The scenery is beautiful in Southwest Virginia's high country during the wintertime.
It’s January, and the temperature at Grayson Highlands State Park hovers around 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Yes, it really does get that cold in Virginia, and it’s nothing to mess with. But winter is also beautiful in the extreme environment of Southwest Virginia’s high country.
Up on the mountainside, above the big sign warning hikers of the changeable weather, wild ponies that inhabit the park nibble at the ground, searching under the snow for something to graze on.
Their backs dusted with snow and their manes and tails speckled with ice, they move slowly - until humans approach and one well-fed animal starts nudging at their pockets.
Some of the ponies have gotten good at begging for snacks - evidence that some park visitors have ignored the general advice of wildlife officials not to feed the animals.
Despite the cold and snow and sometimes hazardous winter weather, the windswept winter landscapes of Grayson Highlands remain a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts from around the region, said Theresa Tibbs, office manager at Grayson Highlands State Park.
"A lot of people still come to see the ponies in the wintertime," said Tibbs. "They come to test out their winter equipment... We have cross-country skiers that come up here, snow-shoers, and... our open hunting areas."
The herd of wild ponies is just one of the attractions of the park; it also adjoins Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, which is popular among backpackers and hunters, Tibbs said.
Both the state park and national recreation area draw photographers, eager to capture the rare images of snowy mountaintops, ice-coated twigs and wizened trees silhouetted against the gray of blowing snow.
One benefit of visiting Grayson Highlands in winter is that it’s less crowded than other times, and some day hikers visit to hike the peaks of what’s been called the rooftop of Virginia. The state’s two highest mountains - Mt. Rogers and Whitetop - are both accessible from Grayson Highlands, and both are close to 6,000 feet.
Some days are pleasant in the mountains, with temperatures in the 20s and 30s - warm enough for a sweater or light jacket with the exertion of hiking the hills. It may even get warm enough to melt snow, but no one should be deceived by a clear blue sunny sky; a storm or a fog can blow in with little warning, and even day hikers should come prepared for the elements.
If you’re planning an outing to Grayson Highlands in the winter, it’s a good idea to check the forecast and be prepared for the possibility of snow on the roads, even if there isn’t snow in the lower elevations.
If you are hiking with a group - particularly if the group includes young children - it’s important to stay together; it can be easy for individuals to get lost, particularly when following the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail in the snow. And always remember to bring a trail map, which can be purchased from outfitters in the area.
For detailed information about Grayson Highlands State Park, look online at the state’s website: http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/gra.shtml.