Jim, Sue, Cody, and Tater at Springer Mtn., start of the Appalachian Trail Adventure Run


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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
Previous          Journal Topics by Date            Next
Start: Elk Garden/VA 600                                
End:  Dickey Gap/VA 16
Today's Miles:                      25.4
Cumulative Miles:             508.7
"If you see a pants leg like this, pick it up and put it on my car."
- young woman hiking south, missing one of her zip-off pants legs

The Virginia Highlands, from Rhododendron Gap near Mt. Rogers

Highlands horsesmother and foal (photo 2) and my buddy (photo 3)     5-31-05

I've really been looking forward to this section of the AT called the "Crest Zone." It includes Virginia's three highest mountains (Mt. Rogers, Whitetop, and Pine Mountain) and the Grayson Highlands State Park.

Friends and hikers I've met on the Trail have been telling me about the great scenery and the feral ponies that roam the Highlands. I was hoping for clear weather to see the views, and lots of ponies, preferably close up.

I got both!

The "high lands" between Mt. Rogers and Grayson are my new second-favorite part of the Appalachian Trail in the 500+ miles I've covered so far (second only to the 70-mile section through the Smokies). If you haven't been here, come see what I'm talking about.

I've already mentioned how much I love the southern balds, especially those that have either been mowed or grazed to keep the views open. Even though the balds are at an elevation between 4,500 feet and 6,500 feet, they remind me of Western mountains that are just above tree-line at a much higher elevation. I love the low shrubs, grass, and sub-alpine looking plants, the inevitable rocks, and the views.

Most of all, the views.

The mountains in this area aren't as high as in the Smokies, but you can see the Smokies from here. In fact, from Pine Mountain it is said you can see four states. I looked, but couldn't tell which was which!

I was in and out of woods and on top of balds the whole first fifteen miles today. Below 4,700 feet are hardwood forests composed of mostly beech and maple trees. Fraser firs and red spruce grow higher up, even at the summits of Whitetop and Mt. Rogers above 5,500 feet. Blueberries and other deciduous and evergreen shrubs are common on the balds.

I started off at Elk Garden at 4,500 feet, starting a 1,000 foot climb up Mt. Rogers through a bald grazed by cattle. The AT doesn't go all the way to the top of Mt. Rogers, but traverses maybe 400 feet below it in open country so the views are better (the top is treed). I was between 4,500 and 5,500 feet the whole first fifteen miles, and every bit of it was very rocky. I had on my newest Hardrocks for the cushioning and grip; they did well and my feet weren't sore afterwards.


I saw my first two hikers soon after passing under the summit of Mt. Rogers at the Thomas Knob shelter. This shelter has to have one of the best views of any on the whole Trail. Getting ready to leave about 9 AM were GQ, a thru-hiker who I met yesterday, and a friend who is hiking with him this summer. They were busy trying to capture a mouse in the shelter, and had lured him into a trap by the time I signed the shelter register. We discussed where to find the "wild" ponies, and I left.

I mentioned in one of my prep pages several months ago that I was hoping to see at least one bear and one feral pony on this adventure run. My bear count is up to three, and my pony count is at about thirty!

I saw the first herd of about fifteen ponies in a valley after I'd climbed the boulders on Wilburn Ridge (below Mt. Rogers). I was disappointed, because they weren't that far from the Trail I'd just hiked (not much running in the first fifteen miles today - 'way too many rocks to run) but I didn't want to waste time going back down to where they were grazing.

So I kept moving forward up and over boulders, through Fatman's Squeeze (very narrow rock walls), admiring the gorgeous views in every direction. I knew it would be a "PR" photo day. I ended up taking 97 photos with my digital camera today!!

I stopped on top of the ridge to eat a harvest muffin and soak in the scenery. Then I spotted another herd of ponies down below. They were very close to the Trail, too. I didn't know if they'd run when I approached, so I walked slowly toward them in hopes they wouldn't rush off before I could get some photos.


As I clamored cautiously over the nasty rocks, all the ponies but one kept on grazing. The fella in the third photo above immediately walked toward me. He quickly became my buddy.

These guys are not only not "wild," they are very tame and friendly. I think a better term for them would be "free" ponies because they forage on their own without being fed. They are fenced in but their territory is very large. I went over and through more fence stiles than I could count today. The fences keep the ponies in their designated areas.

Anyway, My Buddy wanted more than being petted. He wanted food. And when I didn't give him any, he became insistent, starting to lick my arms and legs and nip at me. Meanwhile, I'm trying my best to stay far enough away to take the perfect "head shot" with my camera. I never did get a really good photo of him close up, so the one above will have to do.

Soon a mare and her foal came over (photo #2 above). That surprised me, because I'd heard a hiker say he tried to pet a foal and the mother charged at him. But this mom must have been hopeful she'd get a handout. She wasn't as persistent as My Buddy. Soon she was grazing next to me and her foal was nursing. Moms are good at multi-tasking!

