Twin Pinnacles Trail

The Twin Pinnacles trail is a gentle trail that takes you to the highest point in Grayson Highlands State Park.  The views from each of the Pinnacles are nothing short of spectacular.

View from Little Pinnacle
The view from Little Pinnacle.  Below: Although this blog post primarily covers the Twin Pinnacles trail, don’t miss hiking up through Massie Gap to where it meets the Appalachian Trail.  You’ll see ponies and spectacular scenery.

Ponies  Grayson Higlands Hiking Grayson highlands view

AT through Massie Gap More Ponies Grayson Highlands view

Christine Says…

When visiting the southwest region of Virginia, a visit to Grayson Highlands State Park is practically mandatory.  That park and the high country around Mount Rogers might be my favorite spot in the entire state of Virginia for many reasons.  The lovely boreal forest seen in much of that area is uncommon elsewhere in our state.  The bald, open high country is stunningly beautiful.  And, the kicker… there are WILD PONIES.  Honestly, if there was nothing besides the wild ponies to set Grayson Highlands apart, I would still love it best.  I grew up a horse crazy girl and that sentiment has never really abated in my adulthood.

Last time we visited Grayson Highlands, we hiked up Mount Rogers.  This time we wanted to try something new, so we decided to hike the Twin Pinnacles trail, which lies completely within the state park’s boundaries.  But before we set off on our new hike, I insisted that we hike far enough up the Appalachian Trail that I could see and photograph some of the ponies and their spring foals.  The wild ponies of Grayson Highlands are not everywhere in the park.  The best chances to see them are hiking through Massie Gap and then south along the Appalachian Trail.

As it turned out, the ponies were all tucked into the shade and relaxing at the higher elevations.  We ended up hiking a little over halfway up Mount Rogers before we found the herd.  We enjoyed watching a small family group of ponies – two mares, two foals and a stallion for about an hour before we headed back down to do our ‘real’ hike.

Foal along the AT
This foal looked so beautiful with the mountainous background.  Below: Adam walking along the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail; A couple shots of the Catawba Rhododendron in bloom.

Adam hiking across Massie Gap Catawba Rhodedendron Rhodedendron Along the AT

We also spent a little time headed slightly north on the Appalachian Trail so Adam could look for a geocache.  While he did that, I enjoyed the spectacular blooms of the Catawba Rhododendron.  They’re so colorful, and really set the mountainside awash in brilliant purple.

By the time we got to the trailhead for Twin Pinnacles, which is located behind the park’s Visitor Center, I was already sunburned, tired and hungry.  Thankfully, Twin Pinnacles is a very, very short hike.  At 1.6 miles, it barely makes my personal cut-off of one-mile for actually being considered a ‘hike’.  Anything shorter than a mile is just a walk in my book!

For such a short hike, Twin Pinnacles packs in a ton of majestic scenery!  The trail climbs very gradually to the highest point in the park – Little Pinnacle – at 5084 feet.  You would think Big Pinnacle would be the taller, but the name is a slight misrepresentation.

From the top of Little Pinnacle, we had views in every direction.  We could see Christmas Tree farms down in the valley.  We could see Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain off in the distance.  All through the forest, bands of red spruce were visible.  They really stand out among other conifers due to their richer, russet colors.

Trail Leaving Little Pinnacle
The trail leaving Little Pinnacle.

Walking across the rocky, bare top of the mountain was reminiscent of hiking in New England.  We quickly dipped back into the trees and walked through a small saddle over the Big Pinnacle.  After a short, very steep climb, we stepped out onto bare rock overlooking a gorgeous vista.  Of the two Pinnacles, I think Big Pinnacle has slightly nicer views of the park – especially looking down into Massie Gap.  We enjoyed the breeze atop the Pinnacle, and I spent some time daydreaming more about the ponies and what they might be up to.  (yes… really – I love those ponies!)

After leaving the second Pinnacle, we had a short walk back to the Visitor Center and a long ride back home.  I wish we had more time to spend in the area – I love Grayson Highlands!

Adam  Says…

The last time we had visited Grayson Highlands, we spent most of the day at Mount Rogers and had little time or energy left for anything else.  I thought it would be nice to see some other features of this wonderful state park.  Since the weather and views were lovely, we tried out the Twin Pinnacles Trail.

Storm Shelter
The 1.6 mile loop trail has several storm shelters built by a local boy scout troop.  Below: The trail starts behind the visitors center.

