We heard them before we saw them: the stamp of a hoof in the tangled rhododendron thicket beside the trail, and then a light whinny. This was our first visit to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in southwest Virginia, and among our goals was to see the wild ponies who live there. Another 10 minutes down the trail and we saw our first pony directly ahead of us: and then her foal stepped out beside her. Boom–pure magic.
We had started our adventure the day before inside Grayson Highlands State Park, which maintains a backpackers’ parking lot and spur trail that leads to the Appalachian Trail (AT). It is nearly a 5-hour drive from Richmond, and we had a leisurely pace planned for our hike, so we got a late start on our first day and hit the trail about 4 PM. We hiked about 3 miles on the AT before finding a fantastic campsite on the banks of Wilson Creek. No one else was camping in the vicinity, despite there being many great sites along a perfect creek to draw from.
Day 2 was our big day. We continued north on the AT, crossing over Stone Mountain on the way. Here there are incredible 360-degree views, and we started to see signs that ponies had passed through–our excitement mounted! We descended to The Scales, which is an old corral where farmers once weighed cattle prior to sale, and is now a camping meadow. A brief snack break, and we were on our way back up the AT until reaching the Pine Mountain Trail, where we turned southwest-ish. Somewhere along this trail we accidentally got diverted onto the Crest Trail, which runs parallel to it. We were likely distracted by the incredible views:
The weather could not have been more perfect and the scenery was to die for, but we were starting to wonder–where were the ponies? There was plenty of evidence of well-nourished ponies living in the areas through which we traveled, but nary an animal. We descended the Crest Trail to Rhododendron Gap, which, as it turned out, was Pony Central. After catching sight of the mare and her foal we watched a small group of them graze for several minutes, before a stallion came whinnying down the hillside and rounded them all up. They shuffled onto the AT back into the rhododendrons, and there were so many of them on the narrow trail that it actually caused a mini traffic backup. We could not easily pass them, so we bushwhacked through the rhododendron tangles to get around the ponies.
Thrilled by the encounter, we pressed on through tunnels of the showy pink blossoms. Our next destination was the Mount Rogers summit, which is the highest peak in Virginia. The summit is completely covered with trees so there are no views, but we thought we’d tag the mountain as long as we were there. The climb is not a difficult one, and it wends its way up through an old-growth spruce forest carpeted by ferns and moss. The smell is heavenly.
The summit of Mount Rogers is marked by a medallion set into a boulder. Having paid our respects to the mountain we headed back down the AT, stopping at the Thomas Knob shelter to draw water and rest briefly. We had scouted several campsites on the way up, and we chose one we thought might afford a sunrise view in the morning. We were very close to the ponies’ territory, and in fact located above our site was a meadow they clearly frequented. As we hung our bear bag that night, we knew the ponies probably posed a far greater danger to our food than bears did. Sure enough, our wake up call the next morning was the stamping of hooves outside our tent, and pony snouts nuzzling under the fly to see what they might find.
It was very windy, so we quickly broke camp and headed up to the meadow to check out the sunrise, but we were in the middle of clouds and could barely see a dim glow. We decided to get back on the trail to look for a sheltered spot for breakfast, hoping the clouds would break up. Gradually they did, and we were treated to wondrous views all the way down Wilburn Ridge.
We were almost back to the state park when we had one last pony encounter–a mare nursing her foal, who then walked beside us down the path to join a larger group.
The entire trek had an enchanting, otherworldly quality. There were blue skies, the rhododendrons were in full bloom, and the ponies appeared quite pleased to complete the magical tableau (I suspect they would have been even more pleased had we shared a treat with them, but we respected their wildness despite their clear habituation to humans). We had taken to calling the vicinity “Magic Pony Mountain” even before the trip, and the moniker was apt. There was water in abundance, sweet camp sites, and (thanks to this being a weekday trip) few other hikers to be seen. In a month there will be raspberries and blueberries to pick by the pound; in the fall the foliage will be stunning; and in every season those enigmatic equine charmers will be there. As we were about to leave we looked back, and all that could be seen was a small, bare hillock. The rest of the mesmerizing landscape lay hidden beyond, and the casual observer might never guess it was there. Magic Pony Mountain, indeed.