Monday, May 13, 2013

Saint Mary's Falls

St. Mary's Falls
4 miles round trip, 300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, requires river crossings
Access: Gravel road to trailhead, no entrance fee

Saint Mary's Falls is a powerful waterfall in the Blue Ridge Mountains that is the most popular spot in Virginia's Saint Mary's Wilderness. The waterfall has a rather high volume as it lies on the St. Mary's River, the main river that drains a significant portion of the Blue Ridge north and west of the Blue Ridge Parkway in this area. However, despite the easy stats for this trail- short distance and little elevation gain- the trail itself can still be quite challenging, especially during winter and times of high flow. At least three river crossings each way are necessary over the course of this hike (and possibly 5 each way); there are also multiple sections where the trail hangs precariously to the slopes of the riverbank. Many sections of the trail were damaged when severe flooding occurred in the valley during Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

I attempted this hike two separate times- unfortunately, I didn't make it to the falls the first time. In January, I tried hiking up this trail in sub-freezing temperatures, an unfortunate time to try crossing the St. Mary's River. In April, I returned to do this hike and managed to make it to the falls. While the April hike was a bit warmer, I did manage to pick a day where overnight temperatures the night before had once again been subfreezing. Crossing the St. Mary's River in high flow is dangerous; don't attempt this hike during or directly after a rainstorm.

I tried the hike alone in January and with a friend in April. In January, I headed out of Charlottesville in the very early morning before the sunrise, driving west on I-64 past Rockfish Gap and Waynesboro to I-81. I took I-81 south at the interchange, heading south for a few minutes before taking the exit for US 11 south towards Greenville. I then followed US 11 south past the US 340 intersection and through Greenville. Route 11 wound past homes and farmland with constant views of the outer layers of the Blue Ridge. Soon after passing Lofton Road, I turned left onto Dabney Road, which took me towards the mountains. This road was difficult to drive in the early morning, as the sun's rays were directed into my windshield as I drove east; this was unpleasant. At the end of Dabney Road, next to a railroad bridge over St. Mary's River, I turned left at Cold Spring Road. I took Cold Spring Road for a few hundred yards before turning right onto Saint Mary's Road. St. Mary's Road was a narrow road that quickly turned into a gravel road; I continued straight on the road until it dead-ended in the trailhead parking lot.

From the trailhead, the trail is pretty obvious. In April, my friend and I followed it past the wilderness entrance sign and along the St. Mary's River.

The entrance to the wilderness

The first section of trail was flat; but it was not entirely easy. The trail hugged the steep bank of the river at times, forcing us to walk on narrow paths that were already being undercut by the river or on rocky exposures along the river. The trail began at the very edge of the mountains and followed the river into the mountains. At times, the trail was easy to lose- there were no consistent blazes or markers for the trail, so we just followed what it seemed like most people had hiked out in the past. At times, the trail was quite muddy. A number of false paths made us lose the trail and double back from time to time.

During my winter visit, I found quite a few examples of Skolithos along the trail. Skolithos are fossilized worm burrows from the Cambrian Period- they're quite common in the western Blue Ridge, and I was expecting them to find them at St. Mary's because this region is composed mainly of Erwin Sandstone, a white sandstone and quartzite that often contains Skolithos.

Skolithos in the Erwin sandstone

The trail alternated between numerous precarious sections along the cutbank of river and flatter sections in the pointbars. At one point, the trail passed a large sandstone cliff to the left. Nearby, there was a view through the trees of high white sandstone cliffs towering above the valley.

Sandstone cliffs rising above the St. Mary's valley

Not long past that view, I came to the first river crossing. In January, I went ahead and made this crossing; in April, I missed it entirely. From this section to the end of the hike at the falls, the trail is poorly defined. Although a broader former trail exists, enough defined side trails wander on either bank of the river that missing the real trail is easy. The reassuring thing is that most of these paths will lead back to the main trail. The principal trail makes 5 crossings.

In April, my friend and I got sidetracked onto one of the side trails, which kept us on the north bank of the river. This side trail was extremely precarious. We had to scramble up and down many sandstone ledges, pull our way up badly eroded slopes, and hang onto tree branches to prevent ourselves from falling into the river. Crossing the river is probably preferable. We rejoined the main trail about 300 meters further, where the trail recrosses to the north bank.

We followed the trail a bit further to the third crossing, where we finally crossed the river. The river in April, two days after mild rain, was about knee-deep; I imagine it would be much shallower in the summer and much deeper after rains. A few hundred meters further, we crossed back on the fourth crossing. After the fourth crossing, we had a section of more regular hiking- the trail passed through a stand of mountain laurel and lots of fallen trees, wound past a campsite, and eventually arrived at a spectacular, roaring sandstone gorge. Here, the river roared beneath 10 to 20 foot cliffs, with many small drops and many turbulent but beautifully green pools. During my winter hike to the area, the cliffs above the gorge were coated in icicles.

Icicles along the gorge just downstream from the falls

The valley narrowed at this point. Soon afterward, the trail petered out on the north bank of the river. During my winter trip, I turned back at this point. In April, my friend and I looked for a crossing. There is no clear crossing point here; however, the shore of the north bank becomes impassable, so crossing is necessary. This was one of the more difficult crossings, as the water is quite rapid here. After both getting across, we scrambled up to a path on the south bank. A hundred yards further on the south bank, the trail turned a bend and arrived at the falls.

Saint Mary's Falls is perhaps one of the grandest waterfalls in this part of Virginia. It is not nearly as graceful as some of the drops at Crabtree Falls or any of the Shenandoah falls; but its volume is quite heavy. A large amount of water pours down the 25-foot sandstone drop here. We enjoyed the view at the waterfall briefly before turning back. The 2 miles to the falls took us about 70 minutes each way due to the crossings and rough trail, so budget accordingly.

St. Mary's Falls

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