Sunday, April 1, 2012

Big Branch Falls

Big Branch Falls
4.8 miles round trip, 500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to multiple river crossings that can be treacherous in high water
Access: No park pass required

Big Branch Falls is a pleasant and easy hike close to Charlottesville that leads along a playful stream to a small waterfall in the South District of Shenandoah. Hiking Upward refers to this hike as "Moorman's River," but I have chosen to refer to it as the Big Branch Falls hike instead as Big Branch Falls is the destination of this hike. The hike follows the North Fork Moormans River for most of the way. Although Big Run may have the biggest watershed entirely within in the park, I am almost sure that the combined watershed of the North and South Fork Moormans River, which is not entirely in the park, is larger.

I headed out to do this hike on an overcast April morning with a friend. Spring was in full swing in the Piedmont: every tree was a firework of pale green or vivid pink. The mountains themselves- Bucks Elbow and Pasture Fence, the two peaks usually visible along Garth Road- were enshrouded in clouds. Past White Hall, the road narrowed and crossed Moormans River four times while following the river gap between Pasture Fence and Bucks Elbow. We stopped briefly at the Sugar Hollow Dam to admire the calm waters of the Charlottesville Reservoir. The clouds at the Blue Ridge crest were a little higher, so we could see the gradual ascent of the green toward the summits of the Appalachians.

Charlottesville Reservoir
We arrived at the trailhead soon afterward. The trailhead is a little past the end of the Charlottesville Reservoir on Route 614, which is named Sugar Hollow Rd. west of White Hall and Garth Road east of White Hall. Garth Road is a continuation of Barracks Rd. from Charlottesville. There is plenty of parking at the trailhead. The trailhead is not, however, at the end of the road: the gravel road continues on another 0.4 miles to a second parking lot, which can shave 0.8 miles round trip off the hike, but the last stretch of road is quite rough.

We followed the road along the North Fork Moormans River past the second parking area onto a former fire road. The road followed the east bank of the river along the foot of Pasture Fence Mountain. In early spring, the trail was beautiful: blooming redbud popped up often along the trail and the fresh green brush sprouted from the renascent forest floor. The North Fork Moormans River was very attractive too: it made many small plunges and jumps as it descended happily toward the Piedmont.

Virginia spring
We followed the river north between Pasture Fence Mountain and the Blue Ridge crest. A little less than a mile into the hike, the trail made its first river crossing. This crossing is quite wide. In the summer, it may be possible to cross easily, but during my hike in spring, the water was knee-deep. We waded across the river and admired the setting before heading onward. The crossing occurred where a set of greenstone cliffs rose from the east bank of the river. The river paused beneath the cliffs to form a placid pool.

North Fork Moormans River
Very soon afterward, we came upon another crossing, equally deep and equally scenic. A wide, deep pool and a small cascade lay directly upstream of where we waded through the frigid river. A cloud-enveloped ridge and blooming rosebud made the scene even more remarkable.

The trail made one more crossing, this time shallower and less difficult. Afterward, the trail stuck to the west bank of the river. We ascended and descended hilly parts of the trail, which sometimes followed the river and other times swung away to head through pine forests. At one point, we saw a small waterfall through the trees on the slope of Pasture Fence Mountain. I plan to return one day to bushwhack to that waterfall- let me know if you are interested!

We finally arrived at the intersection with the Big Branch spur. That trail led a short tenth of a mile past numerous small cascades to Big Branch Falls. The waterfall was a roughly 25-foot high drop down a greenstone face into a pretty pool. I scrambled onto the rocks right next to the waterfall and found the erosion of the rock by the Big Branch to be very remarkable. The water plunges down the face of the rock at the same angle that the rock itself is set. This causes the rock to erode in a manner that might be comparable to peeling an onion: layers of the greenstone are peeled off by the erosive force of water, rather than cut through by the falling water.

On our return trip, we decided to avoid two of the river crossings by following a small path that cut along the top of the cliffs on the east bank of the river. This ended being a very good idea: not only did we not have to cross the river, but the scenery on this trail was much more remarkable. Atop the cliffs, we could see the river with the Blue Ridge crest rising above it.

North Fork Moormans River
The clifftops were also dotted with red columbine. Species after species of wildflowers were blooming in the new Appalachian spring.

Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadenesis)

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