Destination: Grayson Highlands

posted by dpm on 11/21/2013

By: Dan Brayack

I never really understood what it was like to be part of developing an area.  As I grew up bouldering, I’d buy the guidebook to the area, follow directions utilizing established trails, then try to connect the dots between already chalked holds.  My pads were arranged on the perfectly level, cleared landings.  It never occurred to me that the boulders didn’t just come that way, already in the perfect gym state.  Developing an area does not merely consist of walking up to the boulder and climbing the obvious lines of holds.  Development encompasses plenty of hiking, tons of cleaning, and lots of trail work.  Witnessing the process with Aaron Parlier at Grayson Highlands in western Virginia, I’ve seen the hard work and dedication that goes into transforming a bunch of boulders in the forest into a well-documented, easily accessible bouldering destination.

Grayson Highlands State Park is an outstanding high elevation bouldering area in the western Virginia panhandle.  An interesting and common theme at Grayson is that the rock tends to form giant ‘blades’ that stick precariously out of the lightly forested hillsides around the mountain, which makes up the park.  These blades vary from steep to REALLY steep (30 to 60 degree overhangs) and are sparsely featured making spectacularly difficult, agro lines with gymnastic moves between small incut edges. 

The rock at Grayson is similar to the well-traveled stone of nearby Boone, North Carolina.  It’s a sharpish, high-friction, metamorphic, medium-hard, mudstone.  At first glance, the rock seems to be featureless.  Upon closer inspection, small incut edges, subtle slopers and occasional pockets form unique and often difficult lines.

Diverging from the Boone rock, the rock at Grayson is littered with ‘drop-stones’ which are essentially cobbles, though a geologist could probably tell you the difference.  The drop-stones are here and there but rarely exposed enough to make a jug or even a good hold.  More often, these drop-stones provide a slick crimp edge, or a topout knob, providing just enough of an undulation to paw while exiting a problem.  Due to the rock texture, skin is a precious commodity at Grayson.  The sharpness of the holds, coupled with the aggressive nature of the climbing does not allow too many consecutive days of bouldering. 

The better know “Highlands” area at Grayson is completely different from the forested “blades” that sprout out of the lower elevation forest.  Located above the tree line on the windswept bald, a grassy and rhododendron-shrubbed meadow, the rock is polished and scantly featured.  The bouldering here is good, but not as gymnastic as the rest of the forest.  The problems tend to be technical, balance-oriented and crimpy.  Though the climbing is more awkward, the scenery itself is worth the hike.  Bouldering in such a beautiful and atypical landscape is incredible.  With the wind and the high elevation, the Highlands area is the best summer climbing destination at Grayson.  An added benefit to this area are the wild but friendly ponies that wander the grassy meadows.  Though they are friendly, the park asks that you do not molest them.  (Seriously, there’s a sign that says not to molest them.)

Past development at Grayson had been rampant though for the most part reticent.  North Carolina climbers, mostly from Boone, including Steve Pope, Sean Barb, Jim Horton, James Litz, Eddie Blackledge, Travis Tweed and Joey Srail, applied their quiet development ethics to Grayson and many strong climbers came and went leaving little evidence of their achievements.  The “Litz” area saw the completion of many difficult lines in the V-double-digit range and these problems still stand as some of the most difficult lines established.

Long-time Boone boulderer Jim Horton reminisced on a winter trip to Grayson.  The gate was closed so he walked into the Listening Rock Trail, a nearly five mile hike each way with a 1000 foot elevation gain.   “That kind of sucked,” Jim mentioned.  He went on to complement, “Grayson is pretty unique in the variety of rock that exists there.  Not to mention how drastically your surroundings change from area to area.  It’s a truly beautiful and varied climbing destination.”

Exposure has exploded as Blacksburg boulderer Aaron Parlier has taken a systematic approach to establishing Grayson Highlands as a bouldering destination.  Though many lines have already been established in the easy-to-access areas, Aaron has been hiking the park, searching the many hundreds of boulders for classic and worthwhile lines.  More importantly, Aaron has approached the park managers and in conjunction with them, has established bouldering as a legitimate and sanctioned activity.

For the past several years, Aaron has been documenting the bouldering at Grayson which he will be compiling in the “Grayson Highlands Bouldering” guidebook.  The cut-off number for the first edition of the guidebook is 600 problems, though the forest has the potential to yield at least four times that much. 

Grayson has a reputation for having a bunch of lowballs.  There are a lot of lowballs at Grayson, but a significant portion of the established problems at Grayson are highballs – some of which are really high and delightfully scary.  One thing that the problems have in common at Grayson is that they all climb well and are fun.  A traveling climber quoted, “Wow.  Even the shitty problems at Grayson are good problems!” 

One of the downfalls of Grayson for the typical pseudo-athletic, non-adventurist boulderer is the approach.  The park is a giant mountain with steep, treacherous hillsides.  Though the boulders at Grayson are vast, a lot of them are quite far from the available parking.  Fortunately, most of the boulders in the park tend to cluster into large enough concentrations to warrant an entire day of bouldering.  A handful of problem-dense areas have short enough approaches for convenient area hopping.

Be sure to add Grayson Highlands to your bouldering bucket list.  Stick a few sick crimps, dyno for a drop stone and make sure you molest a pony or two (just kidding.)  You’ll find that Grayson is definitely a worthy and unique bouldering destination.


Trip beta:

Location: Grayson Highlands in western Virginia.  About 1 hour from Wytheville, Virginia.  Follow directions to Volney, Virgina, then take Rt 58 west to the park entrance.

Time of Year: Late Spring to Early Fall (Good summer destination.)

Park Entry: $3 per car per day on weekends, weekdays are $2.

Camping: In the park, nice sites!  $15 per site.

Park website: http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/gra.shtml

Guidebook: Grayson Highlands Bouldering by Aaron Parlier: Spring/Summer 2012.

Ed's Note: The above article was published in Issue 18 of Deadpoint Magazine. Since the publication of the article, Aaron Parlier's guidebook has been released and is available for purchase online at Brayack Media. It offers excellent directions, trip beta, and tons of glossy action shots. Below are some sample pages from the book.