Make your way to the town of Crozet then drive towards Stinson Vineyards. At Whitehall turn left on Sugar Hollow Road (CR-614) then drive past Charlottesville Reservoir to the parking area which can be muddy. Parking can be difficult on busy days so plan to arrive early and park sensibly please!
It is a very pleasant and flat 2.15 mile hike to Big Branch Falls. You have to cross the North Fork of Moormans River three times. Most of the time these are easy crossings but when the river runs fast you have to be very careful.
The crossing areas and pools inbetween are popular swimming holes in summer. But the river offers many opportunities to get away from the crowds and swim in solitude (if you can find parking!)
Do stop at a pleasant cascade just before you reach the main Falls!
The mountains of Virginia can be dangerous and a safety kit is essential for adventurers looking for waterfalls! This is especially true in Shenandoah National Park where the most impressive waterfalls require serious backcountry hiking – also known as bushwhacking!
Hiking is much more pleasant when one is prepared and confident. Over-confidence and plain stupidity, however, can be fatal. Know your capabilities and plan for the unexpected.
Here are my tips for staying safe while hiking to the waterfalls of Virginia.
Fortunately one can enjoy most of Virginia’s waterfalls after short walks or hikes on busy and well-maintained trails. Folks walk in flip-flops and swimwear (for dipping in the cool water)!
Should something go wrong help is nearby thanks to the crowds on most days as well as the good road systems to the trailheads.
But when you get more serious about photography your hiking patterns change:
You often hike in the dark to catch a sunset or sunrise at a waterfall
You study weather forecasts and go when heavy rain is expected or on cloudy days (best for long-exposure images)
You rock-scramble to precarious positions for better angles and light-situations
You hike off-trail (bushwack) in search of undiscovered waterfalls and scenic nature photo opportunities
You carry photo equipment that can be bulky (tripods for example)
You often hike alone. Not by choice but partners who share your enthusiasm are hard to find.
If you are interested in getting away from the beaten trails and discover spectacular waterfalls and scenery then read on! The next sections are for you!
Basic Safety Gear and Tips
Here are a few essential safety tips for everyone regardless of capability and experience.
Hike with a Buddy
There are safety in numbers and if you have a compatible hiking partner try and team up.
Often a hike can be much easier if you have two vehicles and park one at the trailhead and the other at the end of the hike. In Shenandoah for example this can save a lot of hiking time if you can hike down and avoid the return trip uphill!
Having said all that, an incompatible hiking partner can slow you down and even add dangers to your hike. If you plan for a 3 hour hike but end up struggling for 6 hours with a slow partner then you may run out of water, daylight and many other problems could pop up. If you have a strong partner who are an experienced rock climber then he/she may put you in danger by encouraging you to go beyond your comfort zone.
So it works both ways.
I hike alone and prefer it that way. I hike to my capabilities and I plan accordingly. I compensate for the lack of a buddy by being well-prepared.
In summary, if you have a compatible hiking partner then consider yourself very lucky and enjoy the company!
Leave a route plan
Tell your wife or boyfriend or family member where you are going, how long you plan to hike and when to expect you back. Always do this.
Failing this, leave a printed plan in your car at the trailhead. This will give the rescuers an idea of where to look especially when there are many trails in the region.
Study the area of your hike and print a paper map
Yes, I have a phone and a GPS but I ALWAYS have a printed topology map of my hiking area. Topology maps are excellent for discovering potential waterfalls and showing steep versus flatter areas in case I need an alternate route.
I use Garmin’s Basecamp in combination with my GPS to study/print the topology.
Create important waypoints for your GPS
Before every serious hike I add a dozen or so landmark waypoints in my GPS. The parking area, the estimated positions of waterfalls, estimated junction points with other trails, estimated positions of streams/creeks and so on.
This is very easy to do with Garmin’s Basecamp.
With these waypoints I have reference points to aim for. It prevents me from wandering aimlessly and getting lost.
Remember in the thick woods one has no reference points. You cannot see the sun and since I hike mostly on cloudy days it becomes almost impossible to find east or west!
Bring a GPS
A phone alone is not good enough. I use my phone to take quick pictures and video but mostly I try to keep it fully charged in case I need it in an emergency.
I use a small Garmin GPS and will not hike without it. There are many kinds but the best GPS will have a “trailing” or “breadcrumb” setting. This allows one to see where you’ve been making it easy to retrace your steps.
Wear the proper clothing
Do not venture off-trail in the Virginia mountains without proper hiking gear.
I am not going into details here. What to wear depends on many factors including the weather and the expected condition of the trails.
