Campground Review: A Tale of Two Parks

After planning our trip to Bear Creek Lake State Park for Kairi’s birthday over the summer, I realized we had a pattern of unique adventure trip for our birthdays. We went to the desert for Sebastian’s, the beach for Billy’s, and a lake for Kairi’s. So I announced that I wanted to go to the mountains for mine. It’s been awhile since we’ve had an October camping trip and we were due, and after winning the VSP Get Outdoors photo contest over the summer, we had credit to use for a stay at a VA State Park.

We debated the state parks in southwestern Virginia, but I settled on Grayson Highlands. I’ve heard so much about it, mostly from AT thru-hiker stories, and once Billy discovered there were ponies he was all in. Plus it’s equidistant from Chattanooga to Richmond, so we could work it into a trip we already had planned to go back home.

With the stress of moving, this trip has been the light at the end of a very winding tunnel. Back to the Blue Ridge. Back to the mountains that have my heart. A three night camping trip with all four of us. I started watching the weather a month out, and we were excited about chilly nights and truly fall weather.

And then…a week before our trip, Hurricane Michael started forming. At the time, we had no way of knowing just how devastating the hurricane would end up being, but we did know that the rain was going to stretch as far north as Virginia, and would be hitting at least by the end of our trip.

We were not deterred. We weren’t deterred even on the day we left, when the forecast had changed to show rain for the entirety of our trip. Billy and I are no strangers to camping in the rain, and I had been looking forward to this trip for far too long to cancel on account of weather.

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When we were still saying cheers to camping! No matter the weather!

We got to Grayson Highlands State Park around 6 on Tuesday night. We’d had off and on rain since the Virginia border, but when we got there we only had cooler temps, and the coolest, creepiest October fog we could have asked for. We set up camp, failed to get a campfire going, and shared a bag of freeze-dried Pad Thai for dinner, and sleep came fairly easily for all four of us.

The rain came sometime during the night. I woke up a couple of times and heard what could have been rain, or could have been water droplets blowing off the trees, but by the time Sebastian woke me up at 6, there was no doubt. It was still a gentle rain, however, and we were dry in the tent. I zipped the kids into their Oakiwear suits and we took a short, wet walk around the campground while Billy slept in, tried to visit the (closed) camp store, and all the while the rain continued to fall. After Billy got up, the debate started: did we tough it out, knowing we were going to be in the rain the entire time…or did we see if a cabin or yurt was available, even if it meant going to a different park?

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So. Much. Rain.

Our decision: delay our decision and go for a short hike and see if the ponies were out in the weather.

The hike itself is not something I feel like I can write about. We left from the Massie’s Gap parking lot and started on the Rhododendron Trail, but by this point it was raining in earnest, and we couldn’t see much except the trail.

Which is not to say it wasn’t still fun. We didn’t see any ponies–I heard one twice, but between the rain and the fog our visibility was limited, and my glasses were so spattered with water that I was mostly just guessing when it came to any pictures I was taking. What little we could see was more than enough to convince me that this place is incredible, however. As with the Smokies, hiking among coniferous trees was such a treat, and the wide stretches of fog promised that when it’s wide stretches of open skies the views can’t be beat. We turned back after about half a mile, once Billy and I were starting to get wet through our rain gear, and Sebastian’s nose and fingers were starting to turn into little pink icicles. Without mentioning it out loud, we both knew our answer: we were leaving.

We rushed through breaking down camp, and headed into part two of our trip: a two bedroom cabin at Hungry Mother State Park.

I’ve never stayed in a VSP cabin before. I’ve considered stopping at Hungry Mother more times than I can count, on the long drive from Richmond to my mom’s house in Tennessee, but with their nightly price roughly that of a hotel, we always opted for a place closer to the interstate, with continental breakfast the next morning. However, when I won the contest this summer, I mentally planned to use the credit on a cabin at some point, and this seemed like as good a time as any.

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Friends. It. Was. Amazing. The only cabin left when we got there was a two bedroom (we could have gotten a yurt, but…we were soaked. And cold. And just wanted to cozy up by a fire). The cabins are modern, with electricity, a bathroom, and a small kitchen. One of our bedrooms had two sets of bunk beds, and the other had a queen bed, and the living room had ample seating and a fireplace. We didn’t get much of a chance to use the outdoor space, but our cabin (Cabin #10) had a covered porch with two rocking chairs, a raised, uncovered deck with a picnic table, a charcoal picnic grill, and a fire ring. We didn’t have much of a view, or hardly any privacy–although the cabins were still spaced further apart than tent sites typically are.

We stayed so warm and cozy. We were able to turn the heat on immediately, dry our clothes and gear out by draping them over everything, and we watched the rain fall heavier and heavier through our windows, all the while congratulating ourselves on being humble enough to abandon our original plans.

And then, our hike. I’d heard of Molly’s Knob, but knew very little about it, other than it was supposed to have great views. The rain was supposed to let up Thursday afternoon and I said I wanted to give it a shot, but at 3.6 miles round trip, and rated as the most difficult hike in the park, Billy was skeptical about our ability to do it with such a late start. And I almost listened to him–we still didn’t know the full extent of how powerful Michael had become due to a promise that we would severely limit our phone usage on this trip–but our hike started with rain, going the wrong way out of the cabins loop, more rain, taking a “shortcut” that turned out to not be a shortcut at all, and more rain. This was the only time I lost it on this trip, as we finally stood at the trailhead almost an hour after we first set out, and it was still raining. Kairi, bless her amazing, compassionate heart, tried to comfort me; “I’m sorry mommy. Sometimes it just rains, and that’s just the weather and we just have to wait for it to stop.” And when your five year old is talking you down from a temper tantrum, you kind of have to listen. So off we went.

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Cold and windy, about half a mile up the trail.

The rain stopped before we got to the first intersection, at .4 miles into the trail.

The sun came out before we’d gone another mile.

And the summit. The summit.

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This view, though.

If I could take every person I know on this hike, I would. The difficulty rating was not overstated; while most of it is fairly moderate, the last leg of the trail has an elevation gain of almost 400 feet in the last .4 miles–this was made even more difficult by the rain from the week, but the views at the top were just incredible. There are a couple of benches at the top (the result of an Eagle Scout project), and we got to them just before sunset. Even knowing we’d end up walking back in the dark, we let Kairi talk us into pulling out our snacks for a picnic because it was just too beautiful–and too glorious having actual sunlight on our skin–not to.

The hike backtracks to return to the trailhead, and we treated ourselves to wine, hot cocoa, and a blazing fire on our return, and woke up to bright sun and blue skies the next morning.

I told everyone the next day, that while wasn’t the trip we had planned, it was still perfect. Kairi talks about it as two separate trips, and she’s not wrong–we really got two trips in one. Tent camping with a rainy, foggy hike, and cabin camping with incredible sunset views.

I never expected to miss Virginia State Parks as much as I do, but I do. If you are in Virginia, seriously–check one out. From mountains to seashore, there’s a park for you, and you won’t be disappointed.

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