right inside the park. It was pretty inexpensive considering you could take as long as you wanted to float down the river and they provided the transportation to the starting location, the life jackets, and the tube. We arrived to the park plenty early and stopped at an overlook. It was a beautiful view down into the valley and of the river. river

My son saw a path just below the overlook so he took off running. I often wonder if you’ll turn out to be a trail runner or an ultra runner because he loves running down trails. He always says he hates running but he sure loved it that day. We didn’t go far down the trail because we had the appointment for tubing. I wish we could have though because it was really pretty.

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We return to the car and headed to the Canopy Tours office. We checked in and watched the short safety video and waited for the others to arrive. There were only five of us who had registered so off we went on the little bus. The other three had decided to walk a bit farther up the river to have a longer tubing ride while we decided to just hop in at the drop-off location. Neither of us had been tubing and I think we were both a little worried.  I knew I’d get thirsty so I had brought my Teton Sports hydration pack with me (dumb idea but more on that in a minute). It also served as a way for me to take my phone so I could take pictures.

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The beginning of our trip was a bit scary. The river seems very shallow – we could see the bottom for most of the time. However, I floated must faster than my son. I was getting pretty far ahead of him and he wanted me to wait. The only way I could do that was to get off of the tube and try to stop myself. Unfortunately, I stopped in a location where the water was deeper – up to my neck – and I went faster because I was in a strong current. I was attempting to hold onto my hydration pack, the tube, and not let my shoes fall off. Finally, I was able to stop myself and wait for my son. Whew. We decided at that point to hold onto each other’s tubes.

From that point, the trip was pretty fun. My son hated that dragon flies kept landing on him. They obviously don’t bite but he’s not a “I love bugs” sort of boy. Also, we got attacked by a butterfly. Seriously. It wouldn’t stop flying in our faces for some reason. At that point, we decided to disconnect. My son was confident and the river had really gotten shallow so I knew I could stop if I had to. By this point the other three people had caught up to us. Adults really fly down the river compared to kids.

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My biggest concern throughout the whole trip was to not float under trees near the banks of the river. Growing up I did quite a bit of canoeing and I know that spiders often hanging down and that’s just not good for me. Finally, I saw the sign where we were supposed to end our trip. This was the most difficult part of the journey. There were “rapids” at this location and it was difficult to maneuver over to the side of the river. It was too shallow to let my legs hang down through the tube so I had to kind of walk it over there. Eventually, my son caught up and I grabbed him from the river. We spent some time at that location just sitting in the water. My son had fun picking up large rocks and throwing them back down or skipping them. This was a popular place for others to come and take a dip as well. You could walk to the top part of the “rapids” and then let it carry you down which was pretty fun. When you’re done tubing and enjoying the river you take your tubes up to a small bus and throw them in the back of it. Then you can take the short walk back up to the office and retrieve your keys and anything else you may have left. I think the next time we go I’ll definitely just leave my phone and not take it with me. It was fun to take pictures while we were tubing but now that I have some I won’t need more.

The park isn’t very large. It has numerous picnic tables and places for camping and staying in cabins. The cabins area is pretty nice and they looked similar to the ones we stayed in at Hungry Mother State Park. There were a lot of people there enjoying lunch. We had planned on doing a hike but we were tired and ready to go home. I would definitely recommend the tubing trip. You can also do a Zip Line tour that costs $89 and takes 2-3 hours to complete. My son is excited to try that next time we go. To see more photos please visit my Flickr Page.

Shenandoah River State Park