Posts Tagged ‘Grayson Highlands State Park’

Ponies of the Grayson Highlands

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Otto Solberg

herd of ponies in the snow

Ponies were introduced to the Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers area of Southwest Virginia in the 1970s. Since then, they have become a popular attraction. This image was also a Flora and Fauna Finalist in the 11th Annual Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition. Photo by Sharon Canter

Mare and foal

This mare and her foal were grazing at Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands. Photo by Martin Seelig of Catchlight Gallery

After just a few miles of walking through Grayson Highlands State Park, hikers can meet herds of wild ponies who are generally unconcerned by human presence. The rhododendron along the lower-elevation trails soon clears, giving way to the open grassy balds that characterize the Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The balds reveal stunning views of the Southwest Virginia mountains, and upon a closer look, hikers can spot more white and brown ponies grazing between the rock outcroppings on nearby ridges.

“I would bet that 50 percent of the people that come there, come for the ponies,” says Elizabeth Wegmann, a landscaper and animal photographer who hikes the area several times a month, learning the ways of the estimated 100 ponies that call these mountains home.

“[The Grayson highlands ponies] have 1,500 acres of contained area that they can roam in the state park,” says Teresa Tibbs, the office manager at Grayson Highlands State Park. In the neighboring national recreation area, the ponies are also contained in a fenced area of over 3,500 acres, according to Rebecca Robbins with the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.

The ponies maintain the mountain balds by eating grasses and small shrubs.These open grasslands are not natural, but were cleared and used as farmland before the area became park lands. The ponies have not caused overgrazing issues, in Wegmann’s opinion, and in 2012, longhorn cattle were also added to the Mount Rogers area to help graze the balds during the warmer months.

The cattle are removed in the winter while the ponies stay and forage for food through the snow. Wegmann has observed that winter weather decreases the herds’ activity because they stay near various water sources, but harsh winters can force the ponies to spread out from their herds in search of food.

Troubles with Treats

headshot of pony with blonde mane

The ponies at Mount Rogers and Grayson Highlands graze the area despite the winter snow. Photo by Michael Speed

Pony Facts

  • The parks are home to 10-15 herds of varying size.
  • Mares breed once a year.
  • Like horses, ponies’ lifespans range from 8 to 20 years.
  • These ponies reach 10 to 12 hands tall, or approximately 40 to 48 inches high.
  • Despite their size difference, the ponies get along with cattle.
  • Signs in the park urge visitors not to feed the ponies, but Tibbs says the park has issues “continuously.” Dependence on handouts of human food can cause serious health and behavioral problems for the ponies.

    Ponies lack the ability to vomit, so human food can also cause health issues such as choking. Also, too much sugar can cause a disease known as laminitis, which causes the ponies to have sore and sometimes diseased hooves. When bad enough, the pain can severely debilitate the ponies. Without the ability to walk, the ponies will starve to death.

    Despite this danger, the wild ponies have grown accustomed to being fed by hikers, and will approach visitors without fear.

    “When you hand-feed a wild animal, you create a pattern that exists long after you leave,” says Wegmann. “You’re doing a disservice to the animal, and anyone that comes after you, by making them a beggar and a nuisance.”

    According to Tibbs, eating human food can make the ponies seem aggressive “because they know that people are going to feed them something, and that causes problems.”

    “They are wild ponies,” Tibbs says, “and they do bite.”

    Before the Grayson Highlands became a state park in 1965, the mountains were covered in farmland grazed by cattle and a few ponies. In 1974, Bill Pugh and another pony owner brought 20 ponies to the park to maintain the grassy balds that were no longer being grazed.

    foal and flower

    Some foals on the Grayson Highlands are rounded up every fall and offered for auction in order to maintain a healthy herd size. Photo by Elizabeth Wegmann

    The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association

    According to Tibbs, the ponies “were introduced as a resource management initiative.”

    In 1975, the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association was formed as a nonprofit organization to purchase the free-roaming ponies from Pugh.

    Although none of the original ponies are alive, the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association still maintains ownership of the mostly wild herds. Throughout the year, members ride horses through the park to check on the ponies and set out salt and worming blocks. Salt blocks give necessary minerals, while the worming blocks prevent worms that can cause intestinal issues.

    The association also holds a round-up every fall to check the health of the herds and to separate the foals for auction.

    Rounding up male foals is part of the association’s agreement with the national forest and state park to keep a healthy number of ponies in the herds. As the males grow into stallions they split away from their mothers, creating more herds, but of smaller sizes which aren’t as safe. The association’s members create round-up corrals with a V-shaped fence that allows the ponies to enter, but not escape. Similar to a lobster trap, this method allows the association to humanely separate the foals from the herd without hurting them.

    pony in snow

    A pony chews on foraged grass on a snowy day. Photo by Michael Speed

    Both male and female foals that have been rounded up are then sold at auction to individual owners, ranging in price from $35 to nearly $1,000. Foals from the park’s celebrity stallion, “Fabio,” are often the most desired for their long blonde manes.

