Grayson County is a nature lover's paradise. Situated in the mountains of the southwest corner of the state on the North Carolina border, this mecca for hikers, mountain bikers, anglers and paddlers is made up of more than 40 percent parkland and includes the longest portion of the New River in Virginia, miles and miles of cycling and hiking trails, the Appalachian Trail — and it's home to Mount Rogers, the highest point in the state at 5,729 feet.
There are wild ponies everywhere on the hike to the summit of Mount Rogers. The 7.8-mile out-and-back trek begins in Grayson Highlands State Park on a path labeled the Rhododendron Trail. There aren't any rhododendrons, but the track cuts across fields and open pastures where the horses graze. There's a sign at the beginning of the trail that advises visitors not to molest the ponies. The equines in question must not be able to read, as some are eager to mingle with hikers and receive the occasional pat on the neck or scratch behind an ear. The trailhead starts at approximately 4,000 feet, high above the forested peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and there's no need to stop at a scenic overlook because the hike itself is one long panorama. The blue-blazed Rhododendron Trail connects to the white-blazed Appalachian Trail (AT), which crosses several rock outcroppings and moves through a natural-rock tunnel before reaching a spur to the summit of Mount Rogers. The half-mile spur, located a few hundred yards past a hiker's shelter, leads into dense forest, and the peak itself offers no views. A rock cairn and a brass marker affixed to a boulder indicate the summit. After rejoining the AT, the return trip is even more breathtaking as a cascading series of green mountain ridges are laid out at your feet — truly spectacular!
There are numerous campgrounds in the county. But why sleep on the ground if you don't have to? When enjoying the great outdoors all day, nothing beats coming back in the evening to a hot shower, luxurious accommodations and a sumptuous bed. The Davis-Bourne Inn (276-773-9384 or davisbourneinn.com ), in Independence, is the ideal spot for people who realize that you don't have to sleep in a tent to appreciate nature. This restored 1865 Victorian mansion features four well-appointed rooms (all with private bathrooms), a large wraparound porch, a stately living room and breakfast daily. On-site massage service is also available, and innkeeper Taphne Taylor can help arrange any of myriad outdoor activities.
Conveniently located within the Davis-Bourne Inn (can't get more convenient than that), the Journey's End Restaurant offers a fine-dining experience at affordable prices. The menu includes gourmet delights such as filet mignon, fresh North American salmon, and a crusted chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and roasted red peppers. Traditional favorites like spaghetti with meatballs and meatloaf are also available, as is a chef-created vegetarian special. Dinner is served Thursday through Saturday nights, and there's also a Sunday brunch. For a bit of Mexican fare, try La Casita's (276-773-3077), also in Independence.
The New River is inappropriately named, as it's one of the oldest in the world. The north-flowing waterway, which begins in North Carolina, is renowned for Class V whitewater in West Virginia's New River Gorge. The sections in Grayson County offer a little of something for everyone — long flatwater stretches, some easy Class I and Class II rapids, and even a few sections of Class III whitewater. Blue Cat on the New (276-766-3729 or bluecatonthenew.com ), in Fries (pronounced "freeze"), provides canoe and kayak rentals, as well as paddling instruction, guide service and fishing trips. For the most fun, try one of the sit-on-top kayaks — they track straight, turn with ease, glide through the rapids and are much easier to get back into, or rather on top of, than a regular kayak or canoe should you flip in one of the rapids or, better yet, jump off for a swim.
If you love biking but are sick of all of that tiresome pedaling, then the Virginia Creeper Trail is for you. Following a "rail to trail" path, the 17-mile section from Whitetop to Damascus is all downhill. It's just plain fun and seems more like an amusement-park ride than mountain biking. Zoom carefree through the woods, across wooden trestles with scenic overlooks and past waterfalls and old train stations. There's a bit of pedaling needed at a flat section as the trail arrives in Damascus — oh well, nothing is perfect. And the ride can be a bit muddy in spots. Numerous outfitters offer bike rentals and shuttle service, but Adventure Damascus (276-475-6262 or adventuredamascus.com ) also supplies showers for riders to clean up at their Damascus store.