Grayson Highlands State Park in Pictures

GHSP - Sugarland Overlook

The view east-northeast from the Sugarland Overlook just off of the main park road.  The overlook gets its name from the many sugar maple (Acer saccharum) trees found on the slope, which can be tapped for sweet sap that’s boiled down to make pure maple syrup.  The mountains in the far distance on the right are part of the Blue Ridge.

GHSP - ice columns

A huge section of needle ice found at the beginning of the Rhododendron Trail and enthusiastically flipped over by my husband and daughter.  These are actually ice columns (“needles”) that have pushed up a layer of soil.  My family was inspired to turn them over to get a better look at these hundreds of miniature ice stalagmites.  Needle ice forms when the ground temperature is above freezing, but the air at the ground surface is below freezing.  Capillary action in the soil pulls water to the surface (or within a centimeter or so of the surface, in this case) where it freezes.  As the process continues, more and more water is pulled up and frozen, growing upward until it either lifts soil particles or raises a section of soil altogether, as it’s done here.

GHSP - frost formations

Here we see another batch of ice needles, but these have either penetrated through the soil or been rearranged by other hikers.  Note the interesting curves; to see even more amazing ice formations, search the Internet for images of “hoarfrost” and “frost flowers.”

Seven Layer Mountains

I count seven “layers” of ridges fading into the distance.  This kind of vista is one of my favorite things about the Virginia Appalachians.  This shot was taken looking southwest from the Rhododendron Trail; somewhere out there is the Virginia/Tennessee/North Carolina border.

GHSP - our first pony

This is the first pony we saw, resting in the sunshine about 50 yards off of and not even a quarter mile up the trail.  We were lucky to find several ponies; there are no guarantees that you’ll see part of the 100+ member herd.

GHSP - three ponies

Can you see all three ponies?  There’s a black coffee colored pony with a platinum blonde mane on the left, a milk chocolate and cream pony in the middle, and a dark chocolate pony on the right.  They stand about 4 feet tall at the shoulder, though we did see one or two who were a bit larger.

GHSP Pony 1

The ponies didn’t seem to mind us getting up close and personal, though park signs warn that they will bite and/or kick if “harassed.”  We followed general rules for safe behavior around horses:  don’t stand behind them or approach quickly from behind, keep hands and fingers away from their faces, don’t touch them in any way that you wouldn’t want to be touched.

GHSP - rockstar pony

I was incredibly reluctant to let our daughter touch them at all, but in the end, the ponies paid no attention to her careful, gentle petting.  This rockstar pony was the first she touched and the only one I touched.  Her coat was incredibly thick and furry, good for the formidable winters atop the highest mountains in Virginia.  (In fact, Virginia’s two highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, are visible from the park.)

GHSP - big pinnacle and ponies

Here are two more ponies we watched, captured with the “Big Pinnacle” peak in the background.  The herd is managed by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association, who sees to necessary veterinary care for the animals and keeps the herd size steady with annual pony auctions in the fall.

GHSP - waterfall

We hiked only one other trail in the park on this visit, but it was the perfect one:  the Cabin Creek Trail.  The trail is a 1.8 mile spur and loop that leads down to (what else?) Cabin Creek and upstream where a series of small falls leads up to this 25 foot cascade.  We sat happily on huge boulders in the middle of the stream watching this falls and dreaming about coming back to the park in summer, when we might dare to wade and even (gasp!) swim in these frigid, crystalline mountain waters.

 

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Not-So-Dismal Falls

About an hour west of Blacksburg in the Jefferson National Forest in Giles County, the Falls of Dismal Creek make the perfect place to splash and picnic.

I was lucky enough to get to spend the afternoon there on Wednesday, with 10 kiddos participating in SEEDS Field Camp.

The Falls of Dismal trail is a scramble downhill; just a tenth of a mile brings you from the roadside parking to the creek.  There are plenty of semi-dry boulders to sit on and creek access is easy as long as you and your kiddos are careful of slippery spots.

The falls are about 15 feet high, made of many stepped ledges of bedrock.  The falls can be climbed even by the elementary school set (with an adult) if the water flow is low.  Several campers made it to the top with my camp co-teacher helping them along the way.

Reaching the top is far from the highlight of a visit, though, as there are fish, crawfish, and salamanders to be caught, mushrooms to be found, butterflies to be watched, and cold water bathtub-style swimming to be enjoyed.

(Just don’t overtire yourself.  What was a downhill scramble is a short-but-painful slog on the way back up.)

Here are some pictures from our recent Dismal Falls visit:

The Falls of Dismal are just beautiful.  The "dismal" moniker comes from the settlers' pessimistic judgement of the area's rough, wild country, short growing season, and poor soils (shale bedrock).

The Falls of Dismal are just beautiful. The “dismal” moniker comes from the settlers’ pessimistic judgement of the area’s rough, wild country, short growing season, and poor soils (shale bedrock).

This is the view downstream from the falls.  Dismal Creek runs clear and cold.  The water appears brown because the underlying rocks are brown.  The creek is not muddy or cloudy.  Well, at least not unless you have 10 kids playing in it!  (And even then, there's little silt to kick up.)

This is the view downstream from the falls. Dismal Creek runs clear and cold. The water appears brown because the underlying rocks are brown. The creek is not muddy or cloudy. Well, at least not unless you have 10 kids playing in it! (And even then, there’s little silt to kick up.)

This small creek fish is a blacknose dace (Rhynicthus atratulis) that was captured with a small, rectangular neck of the variety usually used in fishtanks.

This small creek fish is a blacknose dace (Rhynicthus atratulus) that was captured with a small, rectangular net of the variety usually used in fish tanks.  It is swimming in our collection basin, a rectangular bucket of the variety usually seen containing dirty dishes.

This is a dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) also captured with a small fish net.  It is eager to crawl out of the observation basin.  The basins we use for observation are always kept in shade and at the temperature of the stream to maintain the high dissolved oxygen levels in the water (so as not to stress out the stream creatures more than necessary).  Still, freedom is better.

This is a dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) also captured with a small fish net. It is eager to crawl out of the observation basin. The basins we use for observation are always kept in shade and at the temperature of the stream to maintain the high dissolved oxygen levels in the water (so as not to stress out the stream creatures more than necessary). Still, freedom is better.

We weren't the only ones doing some fishing in the creek!  This is a fishing spider (Dolomedes spp.) staking out a good crack between rocks.  About as big as my hand, fishing spiders are sometimes described as "big, not bad".  Found near water, they prey on aquatic insects, tiny minnows (the kind seen in the observation bucket with the salamander) and other minuscule stream dwellers.  They don't frighten me, but I'm not dumb enough to poke them, either.

We weren’t the only ones doing some fishing in the creek! This is a fishing spider (Dolomedes spp.) staking out a good crack between rocks. About as big as my hand, fishing spiders are sometimes described as “big, not bad”. Found near water, they prey on aquatic insects, tiny minnows (the kind seen in the observation bucket with the salamander) and other minuscule stream dwellers. They don’t frighten me, but I’m not dumb enough to poke them, either.