Pebble Wrestling With Ponies: Bouldering in Grayson Highlands
About Grayson Highlands
Grayson Highlands State Park is located in southwestern Virginia. As the name suggests, it is way up in the mountains in a secluded section of the Appalachians. This makes it a great escape from the humidity of the mid-Atlantic and heat of southern summers. After speaking with locals, I was lead to believe that they have had snow late in May and as early as the first week in September, but locals tend to exaggerate. From what I understand conditions can be right for bouldering from late March through early November – once it snows heavily, access becomes an issue.
Grayson Highlands is stunning! The peaks are windswept into mountain meadows and balds where wild ponies graze. The views are close to endless and interrupted only by ragged bushes and rocky outcrops, the area is perfect for climbing.
Bouldering at Grayson
The guide book Grayson Highlands Bouldering has nearly 350 problems and Mountain Project lists over a thousand. So there is plenty to keep you busy – I’d say plan an extended stay, however be prepared to sacrifice some skin. The texture of the rock is sharp, which is great and you feel like you can stick to everything, but it will tear your hands up if you're not careful. A word of warning to any gym climbers and first time outdoor adventurers, entry level routes at Grayson Highlands (V0-V1) encompass everything from easy (V0) to harder (V4) gym climbs. You will need to bring your nerve to top-out and climb over some precarious lips. I definitely threw out any sense of style and wriggled my way onto the top of some problems like a beached whale.
Another thing that cannot go without mentioning is how accessible the boulders are. At the Picnic Area you can literally park next to a beautiful outcrop of rock called the Rock House Boulder, which sports a classic V3, Indian Outlaw, a Dyno (jump), and a hero move (you will feel like a badass) V4 called Crazy Horse. Conveniently, many of the park's boulders are within a mile hike of a parking area.
Other Classics to add to the list include: Highland Highball a 20ft V2 at the Horizon Boulder, perfect if you want to feel like you are on top of the world and test your mental fortitude. Periscope, V3 at Contact Station, (there is even a handy little placard, describing the climbs on this boulder) is a nice upward traverse with a variety of holds to suit anybodies style. The last real move being a fun high foot and lock-off combo. Billy Budd, V4 in the Boneyard Area, will help you work your crimp strength working a variety of edges. Horizon Line, V6, bring all your crash pads and all your friends. Flying Spaghetti Monster, V7 at the Picnic Area, may require you (unless you're tall) to stack some pads to reach the start. Try to climb in good style and not have your feet cut every other move.
Getting There, Where to Stay, ETC.
The first thing to say is bring a paper road map! I was 45 minutes out when my phone lost signal and I had to revert to more traditional navigation methods. Some of my friends had spotty signal on other cell carriers, but I still would not count on it. Which leads me to my next point, bring everything you need – There is a country store in the park with all the basics and the Park Office by the Contact Station has some climbing goods (guidebook, chalk, brushes, and rental crash pads!) The next real town, Independence, is a 40 minutes drive and still has limited amenities. Marion is bigger and closer as the crow flies, but the roads snake through the countryside and it will likely take you longer. Oh yeah, if you love to drive and enjoy testing your skill on some corners this whole area of Appalachia is for you (disclaimer, please drive responsibly).
Staying at Grayson essentially means camping, although you can embrace your inner hipster and rent one of their Yurts. Just don’t forget your mustache wax and drinking gourd for your nettle leaf tea. The Park campground is pretty standard, with options for water and electric hookups, along with restrooms and showers, etc. However, if you are feeling adventurous you can hike just outside the bounds of the park on the Appalachian Trail and camp in the wilderness free of charge. Just remember to be ‘bear safe’, even if it is more likely that a pony would come rummaging through your camp for your food.
The mountain people of Appalachia have a certain reputation, and you will possibly come across some folks that look like they have just wandered off the set of a Deliverance sequel. However, my experience with the people in and around Grayson was fantastic. They were welcoming, genuinely friendly, and wanted to share their beautiful corner of the world. And on more than one occasion they went beyond my expectations with their generosity and courtesy. In short, they are good people!
The wild ponies are not the only horses around. The park has an abundance of scenic horse trails and a horse camping area for anyone who likes to ride. Along with riding horses, riding mountain bikes seams like a great way to spend your time in the park. Some of the horse trails looked pretty torn up and would be pretty slow going on a bike. Of course there is an abundance of hiking here, with waterfalls, and no shortage of breathtaking views.