I have gone camping every Memorial Day weekend for as long as I can remember. For Matt and I, it has turned into our annual inaugural camping trip tradition and a great way to kick off the warm weather season of flip flops and bug spray.
This year we decided to make the trek down to Southwestern Virginia and backpack up and around the Mt. Rogers area. Mt. Rogers is the highest peak in Virginia so I was pretty excited to summit and spend the weekend exploring!
Our adventure began on Thursday morning with the 6-hour drive to Grayson Highlands State Park. We stopped for lunch in Harrisonburg, VA where James Madison University is located.
After fueling up on burgers, beer and donuts (don’t judge us) we hopped back in the car and continued toward our campsite. We decided to stay at a campground the first night just to get settled in and organized for the next two days. On Friday morning we would tear down camp, drive a couple miles to the backpacker lot and spend the next two days in the backcountry wilderness. I was glad to have the luxury of a car, running water and real toilets the first night because after that we were on our own!
We grilled out on Thursday night and savored the last ‘real’ meal we would have before a weekend chocked full of dehydrated and packaged foods. After chatting around the campfire and enjoying a couple beers we hit the hay in preparation for an early rise.
We broke camp, headed to the backpackers lot and excitedly set out on the trail! The feeling of anticipation is one of my favorite parts about backpacking and I had been eagerly awaiting this trip for a number of weeks. Matt and I feel most in our element when we are able to escape the city and hit the trails; losing ourselves in nature, campfire stories and the wonderful feeling of pure physical exhaustion at the end of a long and hard trek in the mountains.
This trip did not disappoint.
The weather was warm but not hot and since we knew there would be storms moving through in the early afternoon we wanted to cover some ground before the rain hit.
We were about an hour or two into the hike when ominous clouds started to roll in. We stopped for a quick mid-morning snack and bathroom break before it started raining.
It began to sprinkle but looked as if it would pass quickly so we opted not to pull out all our rain gear just yet. The trail did manage to get fairly slippery and we found our pace slowing a bit as we navigated the rocky trail.
One of my favorite parts of the weekend was seeing all the wild ponies! This is something Grayson Highlands is known for and we saw them periodically throughout the weekend. You’re not supposed to feed or touch them but you can tell people ignore that rule because the ponies will come right up to you expecting to be fed! We were good rule-followers and did not share our granola bars with them 🙂
The storm eventually got the best of us and we were forced to take cover under the pine trees while we donned our rain jackets and pack covers. The rain was coming down pretty heavy at this point and the trail quickly turned to a river. We pushed onward until we reached the Thomas Knob shelter on the Appalachian Trail where we were greeted with a dry place to wait out the storm and plenty of AT thru-hikers to keep us company! This was another one of my favorite parts of the weekend as we had the wonderful opportunity to hear some incredible stories and get to know our fellow hikers.
The rain eventually let up so we bid farewell and good luck to the thru-hikers and carried on Southbound to the summit of Mt. Rogers.
One would think that highest peak in Virginia would have an incredible view of the mountains, rolling valleys and lush forests but it’s actually very anticlimactic! The peak is surrounded by a thick canopy of Fraser fir pines and nestled at the top of the forest. The only way you know it’s the summit is by a small plaque tucked into the side of a boulder.
And of course by the hikers doing their best wonder women poses!
After we reached the top we decided to hike back down and start looking for a trail to set up camp for the night. We knew we had about 3-4 miles of additional hiking to go before we could set up camp but I swear it felt like we hiked 12 miles before we finally found somewhere to set up. My feet were on fire and the first day of backpacking always kicks my butt! When we first set out on the trail, Matt and I were laughing because we hadn’t even gone a mile and our hips were already screaming at us from the weight of the packs. Nothing makes you feel more out of shape than when you need to stop for a breather and you can still see the parking lot!
Throughout the day we kept running into two hikers from North Carolina out for the weekend, similar to us. We saw them at the summit of Mt. Rogers and they mentioned the route they were planning on going – opposite of us – which is why we were surprised to see them when we came off the mountain and hiked a mile out to a clearing in the forest. They were poring over their map and seemed equally as surprised to see us! When they realized they were turned around, Matt helped them figure out their route while I rested my back and played with the two pups that were accompanying them on their trek. After everyone got their bearings we said our farewells and trekked onward.