Twin Pinnacles trailhead

During our morning in Grayson Highlands, Christine was determined to see wild ponies.  She stated that she didn’t want to leave until she saw ponies and hopefully foals.  In my best Mr. T impression, I said “I pity the foals” and we started our search.  We ran into an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.  I wish we had stopped to get his trail name, because he was such a happy guy.  He was from Florida and just said that he is just amazed every day at what he is doing.  He said that he often goes blue-blazing (since all of the AT is white-blazed, trails off the AT are typically blue-blazed) to see other things that people recommend.  He wasn’t out to set any records for speed, he was just enjoying every moment.  I hope he makes the trip the whole way.  I kept thinking that he is adding on a lot of extra miles that I know many other hikers wouldn’t want to do.  I was asking if he had seen any ponies and he said he walked through about four herds getting to this spot today, so I knew we were on the right path.  Shortly after we parted ways, we ran into our first two ponies.  They were a little stand-offish, but they didn’t run away from us.   These ponies looked a little rough, like they needed some time with a grooming brush.  Christine wanted to continue to try and find some more groups of ponies.  Shortly after we continued to climb up the AT, I looked back to enjoy the view (and catch my breath) and I saw some ponies not far from where we were hiking.  We decided to climb back down and check them out and Christine saw there were two foals with them.  We spent about 45 minutes just watching their behavior from a safe distance before I nudged Christine away to continue on with our day.  I’m sure she could have stayed all day looking at this set of ponies.

There are two different options for this trail.  You can start from the parking lot at Massie Gap and hike steeply uphill via the Big Pinnacle Trail.  We decided to go the easier way, since we had already spent a good time hiking before this.

Big Pinnacle overlooking Massie Gap
Big Pinnacle overlooking Massie Gap.

To get to the trailhead, just continue on the park road, Grayson Highland Lane, until you reach the parking lot to the Visitor’s Center.  Once you park the car, you will have to climb up several stairs until you reach the Visitor’s Center.  As you are looking directly at the Visitor’s Center, the red-blazed trail begins behind and to the left of the Center.  After a short distance, you will reach a larger bulletin board with a map of the trail where the trail forks.  Take the left fork.  You will soon come across the first of four storm shelters along the trail that were created as an Eagle Scout project.  You will reach the first rocky outcrop, Little Pinnacle around .7 miles.  The Little Pinnacle is actually higher than the Big Pinnacle in elevation.  The trail continues on for a few tenths of a mile until you reach the sign for the Big Pinnacle overlook.  The trail up to the Big Pinnacle consists of steep stairs leading to the top, but it isn’t too far of a climb to the top.  Once there, you should be able to see the Massie Gap parking lot below.  Go back to the sign and continue to follow the signs leading back to the Visitor’s Center.  You should finish your trip at 1.6 miles.

I did do a little geocaching on the trail while I was there.  In one of the geocaches, I found a toy Pinnochio from the Shrek movies.  I decided to grab it (in geocaching, you typically take something and leave something in the container).  As we continued to hike, I kept thinking that I heard something barking or voices that were in the distance.  I asked Christine a couple of times if she heard anything and she said she didn’t.  After thinking that I was going crazy, I finally realized that this Pinnochio was making noises.  He makes some grunts and occasionally says, “I’ll never become a real boy”.   We had a good laugh at my expense over that.  If you would like to find the geocaches on the trail, they are:

For a hiker in Virginia, it really doesn’t get any better than a visit to Grayson Highlands State Park.  This is truly a magical place!

Trail Notes

  • Distance 1.6 miles
  • Elevation Change – 250 feet
  • Difficulty – 2.  The trail is mostly flat and easy with the exception of one short, steep climb up Little Pinnacle.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is heavily-traveled and in great shape.
  • Views – 5.  Spectacular views from one of Virginia’s highest spots.
  • Wildlife – 1.  We saw some birds. There might be bears and deer in the area, but we didn’t see anything.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5. There are a couple turns, but if you follow the signs you’ll easily be able to stay on the loop.
  • Solitude – 2.  The short length and excellent views make this trail very popular.

Directions to trailhead: From Abingdon, take 58 East until you reach Grayson Highlands State Park on the left through SR 362. Continue on Grayson Highland Lane until you reach the parking lot for the Visitor’s Center.  The trailhead is behind and to the left of the Visitor’s Center.

Mount Rogers

The summit of Mount Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak, can be reached via a nine mile (total, out-and-back) hike starting from Grayson Highlands State Park.  The hike follows the Appalachian Trail for most of the way and crosses into Jefferson National Forest.