    The ponies of Grayson Highlands and the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area not only provide a necessary resource to maintain the open mountain balds, but also draw tourism to the park.

    Although the ponies live wild on mountains with limited assistance from the Wildburn Ridge Pony Association, they have grown unafraid of human hikers. Their curious personalities give visitors a unique experience as they enjoy the immense views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

    trail sign with pony

    Trail signs — and a pony — at Grayson Highlands. Photo by Elizabeth Wegmann

    In search of the ponies

    To plan a trip to the Grayson Highlands, Wegmann suggests a good map such as the National Geographic maps that can be purchased at the park’s ranger station.

    For the best chance of finding the wild ponies, Wegmann recommends starting south on the Appalachian Trail towards Mount Rogers. The ridge offers a wide view to spot ponies. For more specific directions, contact Wegmann on Facebook @graysonhighlandsponies, or call the Grayson Highlands State Park office at (276) 579-7092.

    Climbing the Highlands

    Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by molly

    From the Ground Up

    Julia Statler completes a challenging climb called “Wall Street” in the Picnic Area of Grayson Highlands. Photo by Dan Brayack

    Julia Statler completes a challenging climb called “Wall Street” in the Picnic Area of Grayson Highlands. Photo by Dan Brayack

    By Elizabeth E. Payne

    Throughout Appalachia, roadways, trails and mountainsides are dotted with rocky outcrops that are as distinctive to the region as the rhododendron and mountain laurel that surround them. While many people may think that these rocks would be fun to climb, few have the skill to actually do it.

    For decades, these rocky formations have attracted the attention of those that do.

    Three styles of climbing are particularly popular in the highlands. The first is bouldering, in which a climber remains relatively near the ground while traversing established routes using no more equipment than their climbing shoes and a bag of chalk. And because the climber is rarely more than 18 feet off the ground, no ropes or safety harnesses are used. Instead, a landing pad and spotters protect against injury in the event of a fall.

    The other two styles dominate in areas with cliff faces rather than boulder fields. In both, climbers use rope and safety harnesses secured to anchors positioned in the rock along the route, which protects them from falling to the ground. In sport climbing, the anchors are permanently fixed, and in traditional climbing, climbers place their own anchors as they climb.

    Appalachia offers climbers challenging routes in beautiful settings, and the region’s geology invites climbers of all styles and abilities. And in return, the sport of climbing provides an opportunity for economic development for areas around these rock formations.

    Building New Routes and Partnerships

    At Grayson Highlands State Park, located in Grayson County in Southwest Virginia, climbers have access to over 1,000 established boulder routes and work in partnership with the park’s rangers and staff to maintain the area.

    In large part, this is the result of one man’s hard work and love of climbing.

    Aaron Parlier is focused on the “Eye of the Narwal,” one of many climbs along the Listening Rock Trail at Grayson Highlands. Photo by Sarene Cullen

    Aaron Parlier is focused on the “Eye of the Narwal,” one of many climbs along the Listening Rock Trail at Grayson Highlands. Photo by Sarene Cullen

    Aaron Parlier now lives in Boone, N.C., where he co-founded the Center 45 Climbing and Fitness gym, but he is a native of Southwest Virginia who spent years collaborating with park rangers and staff to develop the boulder fields of Grayson Highlands into a popular destination for climbers.

    As a young child, Parlier was introduced to climbing by his uncle, and his love of the sport was so strong that he built a small climbing wall in Afghanistan while serving with the U.S. Army — the wall was later destroyed by Taliban forces. After his deployment, he returned to Appalachia eager to get back outside and climb on rocks.

    Grayson Highlands quickly drew his attention because it had so many large boulders that no one seemed to be climbing. As Parlier explored the park’s rock formations, his uncle again provided encouragement, prompting him to keep records of the routes he climbed. Several years later, that bit of encouragement developed into Parlier’s published guidebook of 349 climbs at Grayson Highlands.

    But more than documenting existing climbs, Parlier also worked to establish new routes and to design and build trails that sustainably provided access to them. This work was done during the three summers he served with the AmeriCorps State Park Interpretive Program.
    Parlier has also studied plants and geology in order to be a responsible steward of the areas where he develops climbs. So, when an endangered flower, the Roan Mountain bluet, was unexpectedly discovered on a single rock face at Grayson, that boulder was immediately closed to climbers.