We managed to find a beautiful clearing in the woods, perfectly secluded from the trail and only 1/4 mile from a stream. We immediately got to work setting up camp and cooking dinner – we were starving!
We use a JetBoil as our backpacking stove and it works great. Dinner our first night consisted of mac & cheese with chicken – something we would usually never eat but definitely hit the spot on the trail! After cleaning up from dinner I boiled some water and we treated ourselves to bourbon spiked chai tea and a couple brownies I had packed in.
We headed to the stream to refill our bottles and I picked up some rocks from the river to ice my foot with. I had originally packed an emergency ice pack but ended up giving it to a young girl on the trail who had sprained her ankle. Cold river rocks work really well, if you’re in a pinch!
This is the part where I tell you how hard we slept that night because we were so exhausted and drained from the wet and sloppy day we had hiking in the mountains. But then I would be lying! The next 8-9 hours were spent rolling around trying to get comfortable, staring at the tent ceiling and listening to the deer crunching around outside. I think I slept a total of 2 hours and Matt wasn’t much better off! Amazingly enough, we woke up full of energy and only slightly sore. The body is truly an amazing machine.
We fueled up on coffee (imperative) and oatmeal then hit the dirt for our second day! We knew the weather was supposed to be amazing and we were hoping to log some miles before the trails got too busy.
Although it was much hotter than Friday we were blessed with amazing weather and some breathtaking views along the way.
We decided to follow a horse trail around the side of the mountain because the elevation gain was slightly less steep than the hiking trail. What we didn’t factor in was how much the horses had destroyed the trail because of all the rain from Friday. We were making great time until we reached this stretch and ended up slowing down considerably in order to poke our way through the muddy mess.
We finally came out of the forest and crested the mountain where we were met with dry land and a shady spot to have lunch.
We intentionally planned to hike less on Saturday so that we could set up camp early and have some time to relax and read, nap, journal, play cards, etc. We also knew it would be busy on Saturday (it was Memorial Day weekend) so we wanted to make sure we got a good spot!
We planned to hike within a couple miles of the car and set up camp for the night so that we would have a quick and short walk to the parking lot on Sunday morning. Apparently we were not the only ones with that idea and although we originally had an empty campsite it was soon teeming with other hikers looking to set up camp for the evening. We didn’t mind at all and actually welcomed the familiar noises and company. One couple who set up near us was hammock camping – has anyone ever tried that? I’ve read about it in Backpacker’s Magazine and have seen it online but hadn’t actually seen it in action yet. It was interesting! It took the couple quite some time to set up their hammocks so that they were correctly positioned under the tarp (which was wise, since it rained that night) but once they got set up it looked comfortable and fun! Would you ever try hammock camping in lieu of a tent?
We were in a section of forest that allowed open air fires after 4:00 PM so we took full advantage and relaxed around the campfire. For dinner our second night I packed a ziplock bag with rice, curry seasonings, roasted cashews and chicken that we cooked on the JetBoil for about 20 minutes – it was such a treat! I will definitely be making that recipe again for our next backpacking trip.
I had secretly put a candle in my pack because Matt’s birthday was in a couple of days! The remaining brownies and bourbon spiked chai provided a laid back celebration and Matt was so surprised when I turned around singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with a lit candle! It was the perfect way to cap off our refreshing weekend.
Nature showed off one last time as the sun set on our final day.
We watched the beautiful colors change from pink to orange with streaks of blue and purple stretched across the sky before eventually turning in for the night. It began to rain around 11:00 PM but we had our rain fly up and stayed warm and dry in the tent. We slept soundly and woke up with the dawn around 5:30 AM. We quickly packed up our wet belongings, said goodbye to the fellow hikers who were also awake and headed out toward the car.
As we neared the parking lot I was filled with conflicting emotions. I was so excited for a shower and hot meal but was also sad to leave behind the adventure. I reminisced about the weekend and felt grateful for the limits my body pushed beyond, my seasoned trail veteran and supportive husband, and for the beautiful earth God has blessed us with. With the inaugural camping trip behind us we headed out to find bacon and showers. Happy trails!