Mt. Rogers is beautiful, rugged and home to several herds of wild ponies.
Mount Rogers has beautiful and rugged terrain.  The area is home to several herds of wild ponies.

Christine Says…

Mount Rogers has long been on my list of must-do hikes.  The peak’s status as the state’s highest point was one draw, but personally, I wanted a chance to see the feral highland ponies that roam the area.

Our trip started under rather inauspicious conditions.  We missed a turn on our way to the park, and ended up an hour out of the way.  The weather had been forecast to be sunny, but the morning dawned with a thick, wet, windy cloud of bleakness blanketing the entire area.  But when you have driven almost four hours to do a long-anticipated hike, you’re going to do it regardless of minor complications like gloominess and getting lost.

The trail starts out from Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park.
The trail starts out from Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park.

We parked at Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park.  From there, we walked across a wide pasture, passed a sign warning of extremely erratic weather in the area and went through a horse gate.  The trail climbed upward along a wide, gravel path.

We almost immediately saw our first small group of wild ponies, clustered under the trees on a hillside next to the trail.  The fog was so thick; they looked like silhouettes in the mist.  I quickly got my camera out and started snapping shots.  The ponies were so small and rugged looking.  Their coats were thick and their manes long and wavy.  Some were solid colored and some were spotted.  They also turned out to be incredibly inquisitive and gentle.  While I was squatting down to take photos, a dark brown pony walked up to me and nuzzled her soft nose onto the back of my hand.  I know she was looking for food, but I had nothing to offer. We lingered with the ponies for a while, and then moved on.

(note:  The park rules prohibit feeding the ponies.)

The ponies are very friendly.
The ponies are very friendly.  They come right up to you, especially if they think you have food.  Although it may look like Adam is feeding the pony, he’s actually just unzipping his backpack.  Pictured Below:  More ponies; State park rules!

Grayson Highlands Pony in the Mist. This Mt. Rogers pony was especially friendly
Grayson Highlands Pony in the Fog. Mt. Rogers ponies have long beautiful manes
Adam laughs at the misspelled sign in Grayson Highlands State Park The sign at Grayson Highlands State Park misspelled the word Alcoholic

We soon reached the junction with the Appalachian Trail, followed the white blazes and headed south. The fog was such a transformative element on the morning of our hike.  Instead of the amazing mountain views we’d heard about, the thick mist made the scenery feel closer and more intimate. I told Adam several times that I didn’t feel like I was in Virginia at all.  I felt like I was walking through some storybook version of the Scottish Highlands.  It was so quiet and mysterious-feeling – no people, no tall trees rustling in the wind, no birds chirping. The terrain was open, studded with rocks and covered with scrubby low-lying brush.

The Wilburn Rock scramble was slippery, but fun.
The Wilburn Rock scramble was slippery, but fun.

The Appalachian Trail exits Grayson Highlands State Park at around the 1.5 mile mark.  The trail becomes increasingly rugged and rocky at this point.   There are a couple route options for the middle section of the trail.  Hikers can continue along the AT, or choose to branch off on the Wilburn Ridge Trail for a short rock scramble (and nice views on a clear day).  We chose to scramble.  In retrospect, we probably should have stuck to the AT.  The boulders on Wilburn Ridge were quite slippery.  After we finished scrambling, we passed through a thick tunnel of rhododendron that spilled us back out into another open pasture area.

When we rejoined the AT, we started to see signs of the sun burning through the cloud layer.  We soon reached a horse camp next to an enormous rock outcropping .  When we climbed to the top of the rocks, we both gasped in awe at the view.    The valley below us had been mostly cleared of clouds and fog, and a blanket of fall color spread out before us, as far as the eye could see.  Only a few wisps of mist were left hanging on the ridges below.  We sat on the rocks and took a break from walking.  A couple backpackers passed below, and we overheard them talking about hearing coyotes howling in the night before.  Instead of coyotes, we heard the distant squeal of ponies whinnying ahead on the trail.

We got our first view with clearning clouds atop a huge rocky outcropping.
We got our first clear view from atop a huge rocky outcropping. Pictured Below: fog and clouds lift off the colorful mountainside;  the ferns along the trail were turning gold; one of the pony stallions we saw along the way.

The clouds and fog begin to lift off Mt. Rogers The ferns on Mt. Rogers turn gold in the fall Pony Stallion on Mt. Rogers

After a short break atop the rocks, we continued along, passing through another thicket of rhododendron.  The area was completely shaded and nearly ankle deep in mud.  My trekking poles came in very handy traversing the sloppy footing.  This section of the trail runs almost parallel to the Mount Rogers horse trail.  There are many beautiful backcountry campgrounds nestled into the trees along this stretch.    We saw about a dozen more wild ponies near the campsites, including a couple stallions.