I hated to leave, but had to lose the pony that was starting to nip more than lick my arm. I couldn't move very fast down the rocky trail, so he was able to keep up with me for maybe 200 feet. Then he decided to return to his herd and graze, giving up the idea that I might give him a snack.

I soon came to one of the equestrain trails at the fence on the border of Grayson Highlands State Park. Two men and a boy came by, riding their horses. I climbed the stile over the fence and came to a nice, smooth trail heading into the park - and another herd of ponies! Even though I could run, I chose to walk so I didn't startle them. Several were right on the trail as I walked by, petting each in turn. None of them were as aggressive as My Buddy.


(No, I'm not talking about retired folks who keep the trails maintained!)

These Virginia Highland ponies have proven very successful as "bald maintainers" for the forest service the last thirty years. Sheep, goats, and cattle all have their disadvantages, especially at the higher elevations during the winter. The ponies are rounded up in the fall and given veterinarian exams and shots. The herd is maintained at 125; any more are sold to horse lovers, and the rest are returned to the state park and the Mt. Rogers NRA.

What a great way to keep the balds clear and the tourists happy!

I can heartily recommend all or part of the "Crest" section of Trail for a solo or family vacation, but not for a training run. You're doing yourself a disfavor if you rush through it. Not only do the rocks make it impossible to do any good running, but you'll miss what makes the area so special - the magnificent views and the ponies. Kids would go nuts here, hiking, camping, and making friends with the ponies.

And if you're a kid at heart like me, you'll have a blast, too! I can't wait to return sometime with Jim. Now that we live near Roanoke, it's not that far of a trip. I think the highlands will remind him of some of our training runs in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana and of Yellowstone - without the problems of high altitude.

[Note from 2007:  After completing the AT, I rank this section as "Most Fun" on the whole trek because of the ponies. This past spring I was able to share the fun with Jim and our section-hiking friend from Maine, Eric Rathbun. We saw LOTS of ponies again.]


While I was still in Grayson Highlands SP, three young women and a young man were hiking in the opposite direction. One woman pointed to her shorts, which she'd unzipped from the legs, and said she'd lost one leg. If I found it, could I please put it on her car?

I said, "Sure!" but didn't think to ask her where she was parked or what she was driving! She didn't volunteer the information, either. She sounded pretty frustrated with the loss. I didn't think much of it, and kept going.

Lo and behold, about four miles later I found the pants leg hanging on a tall shrub next to the Trail! I took a photo, then put it in my waist band and ran on. I didn't know where she'd come from, but the next road crossing was about three miles away.

When I got there, I saw two cars. Four hikers were using one and said they didn't know who the other one belonged to. So I tied the pants leg to the antenna and noted that the VA tag was "SCOTTEE."

Sure hope that was her car! I did my best to honor her request. If it's her car, she's gonna be one happy lady. From the feel of the fabric, those were high-end zip-off pants, not moderately priced ones like I have.


Shortly before I got to the third shelter in this section, Old Orchard, the Trail dropped down to about 4,000 feet and became much smoother. I was so happy to be able to RUN again! Although I still had to climb up Iron Mountain, most of the remainder of the Trail was downhill to my end point, Dickey Gap, at 3,313 feet.

The last eight miles of the Trail from VA 603 to Dickey Gap were very interesting, with several creeks and falls. There were some flame azaleas blooming before and after VA 603. Although there were no rhododendrons in bloom at Rhododendron Gap near Mt. Rogers, there were many blooming in the last mile. I felt like Queen for A Day going through the floral arches.

I was surprised there were so few wildflowers in either section today. I didn't see many animals either, except for the ponies.

I was terribly slow the first fifteen miles. The rocks were just awful, I took a gazillion photos, gazed at the scenery a lot, and played with ponies. What a great day! Then I ran a lot the last ten miles, and ended up at our rendezvous point before Jim expected me. That was nice. He worries if I'm very late. It took me 9:20 hours to do this section (told you I'm slow!).

Jim was busy installing a new brake control for the camper (the Binford 3000, he joked). He spent most of the day in Bristol getting the brake pads replaced on the truck (the ones the dealer put on Saturday were after-market duds and were squealing) and in Johnson City getting the brake control for the camper. If it's not one thing, it's another . . .

GQ, the thru-hiker, asked me this morning what Jim does all day while I'm out running/hiking. He assumed he just sits around waiting for me all day. Ha! Poor Jim is always busy with something going wrong or doing  routine chores. He's pretty well decided to withdraw from the Vermont 100 in July because of inadequate training. I'm sorry about that, but he seems less stressed about the situation now. He plans to do a 100 in the fall, probably Arkansas, to qualify to enter Western States.


Sunday, I hit my fourth state and began using the third set of maps and guide books. Progress.

Today, I went over 500 miles and ended my first month on the Trail. Progress.

In a couple of days, I'll hit 544 miles, one-fourth of the total distance to Katahdin. Progress!

I'm gaining a little confidence each day that I'm gonna make it.

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil