The wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park have reached near infamy-levels of fame in recent years. It’s mostly to do with just how easy it is to find them. But before you head out on your own adventure to find these beautiful ponies there are a few things you need to know.
What are the wild ponies in this park?
A few decades ago two herds of wild ponies were introduced to sections of the Appalachian Trail as natural lawn mowers. One herd was placed inside Grayson Highlands State Park while the other was placed outside the park on national forest property. The goal was simple: introduce these animals to the wild as a means of keeping the vegetation low along the bald mountains.
The wild ponies of the Appalachian Trail are one of the most iconic features of the 2,100+ mile national scenic trail. Previous thru-hikers will often return to the state park for a chance to see these beautiful animals again.
What do I do when I see a wild pony?
These ponies are meant to be wild and they need to stay that way. Touching them and petting them develops a sense of familiarity with human contact. Feeding them conditions dependency and increases expectations. Riding them…well really just how stupid can you be?
The wild ponies are meant to be seen from a distance to truly enjoy them and protect both yourself and the ponies. When the ponies are fed they will begin approaching humans more frequently and that can lead to problems. Can you imagine what might happen if a wild pony approached an eight-year-old expecting food?
Here are a few reminders about what to do when you see a wild pony in the park or on the Appalachian Trail:
- Stay back 150’. If they are standing on the trail, go around. If they approach you, back away. Some sections of the trail are very narrow so it may not be possible to keep a distance at all times, but try your best.
- Ignore the wild ponies. I was camping near the Thomas Knob Shelter once when three wild ponies trotted through my campsite. They smelled the food I was cooking. I couldn’t exactly pack up and leave so I ignored them.
- Do not touch or pet the wild ponies.
- Do not feed the ponies. This also includes leaving scraps of food on the trail. You may think it is biodegradable and will be gone soon, but it could also end up being eaten by a wild pony and conditioning that response.
- Do not ride the wild ponies. Do I really need to say any more about this?
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Finding the Wild Ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park
The easiest way to see the wild ponies is through Grayson Highlands State Park. Park at the Massie Gap Parking Lot to begin the adventure. If you plan to spend the night camping on the AT outside the park use the Overnight Backpacker’s Lot.
The 0.3-mile Rhododendron Trail climbs a small hill beginning at Massie Gap. It’s a steady climb to the top but not too strenuous at all. I have seen the wild ponies on this section of the trail in the past.
At the top of the hill the trail combines with the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail and crosses the Appalachian Trail. It’s a large, expansive area. I’ve only seen the wild ponies here a few times in the past.
Finding the Wild Ponies on the Appalachian Trail
Facing away from Massie Gap turn left to head south on the Appalachian Trail. After about a 0.5-mile hike you’ll reach the boundary of Grayson Highlands State Park. Use the gate to pass through and continue along the AT.
The AT ascends the first of three knobs along a ridge. The first knob is the most difficult to climb across rocks and boulders, sometimes going for yards before your feet touch dirt again.
In between the first and second knobs is a small gap. I have seen the wild ponies grazing and snoozing in this area in the past. It’s a good place to see them because you can keep a distance.
Continue past the second knob to an even larger opening. This is my favorite place on the ridge to see the wild ponies, though it’s hit-or-miss at times. I frequently take a seat on one of the boulders above the field and watch the wild ponies meander through.
About one mile beyond this point is my favorite campsite in the area. The Appalachian Trail passes through the edge of a dense forest. There are a few campsites carved out of the trees and set up with logs and fire rings from previous campers long ago.
After hiking along the AT from near Marion to this site one time I was exhausted. The sun had already gone down and I had only just set up my tent. I quickly made dinner in my portable backpacker stove.
I heard a large rustle in the woods. I looked up just in time to see three wild ponies slowly trot out of the woods and into my campsite. They smelled my food. I couldn’t exactly keep a distance at this point so I just ignored them. One of the ponies got so close I had to stand up and move, with my stove, to keep him for trampling me. But shortly after I finished my meal they ponies moved on. This is why you don’t feed the wild ponies.
Things to Do at Grayson Highlands State Park
There is a reason Grayson Highlands State Park is my favorite state park in the country. There is so much to do! Seeing the wild ponies is a great day hike adventure but it won’t take more than a couple of hours. What else can you do while in the park?
Take a walk through the Homestead at the Picnic Area. Several old log homes have been moved here and reassembled, including an enormous barn. The 1.25-mile Rock House Ridge Trail begins and ends in the picnic area.
Wilson Creek Trail
My favorite hiking trail in the park! The 1.76-mile Wilson Creek Trail begins near the Country Store in the campground. The trail descends to Wilson Creek and follows upstream for about half a mile along a series of cascading waterfalls and shallow swimming holes.
Cabin Creek Trail
The 1.51-mile Cabin Creek Trail begins near the Massie Gap Parking Lot. The casual trail descends to a series of waterfalls deep in the forest.
Buzzard Rock Overlook
Looking for a great view without the need to hike a few miles? Drive to the very top of the park at the Visitor Center and walk out to the Buzzard Rock Overlook. This wooden observation deck hangs off the side of the mountain with breathtaking views looking south from the park.
Getting to Grayson Highlands State Park
There are four ways to get to Grayson Highlands State Park. Each route requires a drive along a windy, curvy two-lane road at some point. Here are the options and things to consider for each route.
I-81 in Abingdon
Take Exit 19 on I-81 in Abingdon and turn toward Damascus. The 38-mile drive takes a little over an hour from here. At first US Highway 58 is a four-lane divided highway but that ends before Damascus. After that the road becomes curvy leading to the park’s entrance. This is my favorite way to reach the park because it is a beautiful drive.
I-81 in Chilhowie
This route has the fewest curves and shortest distance to travel. Take Exit 35 in Chilhowie and turn away from the town onto Whitetop Road. The 28-mile drive continues through Elk Garden, a gap on the Appalachian Trail between Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain. Turn onto US Highway 58 to reach the park’s entrance.
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I-81 in Marion
Take Exit 45 onto Highway 16 toward Sugar Grove. The 32-mile drive takes about forty-five minutes. When you pass through that small community be sure to wave; this is my hometown. The drive on the two-lane Highway 16 is beautiful without many curves. Turn onto US Highway 58 to begin the curvy part during a long climb to the park’s entrance.
I-77 in Hillsville
This is the longest route option but depending on where you are coming from may be the preferred option. Take Exit 14 and turn onto US Highway 58 toward Galax. The 50-mile drive is a four-lane divided highway just beyond Galax, becoming a two-lane road near Independence. It’s a fairly straight road until a sharp turn and climb to the park’s entrance.