In Shenandoah I can tell you the going gets very rough. If you bushwhack you can expect clusters of 6 feet tall thorny plants and stinging nettles of all kinds. There are trees on the ground with underbrush so thick you can hardly see through. The ground is spongy and you can sink into swampy stuff up to your knees when you least expect it. The rocks near the waterfalls are very slippery and mostly impossible to navigate. Most of the time you have to hike a wide circle to get from a lower waterfall to another further upstream.
Your clothes must help protect against:
Thorns and stinging plants – long pants, long sleeves, gloves
Poisonous snakes (bulky pants for example worn over hiking boots)
Rain, sweat and sun – quick-dry materials work best
Bugs (Mossies, gnats and ticks) – treat your clothes with repellent and pack a headnet
Use thick socks and make sure your boots are worn. Blisters are unwelcome when bushwacking!
If you are hiking to waterfalls near high cliffs it makes sense to think of ropes, correct?
I do not carry ropes.
If you are a rock-climber who understands the mechanics of ropes then go for it. Otherwise, ropes will give you a false sense of security that may kill you.
When I see a rock-face that may require ropes I take a detour and avoid it.
I suggest you do the same!
I have yet to encounter a waterfall that could not be photograph because I did not have ropes.
Pack an Emergency Kit
I try to hike early in the morning giving myself plenty of daylight in case of an emergency.
Nevertheless, I am always prepared to spend a night in the woods. Hopefully I will be rescued before dark the second night but I can survive a few nights if I have to.
In the next section I discuss my Emergency Kit.
My Emergency Kit
I hike with a large fanny-pack! Not very manly but I prefer to not have a pack on my back. The reason is the thick woods. When I crawl underneath brush and tree branches, a backpack gets stuck.
I can swing my fanny pack to the back or front and even carry it when needed. It gives me easy and fast access to my emergency kit and water.
I carry (2 x 0.5 liter) of water for every 6 miles I plan to hike. In a major long-term emergency I will drink water from the streams treated with pills. I do carry a small bag of Gatorade powder to help with dehydration after many hours of heavy sweating!
All my emergency gear is stuffed inside a dry-bag. When crossing streams and photographing waterfalls chances are I will slip and get wet. At least my emergency things will stay dry!
The key is to have all I need but stay very light-weight. Most things listed below are small and easy to pack.
NOTE – Not everything below is stored in my Dry Bag. For example, I wear the Cool Towel and the pepper spray.
Survival Tool – mine has a compass, mirror, whistle, light, some digital info such as temp, time and date, magnifying glass
Small swiss knife with wood saw (not shown in my picture)
Head net – to keep the gnats at bay
Knee Brace – can also be used on arms and legs
Poncho – not to wear when hiking (will get stuck in the woods) but to stay dry at night
Charging battery pack for GPS and Phone. Remember the cables!
A few Protein or Energy bars
6-pack of water-purification tablets
Eye-drops – in case things get stuck in my eye
Pepper-spray – can be used for black bears but mostly when meeting strange people in the back woods
Maximum DEET – must deter everything including ticks
Two Glow Sticks – helicopters can see these!
Cool towel – use as a headband, neck band, scarf or cap!
Falling Spring Falls in Alleghany County, Virginia
Here it is, the most beautiful roadside waterfall in Virginia and a must-see for any waterfall-loving visitor to the Commonwealth!
About 8 miles north of Covington, the unassuming Falling Spring Creek flows south through farmland and rolling hills and crosses underneath busy US-220. Then suddenly it meets a mighty rock face and the stream becomes a towering waterfall tumbling 80 feet into the valley below!
It is a breathtaking sight – even Thomas Jefferson wrote about the Falls in 1781!
Unfortunately the Falls were moved in 1941 as part of a mining operation! It used to be much higher and wider!
From near the Pizza Hut in Covington drive north on 220 for about 8.4 miles. If you somehow did not see the Falls on your left when you reach Falls Road (640), turn around – you just missed it!
There is a small parking area with some information about the Falls as well as a couple of walking trails to the Creek near the top of the Falls as well as the main viewing point next to 220.
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation do not want visitors to scramble down to the base of the Falls. We did not but we see folks down at the base all the time despite the fencing. Visit at your own risk!
Chambers Ridge Falls in Rockbridge County, Virginia
Chambers Ridge Falls is another Virginia waterfall that no-one seems to know about! We asked and even local fishermen told us they were not aware of a waterfall on the north side of Goshen Pass!
