In the early 1970s, while living in Chesterfield County, I often came to hike and camp in the Nelson County area. One of my favorite spots was Crabtree Falls, when it was still pristine and didn’t have much foot traffic.
From the bottom of the falls, hiking to the summit was a rather “hand over fist” venture. There were no formal walkways like today, just a rough footpath that switched back and forth up the mountain. If I didn’t want to hoof it up from the bottom, I’d drive the truck to Crabtree Meadows via the steep and rocky 4-wheel drive road, park, and walk down Crabtree Creek where it began its cascade over the falls. I remember camping along the creek close to a huge rock at the top with a natural back rest carved into the stone where I sat and drank my morning coffee and watched the sun come up. It was like being on the top of the world.
It wasn’t until moving here that I became interested in the history of what was labeled back then as “the best kept secret in Virginia.”
Crabtree Falls is the highest vertical-drop cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River. It has a series of five major cascades, the tallest of which drops about 400 feet, and a number of smaller ones that fall a distance of 1,200 feet. It is located off Route 56 in the George Washington National Forest in Nelson County and is in the domain of the Glenwood and Pedlar Ranger Districts of the United States Forest Service.
Leonard A. Snead, former U.S. Assistant Fuel Administrator (WWI), environmentalist and notable Nelsonian, spearheaded negotiations to secure land surrounding Crabtree Falls after it was almost developed as a resort area in the 1960s. Using personal and Congressional funds, the land deals were completed and the deeds transferred by L. A. Snead on June 3, 1968, to the National Forest System. This one act assured for future generations this magnificent Nelson County treasure.
In 1980 a scenic hiking trail was built for easier walking and the trail was reconstructed in 1988. The Crabtree Falls Trail is 2.9 miles from bottom to top and the first of four overlooks is easily accessible at approximately 0.1 mile up the trail. Comfortable hiking boots are recommended. Peak season for viewing the waterfalls is from winter through spring when the water is high but views are excellent throughout the year. Envelopes are on site for the small fee charged for parking.
A word of caution for hikers is to always stay on the maintained trail and resist the urge to step out on the rocks for a better photo. The rocks are covered with deceptively clear, slippery algae that have led to the deaths of 30 people since the Forest Service began keeping records in 1982.
The name of the falls is thought to have come from a Rev. William Crabtree, who settled in this part of Virginia in the late 1700s.
Della Snead Fitzgerald, who grew up in the nearby village of Montebello, said her great-grandparents, Achilles Washington Fitzgerald (1844-1917) and his wife Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Fitzgerald (1833-1924) lived in a house that overlooked the falls. Della found their home to be a curiosity, being able to watch the water plunge down over the steep rocks from the front porch.
Betsy’s grandfather, Bartlett Hawkins Fitzgerald, was a Revolutionary War patriot who had been granted these surrounding acres on the Tye River for service to his country.
The Fitzgeralds raised ten children in a one-room log cabin and farmed the rocky ground for their family and animals’ sustenance. Achilles also made and sold roofing shingles, barrels and buckets.
Achilles and Betsy are buried in a small enclosed graveyard at the foot of the Falls, along with two of their children, Mary who died in infancy and Mary E. who died at five years of age. There are two grave markers visible at the beginning of the trail and the inscription on Achilles’ reads; “To him we trust/ a place is given/ among the saints/ with Christ in heaven.”
Although living in the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains wasn’t an easy life for these early settlers, they steadfastly clung to the land that sustained them physically, knowing in their hearts they wouldn’t be happy anywhere else on earth. If you plan to hike Crabtree, tread lightly and respectfully on the sacred ground of these hearty pioneers.