Wilburn Ridge Hike in Damascus, VA
29.10.2011 - 29.10.2011
It was a beautiful fall day in East TN last weekend.....the forecast called for bright sunshine and 60 degree temps. It sounded like a perfect day to squeeze in a fall hike before all the leaves were lost.
We piled up in Whiskey Alpha (my name for our plane, whose tail number ends in WA), and headed up to Abingdon, VA…one of our favorite fall day trips. We love Abingdon because of it’s historic small town charm. Founded in 1778, Abingdon is nestled in the Virginia Highlands, historic Abingdon includes a tree lined Main Street dotted with 19th century homes, brick sidewalks, and a wonderful assortment of galleries and shops.
There are wonderful places to visit like the Arts Depot, where you can watch artists creating in their studios and purchase something to take home, or the Abingdon Olive Oil Company with 32 varieties of oil from all over the world, or my favorite, Vagabond Traders, a small women’s boutique filled with an eclectic and colorful selection of clothes and jewelry.
Abingdon is also home to the Barter Theater and the Martha Washington Inn, countless B&Bs, and some great little restaurants like Wild Flour bakery or the Tavern. Housed in the oldest building in town, the Tavern has been standing since 1779 and serves up hearty steak and potato fare underneath a moss covered roof.
If you venture off Main Street, you’ll find White’s Mill, where they still grind flour, the Abingdon Winery, and the 34 mile Creeper Trail – a really amazing bike ride from White Top Mountain all the way into downtown Abingdon.
The morning we arrived was cold and foggy. I double checked the forecast, realizing that I had checked the Knoxville forecast….but hadn’t really looked at the Abingdon forecast. It wasn’t that far away, I didn’t think there would be much of a difference. The chill in the air and the lightly falling snowflakes told me otherwise.
Weather.com told me that the sun would be shining by 1:00 p.m. so we took advantage of the foggy morning to grab some coffee and muffins at Zazzy’z and spent the morning taking in the shops.
Around noon, we headed toward Damascus and the Grayson Highlands State Park, where we planned to do the Wilburn Ridge Trail. On the way, we stopped in at Wild Flour Bakery for thick homemade sandwiches made on their fresh bread. As we drove toward the park, the sky broke and the sun made it’s way into the sky. It looked like a beautiful day for a hike.
The drive to Grayson Highlands was slow because it was a 40 mile drive on a curving, winding, hilly 2 lane road through the mountains. The air was crisp and clear and the fall leaves waved in a beautiful showing of color.
As we climbed higher and higher, however, we saw something wholly unexpected.
Snow. Lots of it. And ice.
It was like the world had been draped in lace and crystals and it took our breath away.
When we arrived at the trailhead, we realized this hike would be very different than we expected. Rather than a sunny trail filled with waving autumn grasses and gently falling maple leaves, we had found ourselves embarking on a journey through a winter wonderland, with the warm sun on our faces.
This sign marked the entry to the trail. Seriously? Exactly what more could I expect? Everything was already covered in ice and snow. What else could there be? A blizzard? Maybe an epic snowstorm complete with screaming Yetis and falling trees? Maybe the earth would just crack open and swallow us whole?
As we started up the AT Spur Trail that led to the Wilburn Ridge Trail, a part of the Appalachian Trail, I was speechless. The forest had that softness that only happens when things are covered with snow. The world was silent and muffled, even our footsteps silenced by the soft blanket beneath our feet.
The only sound to be heard was the tinkling of a million glass bells as the wind blew the ice covered leaves and branches…..the song of nature’s wind chimes singing up and down the hillside.
Ice and snow covered branches created beautiful tunnels that we made our way through, with bright green patches of moss and fresh fall grasses peeking up from below. The sun dappled in through the treetops, creating prisms from the icy trees…dancing in rainbow colors before us.
It was absolutely magical.
Eventually the AT Spur Trail reached a junction and we found ourselves walking down a flat, long, wide path stretching through a high alpine meadow referred to as the Balds.
That’s when we saw these guys.
The wild ponies of Grayson Highlands.
Can there be better wildlife on a hike than little wild ponies?
Introduced to the area in the 1970’s these ponies are allowed to roam free and are wild, if you consider walking up to passing hikers and sticking their noses in their pockets wild.
They followed us like big dogs part of the way up the trail, eventually giving up when things started to get steep again.
The views had opened up as the trail began to climb again, over rocky outcroppings with views of distant mountains and valleys.
We got as far as this sign…..
Seriously…the state of that sign would convince anyone to just turn around.
The wind was picking up, the sun was going down, and the trail became a rock scramble that was covered with ice. We realized we had gone as far as was prudent. We took in the vast views one last time and vowed to come back when the trail was more passable and maybe even do some camping.
I had to come back. I needed to see those ponies again.
The views on the return hike to the parking lot seemed even more magnificent as the sun began to set, illuminating the ice covered branches so that the fields before us looked like God’s jewelry box, laid out in all it’s finery. Treasure glittered in the sunlight and enchanted us all the way back to our car.
I think we had only been able to do about 6 miles of the 10 mile hike, but every step was simply breathtaking. The fresh cold air, the sun on my face, the soft fur of the ponies beneath my fingertips, the crunch of the snow under my boots, and the tinkling of the ice covered branches filled me with that eternal longing for wide open spaces and fresh air.
But, winter is coming. I can feel her cold damp fingers inching slowly up my spine. Her wicked breath is seeping beneath my closed door. She is relentless and she will soon arrive.
While I wait for her to bid farewell, I will dream of grassy highlands and wild ponies with streaks of sunlight dancing between the dappled leaves and I will return to this place when spring has spread her warm hands across the mountain and the fields are covered with wildflowers and I will dance with flowers in my hair and breathe in the fresh air once again.