But we persisted and with the Virginia Atlas and Gazetteer in hand we studied the creeks in the Goshen area west of Lexington. There appeared to be the potential for at least two waterfalls in the area so we hopped in the Jeep and drove out on SR-39.
What a day we had! We discovered Lauren Run Falls (see our description) and then we found Chambers Ridge Falls with not a single other soul in sight, except for a few kayakers on the Maury River!
IMPORTANT – We believe this is a WMA (Wildlife Management Area) and you need to buy an access permit. To be safe, we buy annual permits for $23 or so – see this DGIF site.
From Lexington, drive west on SR-39 towards Goshen. The parking area (on your right) is exactly 15.4 miles from the Super 8 where you turn from Rte 11 onto SR-39.
White Rock Falls is one of the “secrets” along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia! Most visitors will stop briefly at the Slacks Overlook then continue their journey not knowing there is a scenic waterfall just down the hill!
White Rock Falls do dry to a trickle in mid-summer so it is best to visit after rains or earlier in early Spring. In the heat of summer you can wade in the cool waters below the Falls!
The 2 mile (return) trail is well-maintained with a gentle slope so we rate it an easy hike. Be aware you will hike along a cliff-face near the Falls so keep an eye on the kids!
Park at “The Slacks” Overlook at mile 19.9 along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
You have to cross the Parkway and look for the trailhead slightly to your left.
It is about 1 mile down to the base of the Falls but about halfway down you can explore White Rock Creek to the top of the Falls.
To reach the base, you continue along the trail (slightly uphill at first then down) and circle a high cliff. It is here where you need to watch young children. The last short stretch is steep and slippery at times!
You will find several little waterfalls up and down the Creek so do plan to stay a while and explore.
Crabtree Falls has the highest cascading vertical drop east of the Mississippi! At 1200 feet it is impossible to photograph as a whole but apparently no-one cares – it is one of most popular waterfalls in Virginia!
Other waterfalls may be more scenic but the challenge of hiking Crabtree Creek all the way to the top viewing platform (and beyond) is irresistable!
Please note – there is a $3 per vehicle parking fee.
Most folks park in the lower parking lot just off VA-56 east of the Blue Ridge Parkway. You will hike uphill to see the Falls but the return hike is downhill! Please have $3 in cash ready to pay per vehicle.
To avoid the crowds (to some degree) you can choose to park in the upper lot then hike down. This means taking a right turn off VA-56 onto a bumpy dirt road (see our map please).
There are 5 areas of interest. The Lower Falls is just a short distance from the parking area along a flat paved walkway accessible to wheel chairs and strollers.
Then you hike uphill on a clearly marked but steep trail with wooden steps and mileage markers.
Several viewpoints alow you to view the Lower Mid Falls, the Upper Mid Falls and the Upper Falls. Then at the top is a Viewing Platform (no waterfall views – it is a vista of the mountains).
It is 2.8 miles between the lower and upper parking lots. You will see all the cascades in the first 1.4 miles. The viewing platform at the top of the cascades is at 1.7 miles – meaning 3.4 miles return.
Fallingwater Cascades along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Botetourt County, Virginia
Fallingwater Cascades is one of the epic waterfall hikes along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.
With a clearly marked trail and an option to do a loop hike, this is one of our favorite short getways. After the hike you can continue to hike up Flat Top Mountain or you can drive around the corner to relax at the Peaks of Otter!
In the Peaks of Otter area at mile 83.1 park in the large Fallingwater Cascade lot then walk left to pick up the trail.
You can also follow the crowds to the right but we much prefer the clockwise loop hike; approaching waterfalls from the base then follow it upstream is our thing!
The loop hike is 1.35 miles. You can do a shorter hike if you go right down to the first cascade and back.
The trail is well-mainained but it gets steep around the cascades as can be expected. At the base of the Cascades is a bridge so you will not get your feet wet when crossing!
In the map below you see a second parking area. This is the trailhead for Flat Top Mountain. If you plan to also hike to the summit we suggest you park here then hike down to the Cascades and loop back (clockwise).
Wigwam Falls barely qualifies as a waterfall – it is a small cascade – but worth a visit when you are traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The main attraction at this stop (officially called Yankee Horse Ridge Parking Area) is the short reconstruction of a narrow gauge railroad track. In the early 1900’s the Blue Ridge was logged to the ground and a network of railroads were built.
You can walk the short 0.2 mile loop trail to view the tracks and to see Wigwam Falls at the far end.
At mile 34.4 along the Blue Ridge Parkway, park in the small pullout (Yankee Horse Ridge).