Summer Splash: Nearby Waterfalls Enchant

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White Rock Falls is named for the many quartz rock veins and outcroppings along the route. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Few things in life are as soothing, cooling, and refreshing on a hot summer’s day as a waterfall, whether sitting close by to watch the spray mist glistening in the sun as it splashes down the rocks, or—better yet—swimming in the mountain pool at the bottom. We are lucky to have many spectacular waterfalls within driving distance of Crozet, some of which offer both. All require a walk or hike to reach the falls themselves.

The fifth edition of Johnny Molloy’s Waterfalls of the Blue Ridge: A Guide to the Natural Wonders of the Blue Ridge Mountains was published this year by the Menasha Ridge Press. Covering over 140 waterfalls ranging in height from 10 to 500 feet, this new edition of Molloy’s 1994 classic provides all the information you need to visit many beautiful waterfalls in both Virginia and North Carolina, nestled amid the “peaceful swells shrouded with blue mist” of our beloved Blue Ridge Mountains. Ready for a trip? Here are a few of the nicest waterfalls within a 40+ mile drive of Crozet. I have listed them here roughly in order of difficulty—from easy, through moderate, to strenuous.

Note: Driving distances are approximate. It is twelve miles from Crozet to the Rockfish Gap entrances to both the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, plus 20-30 miles along these scenic drives to the trailheads. Due to the closure of Rt. 250 West by the rock slide, you should plan to take I-64 to get there. Some of these hikes may be accessed from the bottom, via Rt. 33 to the north or I-64 south of Waynesboro. Most directions are from Molloy’s book.

I will start with my all-time favorite waterfall destination hike, introduced to me by U.Va.’s Cavalier Daily when I was a graduate student 40 years ago—how time flies! The St. Mary’s River Falls is located within the 10,000-acre St. Mary’s Wilderness area, so designated in 1984 by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The wilderness area can be accessed from the Fork Mountain Overlook at milepost 23 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but the falls trail is best accessed from the bottom, south of Stuarts Draft. A 35-mile drive from Crozet, the beautiful 4.4-mile round trip hike along the gurgling St. Mary’s River takes longer on the way up due to the 1,900-foot elevation change. Molloy rates the hike easy, and it was no problem for my two young children to handle. Water sandals are recommended to handle the several stream crossings. The river is home to native trout and is a favorite haunt of Shenandoah Valley chapter members of Trout Unlimited, who advocated to declare it a wilderness area. If you go in early May, the trail is lined with blooming mountain laurel and rhododendron blossoms spilling into the river. The hike leads to (and past if so desired) a 15-foot waterfall cascading into a deep, cold mountain pool ideal for swimming. Eden rediscovered! 

Directions: Take I-64 West to exit 94 for Waynesboro/Stuarts Draft, and turn left on US 340 (P. Buckley Moss Drive). After 7 miles, turn left on Indian Ridge Rd., and after half a mile continue on Offliter Rd. Turn right onto VA 608 (Cold Springs Rd.) and continue for 9.6 miles. Turn left onto St. Mary’s Road, which ends at the parking area after 1.3 miles. 

A bit farther away at 50 miles but also rated easy is the Falls of the Staunton River, a 2.2 round trip hike with only 200 feet of elevation change. Start on the wide Graves Mill trail along the Rapidan River, then split left after half a mile onto the Staunton River Trail. Soon you will scramble downhill to the Gauge Rock Cascades, which pours 20 feet over a stone face in multiple rivulets. Continue uphill, and at 1.1 mile the trail will lead past the 20-foot Jitterbug Falls, “so named for its twisting, turning course, as it froths white into a large plunge pool.” Sounds like a perfect picnic spot to me!

Directions: Approach this hike from the east side of Shenandoah National Park. Head north on Rt. 29, and just south of Madison take a left onto Rt. 230 toward Graves Mill. After 3.7 miles, turn right onto VA 662. Go 5.3 miles and stay right on Graves Mill Rd. when it splits from Bluff Mountain Rd. Reach the trailhead 1.3 miles further on. 

Heading to the mountains, White Rock Falls off the Blue Ridge Parkway is a 1.8 mile out-and-back hike located 32 miles from Crozet. The Youth Conservation Corps built this trail in 1979. The creek and falls are so named because of the many quartz rock veins and outcroppings along the route. Hiking along a cliff line provides a fine view of the Tye River Valley. After one mile you will “view the slender spiller frothing into a rock-walled amphitheater complete with a dunking pool,” so wear your bathing suits and pack a towel. The falls spill 30 feet into an incredible gorge. Molloy rates this hike as moderate.

Directions:  Take I-64 West to Rockfish Gap and turn south onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Drive 19.9 miles to the Slacks Overlook on the right. Cross the road and walk north about 60 yards to find the sign for the trailhead.