This gorgeous gray was hanging out near the campsites.
This gorgeous gray was hanging out near the campsites. Pictured Below: More ponies – they are everywhere along the trail through Rhododendron Gap.

Ponies at rest on Mt. Rogers Beautiful spotted pony on Mt. Rogers Adam watches the red pony on the Mt. Rogers hike

By this point in the hike, all the fog and clouds had blown off the mountain, giving us a great look at the gentle rolling terrain and spectacular open views.  You can’t help but feel like you’re on top of the world walking along this ridge.  The fall color was amazing!   We stopped for lunch at the Thomas Knob Appalachian Trail hut.  We shared the picnic table with several groups of day hikers and backpackers.  We read the logbook, stretched a bit and then made our final push for the summit.

The spur to the summit departs the AT and heads into a dense, rainforest-like grove of spruce-fir trees.  It was damp and green and draped with moss.  It reminded Adam and I of the forests in the Pacific Northwest.  The summit of Mt. Rogers is rather anticlimactic after passing by so many sweeping panoramic views and rocky pinnacles.  The marker lays set in stone, tucked into a shady spot in the woods.  There is no view to speak of, just a quiet little spot under the trees.

We only stayed at the summit for a few minutes, as there were quite a few people there.  We hiked the return trip to Massie Gap fairly quickly, stopping briefly along the way to admire ponies and take in views that had been obscured by fog earlier in the day.  The hike almost felt like a loop because the weather changed so dramatically between the hike up and the hike down.   My final treat along the hike came less than a mile from the end, when a young foal came bounding out of the brush, nickering loudly for his mother.  The foal was absolutely adorable.  I wanted to pack him up and take him home with me!  (Incidentally, the wild ponies are periodically rounded up and sold to keep the herd at a sustainable size.  Although, I don’t think our property owners association would appreciate me bringing a miniature horse home, so I’ll just have to keep the pony ownership idea in the realm of fantasy for now.)

We had beautiful autumn views hiking back down Mt. Rogers
We had beautiful autumn views hiking back down Mount Rogers. Pictured Below: A foal is curious; View from the trail on our return.

A wild Mt. Rogers foal stays close to his mother We had awesome views on the hike back.

We got back to our car, tired and happy.  The entire hike took around six hours – even with lots of breaks and dawdling along the way.  For its nine mile length, it’s a surprisingly easy hike.

I really can’t fully put into words how much I loved this hike. I went to sleep that night dreaming of wild ponies and gorgeous fall views.  I know I’ll revisit Mt. Rogers often in my mind until I have a chance to hike it again.

Adam Says…

We had such a great hike up Mount Rogers!  A co-worker that had previously hiked the mountain had described the scenery as God’s country and I couldn’t agree more.  While walking across the highlands, you can’t help but feel reflective about the beauty before you.  The land around you is vast and I guarantee you will be humbled by the nature.

The trail along the top of Mt. Rogers is surprisingly level.
The trail along the top of Mt. Rogers is surprisingly level.

Mount Rogers was originally named Balsam Mountain, but the name was changed to honor Virginia’s first state geologist and first president of MIT, William B. Rogers.  With the peak being the highest in Virginia at 5,729 feet, this is quite an honor.

One thing that does make this a special hike is the ponies.  Another co-worker of mine didn’t believe that there were wild ponies here (even with photographic evidence).  The ponies were originally placed here by the park service in 1974, but are currently maintained by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association.  The ponies help protect the area from wildfires by eating grasses and underbrush.  The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association takes care of their veterinary needs and provides supplements of salt and hay in winter months.  There are close to 150 ponies, that are separated into three herds – some are in Grayson Highlands State Park, more are  in the Scales area of Pine Mountain, and the most are near Rhododendron Gap on the Mount Rogers trail.  The proceeds from the sale of the ponies at the end of September supports the vet and winter feed costs.

Adam points out the only sign of humans he can see for miles from Mt. Rogers
Adam points out the only sign of humans he can see for miles from Mt. Rogers. Picture Below: a pair of palominos; beautiful clouds and blue skies over the rocky vista.

Pair of palomino ponies on Mt. Rogers Rocky views and blue skies on the hike down Mt. Rogers

The geology of Mount Rogers provides an interesting tale of how things were formed over the years.  Geologists will be able to see evidence of gneiss, sandstone, rhyolite, and shale on their hike along the trail.

