Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Priest via Crabtree Falls

View towards Three Ridges from the Priest
9.4 miles round trip, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; stay on trail at Crabtree Falls as rocks near falls are dangerous
Access: Paved road to trailhead; $3/day use fee per vehicle

I may be prone to hyperbole, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that this hike is one of the most varied and scenic in the state. This fairly challenging full-day hike ascends the most impressive peak in the Blue Ridge north of the James River by following what some claim to be the highest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Sure, it's not a trip for solitude seekers- Crabtree Falls sees hundreds of visitors on most weekends and there are numerous 4WDs rumbling up and down the Crabtree Meadows Road near the Priest- but the scenic beauty of this hike outweighs having to put up with crowds.

The Priest is the tallest peak in the Religious Range- not truly a subrange of the Blue Ridge, but rather just a number of peaks with religious names, including the Cardinal and the Friar across the Piney River watershed. It is not the tallest peak in the Blue Ridge north of the James River- that honor belongs to nearby Rocky Mountain- but from all angles the mountain seems immense. The Appalachian Trail passes over the summit of the mountain as it heads north before it drops 3000 feet in 3 miles to the Tye River in one of the steepest sections of the AT in Virginia. This hike climbs the peak from its gentler northwestern side, but still requires climbing to the summit from its base at the Tye River. The peak's summit lies within the Priest Wilderness, one of the few federally-designated wildernesses in Central Virginia. I did this hike during the spring, when the waterfalls were in full flow and the flowers were blooming; I imagine that this hike is also good during the winter, when the falls are flowing and the views are clearer.

I did this hike on a gorgeously clear late May day with my parents, who were visiting Charlottesville and hiking with me to train for an upcoming long-distance hiking trip. We drove to the Crabtree Falls recreation site in the morning, heading south on US 29 from Charlottesville past Lovingston to VA Route 56 west. We turned right onto 56 and followed it, making two turns along the way to stay on that route. As Route 56 neared Massie's Mill, the Priest came into full view before us, bathed in shimmering morning light, its summit grandly towering over the Piedmont and the Tye River watershed. We followed 56 past Massie's Mill and the road's junction with the Appalachian Trail, continuing as the road became progressively narrower and windier. Eventually, when it seemed as if the road could curve no more, we reached a turnoff to the left for Crabtree Falls. We parked in the very large lot and paid the $3 day use fee, then headed up the trail. I have previously detailed the first 1.7 miles of the hike to the top of Crabtree Falls.

The first 0.7 miles of the hike was packed with cascade after cascade as we ascended along Crabtree Creek. Crabtree Falls is actually a series of many waterfalls, which together add up to a height of around 1200 feet; this makes Crabtree Falls one of the tallest series of cascades in the eastern United States. The water flow was plentiful in spring, making most of the falls quite impressive.

Crabtree Falls
Crabtree Falls
As we hiked up through the waterfalls, we began seeing huge bushes of Catawba Rhododendron in bloom. The flowers ranged in color from a light pink to purple and were beautiful accents in the greenery around the trail and the falls. At some overlooks, we saw bushes full of rhodoendrons blooming across the creek.

Blooming rhododendron
Catawba Rhododendron
It took us over an hour to reach the overlook at the top of Crabtree Falls. There were so many delightful things along the trail that we had to stop at each. At mile 1.4, we passed the base of the final waterfall, which plunged down a dome-like granite sheet. 1.7 miles into our hike, we arrived at the top of the waterfall, where there was a view into the Tye River watershed from a stone-lined viewpoint. It's important to place safety first here, as Crabtree Falls is one of the deadliest natural sites in Virginia due to the visitors who climb over the stone walls and slip down the falls. This time, the view from the top of the falls was much clearer than during my first visit, when the viewpoint was entirely clouded over. Here, too, there were many rhododendron blooming; after passing these falls, the rhododendron concentration fell due to the higher altitude.

The highest cascade of Crabtree Falls
View from the top of Crabtree Falls
After a short stop at the viewpoint, we continued onward, following the trail along the right bank of the creek. The next mile was fairly flat and eventless; there was some climbing at first, but soon the trail leveled out and broadened. One mile past the viewpoint at the top of Crabtree Falls (and 2.7 miles from the parking area), we reached the Crabtree Meadows trailhead. It's possible to shorten the hike up the Priest by driving up to this trailhead, but be warned that Meadows Rd, which leads to the trailhead from Route 56, is very windy and narrow. We walked through the parking area and turned left onto Meadows Road, following the road uphill.

This was perhaps the least pleasant portion of the hike. We had to follow the road for half a mile between the Crabtree Meadows trailhead and the intersection of Meadows Road with the Appalachian Trail. The road was deeply rutted and passable only for 4WD vehicles; this meant that every now and then, a large, noisy vehicle would pass us, sending up large clouds of dust. The road passed a few campsites and then began a very steep ascent to a saddle on the west side of the Priest. In fact, the half-mile of road might actually be the steepest portion of the entire hike. At the top of the ridge, we met up with the Appalachian Trail, which ran to the right through a grassy clearing and to the left into the forest. We turned left, taking the AT north and quickly entering the Priest Wilderness.

The AT entering the Priest Wilderness
The trail climbed moderately up the ridge, passing wildflowers and faint views through the trees to Three Ridges and the summit of the Priest. The most prominent wildflower display here was trillium in full bloom.

The trail climbed for about a mile from the junction with Meadows Road until it reached the summit plateau of the Priest. Here, the trail flattened out next to a set of huge granite boulders, piled up in an impressive-looking manner. Just past these boulders, the AT made a turn to the left, with a trail that headed straight ahead to the Priest Shelter. I took the short tenth of a mile spur to the shelter. The shelter was a fairly standard AT shelter, but had an interesting logbook where hikers left confessions of various sorts on the Priest.

Large granite boulders on the summit plateau of the Priest
The Priest Shelter
Returning to the AT, we continued north for a half mile through relatively flat ground until an unmarked spur broke off to the left. Following this spur, we emerged onto a collection of granite boulders and outcrops exposed on the north face of the Priest. Before us lay one of the most impressive views in Virginia. On this particularly clear day, we could see all the way to the Strickler/Duncan Knob area on Massanutten Mountain, nearly 70 miles away. While the view is only 180 degrees and not 360, it contains some of the most important landmarks north and west of the Priest, including Three Ridges, Wintergreen, Trayfoot Mountain, Massanutten, Elliott Knob, and Spy Rock on Maintop Mountain. The viewpoint is not quite at the true summit of the Priest- the highest point, at 4062 feet, is slightly further down the AT- but we were only a few feet lower and were at the mountain's main viewpoint, so we decided to start our return after enjoying the view. I scrambled around the boulders to explore different angles on the view before we headed back downhill to finish the hike. All in all, an excellent and challenging hike that visits some of the prettiest spots in our state.

View north from the Priest
Maintop Mountain from the Priest
View north from the Priest


  1. This is beautiful. Thank-you so much for sharing.

  2. Awesome write up! Thanks for posting this it was very helpful

    1. Thank you for visiting! If you choose to hike up the Priest then I hope you enjoy- it's beautiful at this time of year!