The lovely and serene South River Falls is located at milepost 62.8 on the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, 42 miles north of Rockfish Gap (milepost 105)—which is in turn 12 miles from Crozet, for a total driving distance of 54 miles. A faster route is to enter SNP at Swift Run Gap via Rt. 33 north of Charlottesville. The South River picnic area is only 3 miles north from there, for a total driving distance of 37 miles. This route has the added advantage of hiking uphill at the beginning of your day, and downhill on the return. The hike is 4.2 miles out and back, and Molloy rates it moderate. The trail traverses a rich wildflower habitat where trillium, trout lilies, columbine, and wild geraniums bloom in the spring, and crosses the Appalachian Trail. In the course of the hike you will be able to view the 83-foot falls from both the top and the base as it “spills over a rock face and then splits into two chutes charging downward.” 

Directions: Take Rt. 29 north to Ruckersville and turn left on Rt. 33. Drive 18 miles to the Swift Run Gap entrance to the Skyline Drive (milepost 65.7). Go north 2.7 miles to the South River picnic area. The path starts at the back of the picnic area, with the trailhead on your right.

Waterfalls map from Johnny Molloy’s Waterfalls of the Blue Ridge: A Guide to the Natural Wonders of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

If you are up for a more ambitious hike, head for the stunning Doyles River Falls, which Molloy rates as strenuous due to the 1,300-foot elevation change. The hike begins at milepost 83 on the Skyline Drive, only 21.6 miles north of the Rockfish Gap entrance for a total driving distance of 34 miles from Crozet. The 7-mile loop encompasses the Upper and Lower Doyles River Falls as well as the Jones Run Falls. This hike also includes some Civil War history. The trail begins at Browns Gap, through which Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson led his troops in 1862 while dodging Union forces. Soon after beginning your walk on the old Browns Gap Turnpike (now the Browns Gap Fire Road), a path to your left leads to the carved stone slab marking the grave of Confederate soldier William H. Howard. Back on the fire road, you will arrive at the Doyles River trail after 1.7 miles. Turn right, rock-hop the river, then take a side trail to the base of the three-tiered, 30-foot Upper Falls. Continuing down a sharp switchback, you will reach the base of the even more spectacular 63-foot Lower Falls, which “dives over a rock lip and then spills in ribbons and channels over multiple tiers” to a pool before flowing on. At this point you have the choice to turn around and retrace your steps, or continue to meet the Jones Run trail at 3.1 miles, leading to the 45-foot Jones Run Falls. When you meet the Appalachian Trail, turn right to return to Browns Gap, with views of Cedar Mountain along the way. Be sure to allow about twice the time for the uphill return as it took you to hike down. This is one of the most memorable hikes I’ve ever taken, partly because of the dramatic falls and gorgeous river gorge at the bottom, but mostly because we did not make it back to the parking area until after dark! 

Directions: Take I-64 West to the Rockfish Gap entrance station of the Skyline Drive. Travel north for 21.6 miles to the Browns Gap parking area, milepost 83. Cross the road to find the trailhead on your left.

Crabtree Falls is the highest waterfall in Virginia, by some accounts the highest east of the Mississippi. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Although rated as moderate, I have saved the most spectacular of nearby waterfalls, a 37-mile drive from Crozet, for last. One of Virginia’s crown jewels, Crabtree Falls is the highest waterfall in Virginia and by some measures the highest east of the Mississippi River. “Crabtree Falls is actually a name given to five major waterfalls on Crabtree Creek, which flows into the Tye River. Within 0.5 mile, the creek drops 1,200 feet, including one vertical drop of 500 feet.” Maintained by the USFS, the 3.6 out-and-back trail is more civilized than a mere woodland trail or rock scramble. Wooden stairs, gravel paths, railed overlooks, and many switchbacks ease the climb and provide photo-perfect views of each of the cataracts. This may be why Molloy rates it as moderate in spite of the steep incline. There are even benches on which to rest on your way up. Be sure to heed the many warnings to stay on the trail; more than 30 deaths and many injuries have occurred since the USFS began keeping records in 1982. Be prepared for crowds at this well-known and popular destination.

Directions: Drive west on Rt 250 6 miles and turn south on Rt. 151 through Nellysford. After 14.5 miles, turn right on Beech Grove Rd. Drive 1.5 miles to a left onto Cub Creek Rd. toward Tyro. After 6.3 miles, turn right onto Rt. 56 (Crabtree Falls Highway). Drive 7.2 miles and turn left into the Crabtree Falls parking area.

So, pack a picnic, fill the canteens, and take in some of the natural wonders right in our back yard. As John Muir (1838-1914) counseled, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings!” To learn more about these and many more waterfall hikes in our area, check out Molloy’s Waterfalls of the Blue Ridge. You can read this book free online with a 30-day trial subscription at scribd.com. 

Crabtree Falls in the winter. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

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