For people that like a little more direction for the route that we took, here are some points of interest along the way:

  • Cross the field at the Massie Gap parking lot and go through the gate to start the trail.
  • You will now be on the Rhododendron Trail for .8 mile until it intersects the Virginia Highlands Connector Trail.  Take a left on this trail for just .2 miles.
  • When you reach the junction with the Appalachian trail, head south.  You will shortly leave Grayson Highlands State Park and enter Mount Rogers National Recreation Area through a gate – continue straight on the AT at this point.  After another .25 mile, you will have the option to stay straight on the Appalachian Trail or turn left and proceed on the Wilburn Ridge Trail.  The distance is about 1 mile either way.  The Wilburn Ridge Trail does join back to the AT.  It is a tougher rock scramble, but I would recommend doing it on the way up rather than the way down.
  • Once you are back on the AT, proceed for another mile until you reach a junction of trails.  This area is known as Rhododendron Gap and comes to an elevation of 5526 feet.  At this junction, there is a large pinnacle rock.  Climbing up the rock will give you gorgeous panoramic views that are a must-see of the hike.  This area joins the AT with the Pine Mountain Trail and Crest Trail.  Once you enjoy the view, make sure you follow the white blazes to stay on the AT.
  • You will then proceed on the AT for about 1.5 miles, walking through the bald area known as the Crest Zone, until you reach the Thomas Knob Shelter, protected by gates on both sides.  This is a great place to grab a snack.  There are also great views behind the cabin.  This cabin sleeps plenty, since there is a ladder that goes to a second floor, allowing a little light through two small windows on the side.
  • Once you leave the shelter through the gate, you will be entering Lewis Fork Wilderness.  Shortly after this point, to reach the summit you will need to leave the AT and proceed to the summit by taking the Mount Rogers Spur Trail for .5 mile straight ahead.  The summit is marked by a simple USGS benchmark in the stone.  There are two within 100 feet of each other, so make sure you find the correct one for any of you peakbaggers.
The Summit of Mt. Rogers resembles a rainforest. Pictured Below: the Thomas Knob Appalachian Trail Shelter; Adam on the summit.
The Summit of Mt. Rogers resembles a rainforest. Pictured Below: the Thomas Knob Appalachian Trail Shelter; Adam on the summit.

The Thomas Knob Applachian Trail Hut Adam claims a geocache on the summit of Mount Rogers.

Overall, the trail was really quite manageable for a 9-mile hike.  The terrain is very nice in some points walking across flat lands, but there are some rocky parts, especially around the Wilburn Ridge Trail.  My back and feet were in pain from having too much weight on my pack, but my muscles didn’t feel sore at all the next day.

There are just a few geocaches that you can find along the way.  A couple of them are earthcaches, which do not have you finding a physical cache, but it teaches you about the geology of the area.

Christine told me that this hike has been her favorite ever.  While there are a lot of contenders for me, this would definitely be a strong candidate for me as well.  I feel that anyone interested in hiking in Virginia should make this a trail you must do.  It is a day you will remember forever.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 9 miles the way we went making a partial loop in the middle with the Wilburn Ridge Trail.
  • Elevation Change –About 1100 feet
  • Difficulty – 4. The actual trail wasn’t too tough, but due to the length we upped the difficulty.  The Wilburn Ridge Trail does include a few rock scrambles, but is also manageable for most people that are the slightest bit nimble.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5 The trail is well-maintained and traveled.  There are muddy spots, especially through the Mount Rogers Spur Trail.  The hike on the AT and Wilburn Ridge before the Rhododendron Gap area is quite rocky, causing you to watch your feet.
  • Views –5. Great views walking along the trail in all directions.  The views from Rhododendron Gap are especially beautiful.
  • Waterfalls/streams –0. Non-existent.
  • Wildlife – 5. It doesn’t get much better than wild ponies.  Bears and coyotes have been spotted also.  Lots of bird-watching available also.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3. It is easy to get a little confused at Rhododendron Gap, but overall things are very well-maintained.  Make sure you grab a map to have a backup plan.
  • Solitude – 2. You will get good spacing due to the length, but you will see other people due to the backpackers, AT hikers, and day visitors.  It is the highest summit, which is going to draw crowds, especially at the shelter and summit.

Directions to trailhead:
From Abingdon, take 58 East until you reachGrayson Highlands State Park on the left through SR 362.  Continue for three miles to reach the Massie Gap parking area.  The start of the trail at the gate is across the field to the north.