The second day of the trip was the money day. Several miles of unfettered views on top of the balds of Mt. Rogers NRA along Wilburn Ridge. Add to it that it was a very comfortable day and the fall color was pretty good, it was definitely one of my best hiking days in the east up to this point in my hiking career.
Just after the start of the hike, before reaching Rhododendron Gap, I spotted my first pony of the trip. These ponies have been relocated to the ridge tops of the area to help maintain the balds and the vistas they provide. This pony was white and brown, and didn’t pay much attention to me. I named him “Pete”.
After the AT turns onto Wilburn Ridge at the gap and Pine Mountain Trail, there is a large rock outcropping which spoke to me to climb and enjoy the excellent views.
From the top of the rocks, I noticed another, brown pony along the Pine Mountain Trail just below. This looked like it could be pregnant, so I named it “Mama”. Even more interesting is that when I looked down to where I dropped my pack, Pete was inspecting my gear!
Upon returning to my pack, Pete only moved a few feet away. When I rejoined the trail, Pete and Mama were hanging out together, and I said goodbye to the only two ponies I would see on the trip.
As the trail continues on Wilburn Ridge, the views continued to be phenomenal all the way to Grayson Highlands State Park. Numerous other rock outcroppings required me to climb them and take breaks, which resulted in me really taking my time along this stretch.
It is also around this point where you start running into day hikers from Grayson, which persists for the next couple miles. As I looked down the valley to the northeast, the fall color was started to present itself well.
Once I reached Grayson Highlands, I took the spur trail down to Massie Gap (and the toilet facilities!), which is highly recommended for an excellent view down the valley to the southwest. I wouldn’t doubt the peaks in the left background are the Roan Highlands.
After leaving Grayson and back on the AT, it is only a short while before you leave Wilburn Ridge and head back down into the forest. Thus, given the last portion of the Day 1 hike and the hike so far today, there is about 5 miles of the trail that provides continuous, excellent views. Along this part I ran into a couple other serious backpackers doing a section of the AT. Soon, I reached the Wise Shelter and stopped to have lunch. After a bit beyond, the trail starts to climb again and go over Stone and Pine Mountains, reaching the point known as The Scales, a road-accessible (by off-road vehicles) area that used to be a cattle weighing station. There is a camping area and restrooms, and a wide open area that provides one last vista.
After a short break, I headed up the AT for my final destination, the Old Orchard Shelter. After an initial climb, the trail retreats downhill the rest of the way through a forest with frequent rhododendrons. I ran into my first SOBO AT hikers. I reached the shelter around 4:30pm, fairly tired. The GPS indicated less than 1,500′ elevation gain, but it sure felt like a lot more to me.
The area around Old Orchard is really nice with a big field for tent camping (which I did that night). Additionally, at this time of the year, the field was ringed with trees displaying excellent orange and yellow colors, and lit on fire as the sun descended behind for an awesome light show that evening. The night was warmer than previous, but it did rain a bit.
GPS Track Day 2 10.7 miles and 1435′ elevation gain (but it felt like there were more ups and downs than that!).