    Through his collaboration with park staff, Parlier was able to expand access for climbers, while limiting their environmental impact on the park by only designating routes where no fragile species would be affected and by building and maintaining access trails. Each Memorial Day weekend he organizes volunteers to maintain the trails he designed.

    “Land Shark” is a short climb on a boulder in the Moonlight Area of Grayson, and Sheila Rahim is tackling it with style. Photo by Dan Brayack

    “Land Shark” is a short climb on a boulder in the Moonlight Area of Grayson, and Sheila Rahim is tackling it with style. Photo by Dan Brayack

    Now, Grayson Highlands regularly attracts climbers from across the nation, and it is increasingly popular with international climbers, too.
    Parlier credits the success of the project to the park’s staff, who are always available and have welcomed this collaboration with the climbing community. “The boulders are there,” he says. “So, it’s basically just facilitating access to the boulders, by means of a trail. As long as there’s folks there that can help allow it and manage the impact — in terms of travel and plant life — it can be a really great equilibrium.”

    Cashing in on Climbing

    Another popular climbing destination is the Red River Gorge, located near Slade in eastern Kentucky. Nestled in the Daniel Boone National Forest, this area is best known for its majestic cliff faces, which attract rope climbers. A few bouldering routes can be found there as well.
    According to an Eastern Kentucky University study released in March, climbers visiting the Red River Gorge contribute $3.6 million annually to the economies of the six Kentucky counties along this geologic feature — Estill, Lee, Menifee, Owsley, Powell and Wolfe counties, some of which are among the poorest in the country.

    The Access Fund, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand access to climbing areas, co-sponsored the study and voiced support for the findings. “Climbing is an economic boon for communities across the country,” Zachary Lesch-Huie, southeast regional director for Access Fund, said in a press release. “Especially in economically distressed regions like southeastern Kentucky, it’s critical that [stakeholders] review this study and recognize the benefits climbing and other forms of outdoor recreation bring to local businesses and families. Responsibly opening more climbing areas on public land can help support a strong, sustainable and growing outdoor tourism economy.”

    The town of Norton, Va., is also poised to expand its economic base by attracting climbers to the region. A strong supporter of climbing in Norton is Brad Mathisen, who is working with forest service staff in the Jefferson National Forest to carefully develop both rope climbing and bouldering routes in the Guest River Gorge.

    Mathisen, who grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio, now calls Southwest Virginia home and has been a climber for about ten years. In addition to potentially bringing economic opportunities to the region, he sees climbing as a way to change opinions about how the region’s natural resources are used.

    Regional Climbing Areas

    For more information about these and other places to climb, visit


    There are many popular places to climb in and around the city of Chattanooga, Tenn. For bouldering, try Little Rock City and Rocktown. For rope climbing, try Foster Falls. And if it rains, the city also offers several indoor gyms. Visit

    Hidden Valley

    This popular rope climbing area near Abingdon, Va., is once again accessible to climbers. Two years ago, the Access Fund and Carolina Climbers Coalition purchased 21 acres of prime terrain in order to preserve access for everyone. Visit

    New River Gorge

    The National Parks Service boasts that there are more than 1,400 established climbing routes along the New River Gorge National River. These steep cliff faces near Fayetteville, W.Va., are not for beginners, but will reward the more experienced climber. Visit

    Red River Gorge

    The Red River Gorge is located in eastern Kentucky within the Daniel Boone National Forest. This gorge is particularly popular for its rope climbing, but there is also some bouldering. Both guides and guidebooks are available. Visit

    Rumbling Bald

    Now part of Chimney Rock State Park, these boulders near Asheville, N.C., are particularly popular during the fall and winter months. With expanding access and parking areas, the spot offers bouldering, rope climbing across skill levels. Visit

    Recently, when discussing his climbing gear with a curious bystander, the man noticed Mathisen didn’t have an accent and asked him why he wanted to live in Norton. “I was able to say that really, as a climber, the climbing resources around here are amazing. And having the Guest River Gorge 15 minutes from our house, I love living here,” Mathisen says. “[Climbing] does provide unique opportunities to … open people’s mind maybe to different ways of using the natural resources that exist here.”

    Norton town officials are particularly eager to develop bouldering at the Flag Rock Recreational Area, following an agreement to expand access reached by the city of Norton, the Access Fund and the Southwest Virginia Climbers Coalition, which was founded by Mathisen and Parlier in 2014. “We think tourism is a great opportunity, not only for the city but for the region,” Norton City Manager Fred Ramey told the Bristol Herald Courier in February 2015. “We think opportunities like this can be part of the whole tourism component.”

