For my 38th birthday my boys asked me what I wanted and it only took me a few seconds to say "I want to go backpacking at Grayson Highlands State Park"
With only a few days to go, I booked hotel stays (for before and after the hike), planned our meals, purchased a few last things and packed our bags.
But with thunderstorms in the forecast and my husband spraining his ankle the night before, I almost cancelled the trip.
I texted a friend about my worries and she replied "You don't know, this might be the best trip of your life" and I thought to myself "Damn, I want to find out if it's the best trip of my life" and so we left... I made back up plans just in case we couldn't hike due to thunderstorms but we (minus my injured husband) decided to go anyways.
We stayed the night before our hike in the small town of Abingdon Virginia. Definitely a place I would like to go back one day. Very charming town and the kids and I ate at the Bone Fire Smokehouse and decided that this was one of the best meals we had in a very long time. If you ever go, you have to try the Cornbread Fritters.... yum! You will thank me later!
We set our alarm at 5:30 am for the next day (my birthday). We quickly checked out of the hotel and made the one hour drive to Grayson Highlands State Park.
We registered as backpackers, checked the weather forecast one more time at the Ranger station (50% chance for a thunderstorm in the afternoon) and left on our hike.
I think Jake (my oldest) was still hoping for our plans to be cancelled because of thunderstorms but he strapped his backpack on anyways without complaining.
A few friends asked what the boys each carried in their backpacks. Each boy carried his sleeping bag, sleeping pad and water. In addition to this Jake carried most of our clothes (rain gear/ thermal pants and a long sleeve shirt) and I carried my sleeping bag/ pad, tent, food and cooking gear. I nicknamed my bag The Beast because it was sooooo heavy!
We decided on a 12-13 mile loop that uses mostly the Appalachian Trail. We brought a water filter with us because the map indicated 4 water springs to fill our bottles along the way. To make it easier on the boys I divided our trail into small sections and we would only concentrate on making it to one section at the time. For example our first longer stop was the Wise Shelter (about 3 miles in) We ate lunch there, played UNO and hung out for a good 2 hours. In between I broke up the trail in miles... for every mile we hiked I had a small zip lock bag for the boys with a few candies. They looked forward to treat (and break) and the little bit of sugar gave them the boost to conquer the next mile!
At about 6pm we looked for a campsite and found a wonderful one the top of the ridge with gorgeous views and a spring only a short hike near by.
We were surprised to run into so many steers grazing on the ridge and they all seemed to be very curious about our tent. We found out quickly though that they left us mostly alone and were no thread whatsoever (though they looked scary with their long horns).
We made a quick dinner with the jet boil (Ramen noodles for Finn and I and mac n cheese for Jake). The boys were asleep by 7:30pm and I enjoyed the rest of my birthday sitting outside of the tent with a tiny bottle of Fig Vodka I got from a friend and watched the sunset and wild ponies. It was truly amazing!
I joined the boys at about 10pm and even though I went to sleep quickly, I woke up soon after to one of the scariest nights of my life. Even though we lucked out with the weather during the day at night was a raging storm. The wind and rain was just unbelievable. I was just waiting for our little tents poles to snap. At some points the wind was so hard (AND loud) that the top of the tent was pushed all the way down on top of us just to spring back up a second later and back down. That night I slept from 6am to about 7am. It was a very long night and I was extremely worried. We had no cell phone reception, no one near us and only this little tent that was keeping us safe and dry.
After we woke up, and we assessed what was going on outside (extreme fog, a little windy still but all over really eerie). We ate breakfast in the tent (UGH I wish I could get my kids to eat oatmeal on camping trips!) pop tarts, a few powdered donuts (that I brought as a surprise) and some granola bars. Finn and I hiked down to the spring and filtered some water while Jake stayed behind and packed up everything inside the tent. We packed up the tent quickly even though it was still wet and left for our hike. We had about 5 1/2 miles left to hike.
The first 1 1/2 mile was rough. I tried to stay positive but inside I just wanted to cry. Almost no sleep, the trail just went uphill on loose gravel and it was still foggy and a little windy out. Every time we went around a bend the trail just kept continuing up, and up and up. We finally made it 1 1/2 miles to the fork in the trail and we decided to take a break. Our tanks were on empty and we just felt defeated. This is where things changed. We sat on a rock in the middle of this intersection of 4 trails. We haven't seen anyone since about 5pm the evening before. After resting a few minutes on this rock (in still heavy fog) this couple stepped out from another trail who we met the day before. We were all excited to see each other (it also made me feel a bit safer) and we swapped stories from our crazy night. This seemed to really lighten the kids mood a bit. Soon after that yet another hiker stepped out in the middle of the trail (who is hiking a large section of the Appalachian Trail) and he was so good at encouraging and motivating the boys. (It all seemed a little staged like a play with characters stepping in and out of the stage). They all left and we packed up our bags again and decided that we all feel much better and we can continue on! I walked about 3 steps when I heard from deep inside my backpack a familiar BING! My phone!!! We didn't have reception since we left the hotel the morning before and no way of letting my husband know of how we are doing! We quickly got the phone out and (what seemed) a million birthday greetings popped up on my screen but we ignored them and dialed my husbands number. It was soooo good to talk to him and tell him about all of our adventures. He gave the boys and I the last little boost we needed to know that YES we can do this! Hearing his voice was just what we needed.
We kept going, the trail changed from loose gravel to boulders and got a lot more interesting. The fog lifted and the sun came out (and with that our rain gear went back into our packs) and we slowly started to come across more and more people. We still took many breaks, saw a lot more wild ponies. Had an amazing lunch under a tree and we knew we would be back to our car soon!
At about 2:30pm we finally arrived at our car! We were so excited! I promised the kids a bottle of Mountain Dew (hey whatever it takes to keep them moving), we got that from the Ranger station and off we went to our hotel about an hour away in Wythesville Virginia. I was so jealous of the kids being able to doze off and listen to their I pods while I still had to drive.
Before we left Cincinnati, I bought a bag of Epsom salt to soak in. So at the hotel we all took turns taking a long hot bath soaking our sore muscles! We were extremely proud of ourselves and talked about future backpacking adventures!
A few other things that happened on the trail that I didn't mention but want to remember are:
After dinner, sitting outside of the tent, cuddling Finn before he went to sleep he says to me: You know, out of 600 moms you are probably the only one to take us on such a crazy and cool adventure.
When we first came across the cattle of steer we had to hike through them. Finn and Jake counted over 40 steer and we were super nervous. We all held hands and took a deep breath and marched right through them.
Sitting outside of the shelter and playing UNO when we heard this loud neigh from a horse right behind us! It scared us so hard we almost fell over laughing!
Finn arguing that the white animal far in the distance is not a steer (or bull) but a pony. He got so mad at us but then all of a sudden his facial expression dramatically changed when he realized it was indeed a steer and he has about 40 friends with him.
Meeting the dog Skylar and her owner telling us that she doesn't want to hike anymore (Just like my kids). we had a good snuggle with her for a while!
We hiked 13 miles in 2 days. Highest elevation was around 5,600 feet. Check out the video we made below:
and to answer my own question from the top of this post... yes this was one of the best trips I ever taken in my life!