Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lewis Falls

Lewis Falls- a photo from my first hike in Shenandoah
2 miles round trip, 790 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

On a very muggy August day in 2003, I hiked from the Big Meadows Campground down to Lewis Falls and back via the 3.3-mile loop: it was the first trail I ever hiked in Shenandoah National Park. It was almost 10 years until I came back, this time on a shorter out-and-back route.

Lewis Falls is one of the park's tallest waterfalls, but in my opinion is one of its least pretty. This is partly because there are few good viewpoints of the falls; more precisely, there's one viewpoint of the falls and it's getting a bit overgrown. This also partly because there's rarely a good flow here; the falls are a little too high up on the mountain and drainage basins tend to be smaller on the western side of the Blue Ridge, anyway. However, it's still worth the hike, especially if you've been to many of the park's other waterfalls. The trail is all downhill on the way in, so if you're not accustomed to hiking, you might want to make sure you can return before you go down. I remember finding the hike up quite tiring when I was in middle school.

Manjima and I did this hike together on our way to Charlottesville in May. We entered the park from US 211 at Thornton Gap and took Skyline Drive south to Big Meadows. We parked in a small parking lot with four spots to the right of Skyline Drive just pass the turnoff for the gas station at Big Meadows. We backtracked slightly by foot along Skyline Drive to the fire road and trailhead for our hike.

The beginning of the hike was a descent down the fire road for a quarter of a mile to a junction with the Appalachian Trail. We went straight at the junction. Soon, the wide fire road narrowed into a trail, which kept descending through the very pretty and bright green spring Shenandoah forest.

Spring on the trail
Along the way, we saw plenty of spring wildflowers, including clusters of moss phlox and a few beautiful pink trillium once we were closer to the falls.


There's not much to comment on about the trail itself, which makes a straightforward forested descent to just above the falls. The last section involved a few switchbacks, which might make coming back up a little more difficult. Just before reaching the falls, the trail came to a rock outcrop with a very pretty view into the rumpled collection of hills to the west, with Massanutten Mountain in the background. In a way, this view of Devil's Tanyard and Tanner's Ridge covers one of the most remote parts of the park. Although these mountains are right next to populated areas in Shenandoah Valley, the mountains themselves are rarely visited since they're far from Skyline Drive. I've had a difficult time even finding information on boundary access points in those mountains.

View towards Massanutten Mountain and Devil's Tanyard
From here, we connected onto a spur trail that led to the falls themselves. The trail made a small stream crossing before following fairly close to the side of the top of the rocky walls to the falls viewpoint. From here, we could see the top half of the waterfall, which plunges 80 feet. Henry Heatwole's earliest guide to the park mentioned a way of getting to the foot of the falls, but I found no viable routes near the viewpoint; if anyone is aware of a path that leads down, I'd be grateful if you pass it on.

Lewis Falls
We returned the way we came, uphill.

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