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Destination: Grayson Highlands

Why should you take a trip to Grayson Highlands State Park? Because backpacking for the first time can go one of two ways: you love it, or you hate it.

To actually get out on the trail though, preparation and planning are everything; which means finding awesome ends to justify the lengthy and drawn out means.

For us, preparation and planning meant something that we could do over the course of a weekend, something relatively close to home, and most importantly, rewarding views that would hook Paige on long-distance trekking.

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Sure, there’s plenty in North Carolina, but for a first-timer, my favorite place is Grayson Highlands State Park, just over the Virginia border. At just over two and a half hours away from Charlotte, Grayson Highlands is ideal for the weekend backpacking trip.

Even better?

Wild ponies.

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Remember the whole “ends justify the means” bit? For a backpacking trip in the Southeast, the wild ponies of Grayson Highlands provide the easiest reward for backpackers that may be a little shaky about putting in the miles of a traditional trip. Of course, the ponies are often visited by day-hikers, wandering their way up to the highland meadows to take pictures of the ponies, spend a few minutes taking in the calming aura, and then hurrying back to their cars to get back to civilization before the sun goes down. But for Paige, and any rookie backpacker, the aura around the ponies is a great reward for the distance you put into the weekend.

Drawing loops on the map with the Appalachian Trail and smaller side trails, our route took us up and over ridges, we spent our first night in the Thomas Knob shelter, and we ate breakfast among the glorious colors of the mountain sunrise.

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Our mileage was relatively low for the weekend, intentionally planned to prevent ourselves from taking on too much of a challenge, and Paige killed it. We scorched through our second day to the point that we could finish out our three-day trip by dinner of the second day.

And that’s what solidified the moment. We had just crushed our trip, we hiked out before the weather caught up to us (so no rain on us!), and we were able to see the ponies one more time before we made our way back to the car.

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For the first-time backpacker, Grayson Highlands is the total package. Channeling your inner NatGeo Adventurer, you’ll stand atop mountains and gaze across the highland meadows and their ponies; love for the outdoors literally blooming around you.

We know there are a ton of other great places to take a first-time backpacker, and we’d love to hear your favorite spots! Give us a shout on Twitter and who knows, you may even find us on the trail on your next adventure.