Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Crabtree Falls

Crabtree Falls
3.4 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Crabtree Falls is one of the most heralded destinations in the Virginia mountains. Tourist brochures claim the waterfall to be the tallest east of the Mississippi River, at over 1000 feet tall. That's a bit of a stretch- Crabtree Falls is not really one waterfall so much as a string of cascades on the north side of the Priest- but there's no denying that it is one of the most beautiful natural areas in Virginia and certainly one of the most impressive sets of waterfalls in the states.

After living in Virginia for a little over 21 years, I still had yet to visit the falls, so on an overcast Sunday that threatened showers in August, I decided to finally do this hike. I drove south alone on US 29 from Charlottesville: clouds coated most of the peaks of the Blue Ridge; a few patches of blue sky appeared to the east near Lovingston, but for the most part, the day was mostly moody and humid. A little past Lovingston, I turned right onto State Route 56 heading west into the mountains. 56 is rather convoluted and required a few turns to stay on the road and not wander off onto 151 or any of the other roads in the area. After passing the junction with 151, Route 56 started to head straight into the mountains. The Priest lay straight ahead, its head enshrouded in mist. After passing Massie's Mill, the road made a few crossings of the Tye River as it wound its way through fields at the foot of the Priest and Three Ridges, although neither summit was visible with the clouds. The many ridges of the Priest and rocky prominences on its slopes still made it an impressive sight.

In August 1969, the valley of the Tye River witnessed one of the most significant natural disasters in European-settled Virginia history. Hurricane Camille swept ashore on the Gulf Coast, ravaging Mississippi and Louisiana before moving north and east and stalling over the Appalachian Mountains. Rainfall became overwhelming in Nelson County and especially in the Tye River Valley, where almost 27 inches of rain fell during the storm. Over a 100 people died in flooding in Nelson County, accounting most of the deaths associated with Hurricane Camille. Nearby Albemarle County didn't get hit quite as hard, but suffered some effects too. Landslides occurred throughout the Virginia mountains.

Luckily, the weather on the day of my hike was just showers and not torrential rain. After entering the mountains, Route 56 narrowed and became extremely windy as it climbed alongside the Tye River up the Blue Ridge. After very many turns, I finally came to the turnoff for Crabtree Falls, a US Forest Service Recreation Site. The turnoff led across a bridge to a large parking area for the falls. It was easy to see that this was one of the most popular sites in Virginia- the parking lot could hold at least 40 cars. However, on the morning of my rainy visit, there was only one other car in the parking area. I paid the $3 parking fee and then started up the trail.

The first stretch of trail was wide and smooth and handicap accessible and led for a very short distance from the parking area to one of the lowest falls. This waterfall was already remarkably beautiful, with the water of Crabtree Creek fanning out as it came down a small greenstone rock face. A viewing platform allowed me to see the falls from two very pretty angles.

The lowest falls at Crabtree Falls
Throughout the trail, many signs warned against going off-trail and approaching the waterfall. Many of the warnings stated that over 20 people had died on the slippery rocks around the waterfall. The trail's deadliness is not too surprising to me: when a natural area becomes a tourist attraction, many of visitors who come to the falls don't realize the dangers associated with waterfalls and accidents invariably happen. Crabtree Falls doesn't seem any more dangerous than any other set of waterfalls I've hiked around in Virginia, so perhaps for more regular hikers the advice might be a commonsense "use your judgment."

I returned to the trail, which was now lost its smooth, paved portion but was still very well maintained. The trail began an ascent with switchbacks and quickly hit more falls on the creek. Just a little above the first falls, the trail swung back to the creek, with multitudes of small cascades. A little farther up, the trail went up staircases (slippery when wet!) while following the creek. Soon, a very noisy and impressive cascade was visible far above; a little farther on, I came to the foot of one of the prettiest of all the cascades at Crabtree Falls. Here, the creek tumbled down an open cliff at least 80 or so feet.

Crabtree Falls
The first half three quarter miles of this trail was a sheer joy to hike, with waterfall after waterfall on the creek, many tiny but some up to 80 feet tall. Just as notable was the thick hardwood forest which the trail ascended through when it swung away from the creek. The overcast skies and light showers made the forest seem even more verdant and lush than usual. Mushrooms took advantage of the dampness to spread out all over the forest floor. Other wonders: a rock overhang to the right of the trail (during ascent) created a small cave.

Mushrooms in the forest
Toward the top of the string of waterfalls, there were views through the trees of ridges across the valley; it was also possible to look down the waterfalls and see drop after drop as the creek cascaded its way down to the Tye River.

Crabtree Creek's fall into the Tye River Valley
After climbing up a few hundred vertical feet along the tumbling creek, the trail began to flatten out. The next stretch of trail led along typical Virginia mountain stream scenery along a less inclined portion of the mountain. The hiking here was much easier and flatter, but the scenery was still just as enjoyable. One of my very favorite spots on the entire hike was a small, 5-foot drop on the creek into a shallow pool. While not as spectacular as the taller cascades early in the hike, I found this waterfall delightful and enjoyed sitting by the trail and watching the creek make a small splash on its way toward the bigger falls.

Cascade on Crabtree Creek
Past this small falls, the trail continued a gentle ascent for nearly a half mile until it began getting steeper, arriving at the foot of upper Crabtree Falls about 1.3 miles from the trailhead. From the viewpoint, there was a view of a huge rock dome and Crabtree Creek flowing down the rock face. This cascade was probably around 200 feet tall, making it extremely impressive, though I didn't find it as pretty as some of the lower falls. I could certainly see this spot being even more impressive during a heavy rain storm, when the entire rock face might be covered with rushing water.

Upper Crabtree Falls
From the viewpoint, the trail made a final, long switchback to reach the top of the upper cascade. I crossed Crabtree Creek on a footbridge to reach a well-maintained viewpoint with a low stone wall at the top of the large rock face. On a clear, non-rainy day, I would expect there to be a very wide mountainous view here, but on the rainy, cloudy day of my hike, I could see only mist. The view of the falls from here was not terribly good; it was hard to see the creek itself, though I could see the viewpoint on the trail at the bottom of the falls. I ate lunch at the viewpoint and then explored the rocks behind the viewpoint, where I found a few young hemlocks, a rather rare sight in Virginia. After waiting for a good half hour for the clouds to clear up, I headed back down the trail, which became much more crowded in the afternoon.

Misty view from the top of the falls

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