Thursday, February 20, 2014

Lands Run Falls

Lands Run Falls (Upper falls)
1.4 miles round trip, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to short-segment of off-trail hiking
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Henry Heatwole's Guide to Shenandoah National Park gave this hike a mediocre review; however, I found this very short hike to be fairly rewarding. As there's a bit of bushwhacking at the end, what you see on this hike will depend partly on far you're willing to go off trail, and your prior hiking experience. I wouldn't do this as a first hike- the end of the hike goes off-trail- but if you've done some hiking in Shenandoah before, this could be a fun short hike to do and see a pretty waterfall that's hidden in plain sight. The waterfall isn't as towering as South River Falls or as graceful as Doyles River and Rose River Falls, but it is an enjoyable spot to visit. I would recommend doing in this hike in winter and spring; since the falls are halfway up Compton Peak, I expect that they would run dry in late summer and fall. Bushwhacking down to the falls would also become less pleasant between April and October, so I'd recommend a December to March time frame for this hike.

For DC area residents, Lands Run Falls is probably the easiest waterfall to get to in Shenandoah National Park. The trailhead is just over a 15 minute drive from the North Entrance to the park, not far from I-66. I did this hike on a sunny, fairly warm December day with my family, leaving Fredericksburg and taking US 522 to Front Royal. If you're coming from Northern Virginia, it's about an hour drive west on I-66 from Tysons Corner to the North Entrance on US 340. We entered the park and took Skyline Drive 9 miles south to the unmarked trailhead at Lands Run Gap. You'll have to look carefully for this trailhead, as it's unmarked: it's less than a mile before Compton Gap, so once you've gotten to the parking area for Fort Windham Rocks and Compton Peak, you've gone too far. You'll see the ridge coming down to meet the drive at the trailhead, with a small parking area to the right of the road. To check whether you're in the right place, make sure that the concrete post on the fire road next to the parking area says "Lands Run Fire Road."

From the parking area, we followed the wide Lands Run Fire Road gently downhill. The road passed through a winter forest that had a few fairly large and pretty trees. This fire road was just one of the many mountain roads that used to criscross the Blue Ridge before the advent of the park; this particular road once ran up from Browntown Valley and crossed Lands Run Gap before descending into Hickerson Hollow. When the park was established, only the Thornton Gap and Swift Run Gap crossings were made available to motor vehicle crossings.

Lands Run Fire Road
The fire road descent made just one switchback, a little over a half mile from Lands Run Gap, before coming to Lands Run, a small creek tumbling the side of Compton Peak. The road continued downhill from this point, but we stopped here to begin the bushwhack portion of the hike. Just before the point where the trail crossed the creek, we found a faint unmarked path leading to the right, downhill from the road. We followed this path, which quickly faded away into the forest. At this point, the falls were audible: they were just downhill of the point where the trail crossed the river. We swung a wide right arc to descend to the foot of the top falls. Some points here are steep and fallen leaves may make it slippery- so take care, and maybe bring hiking poles if you aren't used to steeper descents.

We scrambled all the way down to the very foot of the top drop, which cascades about 20 feet into a small pool. A bit of ice adorned the rocks in the cascade: the past few days had been very cold (with temperatures down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit), but that particular day temperatures had warmed up quite a bit and most of the ice around the falls had melted off. This set of falls was just the highest of a long string of cascades: the run continued to make more small drops as it continued down a narrow gorge. I would recommend most hikers to turn around after seeing the first falls, which are the most worthwhile to see, anyway.

Lands Run Falls
Near the first falls, there is a small rock outcrop, entirely surrounded by forest, that gives a tiny sliver of a view out into Browntown and Page Valleys. It's a pretty view, but you'll see much better when you're driving in along Skyline Drive.

View into Browntown Valley
If you're very familiar with the park and off-trail hiking, it's a fun excursion to continue downhill to see the other cascades in the gorge. The run drops about 100 feet total between the fire road and the point at which it flattens out at the canyon bottom. The terrain is fairly steep and uneven, but I found two more pretty drops when I made my way to the bottom.

Icy Lands Run Falls (lower portion)

Lands Run Falls (lowest portion)
After seeing the lower falls, I made my way back up; we retraced our steps uphill back to the fire road and 15 minutes later made our way back uphill to the trailhead.

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