    Gaining and Losing Access

    When developing climbing in any area, securing access to the boulders can require a delicate dance between climbers, landowners and federal and state agencies. But perhaps nowhere in Appalachia has access defined the character of a climbing community as much as in Boone, N.C.
    During the 1990s, climbers lost access to some of that area’s most popular climbing spots, either when they were put off limits out of environmental concern or when they were destroyed by bulldozers to make room for residential developments.

    According to Parlier, this history has left its mark on the local climbing community, which continues to be fiercely protective of the areas where they can climb. He believes that no guidebook exists for the Boone area out of concern that an influx of visitors could damage the climbing areas and result in more lost access. With more maintained trails, adequate parking to accommodate the larger numbers, and additional rangers and staff to help manage the public lands, the situation may eventually change.

    But for climbers serious enough to explore the available climbing through word-of-mouth and personal networks, the area has a lot to offer.
    “The climbing [around Boone] is fantastic,” says Dawn Davis, a college student who transferred to Appalachian State University because of the area’s climbing. “When I moved here I didn’t know anybody, not even one person, and I made so many friends through climbing, so many wonderful friends.”

    Like most climbers, Davis frequently climbs in gyms, but she says there’s something special about climbing outside. “When you climb outside, and you’re working really hard on something, you can have so many stressors in your life,” she says. “But as soon as you get on the rock, they all go away, and all you can think about is the next move or getting on top of [the boulder].”

    Davis is not alone in finding pleasure in the challenge of the rocks. Climbers come to Appalachia from around the country, and around the world, to explore the highlands one boulder at a time.

    From the Archives: Stewards of the Rock

    The sport of bouldering was also covered in our Sept./Oct. 2010 issue, with a focus on expanding access to rocks and limiting the environmental impact to the area. Read this story and more at

    A Story of Perseverence

    Tuesday, April 16th, 2013 - posted by interns

    Hiker Overcomes Medical Condition to Complete Final Leg of AT

    By Molly Moore

    Ken Bordwell (right) and his occasional hiking companion, Joe Shelton, on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. Bordwell’s advice to fellow hikers is simple. “Enjoy it!” he says. “I think everybody wants to do it a little too fast and would have more fun if they slow down a little and not expect so much of themselves. It’s hard work.” Photo by Mindy Wallace

    Exploring the mountains wasn’t a part of Kenneth Bordwell’s childhood in Dayton, Ohio. His father read news clippings about Grandma Gatewood, a remarkable woman from southeast Ohio who hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine three times, but Bordwell didn’t step foot on the fabled path himself until his honeymoon.

    During that Smoky Mountains vacation in 1965, he covered a mere 2.5 miles of the 2,200-mile trail. That was all it took to draw him back. While on a return trip several years later, he picked up a book documenting a thru-hiker’s adventure. After that, Bordwell started traversing the renowned trail in earnest, section by section.

    “There’s something about the Appalachian Trail — when you get the bug you’ve got the bug,” says Bordwell, who now lives in Cincinnati. “Appalachia’s the same way. It’s lovely country, from one end to the other.”

    He tackled the trail intermittently throughout the years, beginning with the southern portions. Bordwell’s favorite section is somewhere in those central and southern latitudes — he says it’s either Tennessee’s Laurel Falls, or the Mt. Rogers area of southwest Virginia. Or it could be the commonwealth’s Grayson Highlands State Park, or the Nantahala range in western North Carolina. Or maybe it’s the Smokies.

    His ambitions hit a speed bump when he went to the hospital for back pain in 2008 and an X-ray of his spine incidentally uncovered a life-threatening weakness in the wall of his aorta, the body’s main artery. An estimated 1.2 million Americans have this condition, known as abdominal aortic aneurysm. If the aorta wall fails, the consequences are often fatal, particularly for men like Bordwell who are over 60.
    At the time, doctors said operating would be premature and risky. Instead, they monitored his aorta every six months while Bordwell pushed onward, following the trail along the East Coast’s spine.

    Three years later, his condition had developed into a bulge that was close to rupturing. He was presented with a choice: go through surgery to replace the aorta, or try a new treatment where a stent is inserted into the artery near the thigh, threaded up to the troubled area, and expanded to seal the aorta.

    He went with the latter, scheduling the procedure for December so as to not interfere with peak hiking season. At that point, he was 100 miles shy of completing his goal.

    Bordwell acknowledges that the ensuing days and weeks were “a little rough.” Six weeks after the stent was inserted, however, he was fit enough to resume stacking firewood.

    That spring, he strapped on his backpack and returned to the landmark trail’s northern reaches. On Aug. 24, 2012, at 70 years old, Bordwell completed the Appalachian Trail.

    With that goal accomplished, Bordwell is ready for a change of pace. His next adventures will also be on long-distance trails, but this time he’s taking a bicycle.