Earlier this summer I put together a trip through the Cumberland Region of Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina with the sole purpose of visiting Grayson Highlands State Park. Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, with scenic views of alpine like peaks more than 5,000 feet high, Grayson Highlands majestic beauty, gives more notable National Parks out west a good run for their money. The area adjacent to the park also happens to be home to the highest peak in the state of Virginia, Mount Rogers.
Map | Listening Rock Trail Map
On our first hike here, we trekked over to Split Rock, near the main entrance to the park. That trail led into a woodland valley, on the base of Haw Orchard Mountain, to a boulder field containing the famed water boulder that is split in half. Just on the other side of the mountain is another hiking staple of the Grayson Highlands trail system. You can’t visit this park and not hike to Listening Rock.
Much like our previous hike, Listening Rock was first put on the map as the best bouldering area within Grayson Highlands. Its boulder covered hillside, with its exposed craggy rocks, make it an ideal place for bouldering and scrambling. The most famous of these is of course, Listening Rock, which juts out over the side of the mountain, some 900 feet above the Highlands Valley.
To get here, drive over to the visitors center, near the summit of Haw Orchard Mountain. The Listening Rock Loop has two entrances, with the first one being near the bottom of the immediate parking area. Its second entrance is beside the Buzzard Rock Overlook picnic area. As it was early in the morning, we had the luck of having the whole area to ourselves, and with the lot being empty, we parked right beside the trailhead in the solo parking area, beginning our journey from there.
From here, the first 0.18 mile was a straight hike down a stone filled creek bed. I’m not going to lie, it was hell on my feet, making me wish I had taller, laced boots to help with ankle roll. The trail smooths out as it follows the mountainside under a dense canopy of beech and red oak.
Being in this woodland is like entering a whole other world. With the trees being limbed up high, enough sunlight penetrates into the forest floor to allow carpets of wildflowers to bloom en masse. We eventually reached a fork in the trail, with a small dirt path leading to a rustic set of stone steps. Climbing the steps and stepping out from within the forest, we found ourselves on top of a cliff, overlooking a gorgeous mountain vista.
This is Listening Rock. This rock got its name from farmers who came here to locate grazing cattle by listening for their bells. From here we could easily see the backbone of Fees Ridge and the peak of Bluff Mountain, some dozens of miles away.
For the daredevil in your group, this pinnacle continues down through the trees and can easily be reached with a little scrambling. The dense brush hides the fact that there are steep drops in every direction, so use your best judgement and practice common sense.
Leaving Listening Rock, we began the gradual climb back up towards Buzzard Rock Overlook. From here on out, you’re entering one of Grayson Highlands famed bouldering fields. The stones are so massive in some areas, that they create small caves and rock shelters often used by wildlife. Just as I happen to look down to check my gear, I stumbled onto a black bears hind paw print. Its small size appeared to belong to a small cub, and wherever there are cubs, theres a ferocious mama nearby.
A few weeks ago, on a hike through Tennessee's Big South Fork, we scared a pair of black bears rummaging through food some fifty feet away from us. On high alert, with another 0.75 miles of trail to cover alongside dimly lit caves, we began our usual high pitched banter to warn any nearby bears of our approach. These boulders are so well known that some even have their own names. Tigerside, Beastmaker, and Escape from Alcatraz are three of the most classic problems, or specific routes for bouldering, found here.
One of the pioneers in Grayson Highlands climbing revival is Virginia native, Aaron Parlier. As Parlier explored the parks rock formations, he began keeping records of the routes he climbed, eventually culminating into a published guidebook, 349 Climbs At Grayson Highlands. Over the years, he and park staff have been able to collaborate on establishing new routes while designing and building trails that sustainably provide access to them.
There are many small overlooks throughout this area that can be reached via tiny paths in between the large boulders. While wandering through the boulders you might even find some of the small caves hidden in this area.
Even when you think you’ve seen the best views from a craggy outcropping, nothing prepares you for the wide open vistas of Buzzard Rock Overlook. On a clear day, you can peer over mountain valleys and farmland stretching all the way into North Carolina. The name Buzzard Rock, originated from the English settlers whom noted that the turkey vultures nesting on these rocks reminded them of the buzzard hawks of their homeland.
From the overlook, you can spot these birds diving in and out of the valley, before braking off for the stone outcroppings all around. If you decide you need to brake off from hiking, this is a great place to do it. This picnic area is a welcome respite from the days searing sun rays. Just up the hill from here is the Visitors Center. There you’ll find facilities and snacks in the gift shop.
Stay tuned for our next hike up to Little Pinnacle, the tallest point in Grayson Highlands. Even though the Twin Pinnacles Trail can be reached from the Visitors Center, we’ll be driving over to Massie Gap and starting from there. This trail climbs up to the summit of Haw Orchard Mountain, also known as Big Pinnacle, then continuing to the peak of Little Pinnacle, at an elevation of 5089 feet. This is one of the most strenuous, yet rewarding hikes at the park and I can’t wait to share it with you all!