Chasing Waterfalls

We’ve been walking all summer. How about a hike?

Photo by Preston Striebig

Cascade Falls

Cascade Falls near Pembroke.

With social distancing rules sidelining many sports, people have turned to the outdoors. At first, neighborhood walks were enlivened by chalk drawings and teddy bears in windows, but eventually you get tired of passing your neighbors’ houses every day. Enter waterfall hikes. Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains are home to stunning views, crisp air, and lots of beautiful waterfalls.

High elevations promise crystal clear water and secret swimming holes, with picture perfect backdrops for the entire trek. For a change of pace (literally), here’s a list of our favorite waterfall hikes—paired with lunch eateries for hungry adventurers.

Cascade Falls

About 10 minutes from the town of Pembroke in Southwest Virginia lies a waterfall frequented by more than 150,000 visitors each year. Cascade Falls towers 69 feet and empties into a large oasis surrounded by 200-foot-tall cliff walls. An easy two-mile hike with little elevation takes you to the area, with wooden bridges and platforms for easy viewing and picture-taking. The falls aren’t only breathtaking in the summertime—winter’s arrival brings frozen cascading ice that looks like something out of a fantasy novel. An important note: Feel free to cool off by the falls, but swimming is not encouraged due to the current the falls create.

Pit Stop: Located in the back of Tangent Outfitters, an outdoor and sporting goods store in nearby Pembroke, is the Cascade Cafe. Before the hike, fill up with the Eggleston, a classic bacon, egg, and cheese croissant, and to cure your hunger after, try the Outfitter’s Special—hot ham and turkey with toppings on a sweet wheat sub roll.

Photo by Brad Striebig

Dark Hollow Falls

Dark Hollow Falls is popular, but has not allowed dogs in the past so double check current regulations before leaving the house.

Dark Hollow Falls:

Dark Hollow Falls is a simple 1.4-mile-long out and back hike. Far from boring, the trail has a series of waterfalls and cascades the whole way up, as well as some fairly steep sections. Pets are not allowed on the trail. The hike to the falls is nicely shaded by trees and foliage, essential for hot summer days. Be sure to plan a trip after a bit of rainfall to see maximum waterfall action.

Pit Stop: Head north and make your way to West Main Market in Downtown Luray. The market serves grilled paninis like smoked turkey and avocado or cuban pork, as well as homemade soups, garden fresh salads, and cold and hot deli sandwiches. 

White Oak Canyon & Cedar Run Trail Loop

There are six waterfalls along the White Oak Canyon Trail in Syria. Ranging from 35 to 86 feet, the cascades make this hike one of the most popular in Shenandoah National Park. Plus, the trail connects to Cedar Run Trail, which features natural waterslides. For a strenuous but extremely refreshing hike, start at the Hawksbill Gap parking area and make your way through Cedar Run Trail. Bring your bathing suit and take some time to enjoy the two waterfalls that form natural waterslides and opportunities for cliff jumping, nestled right into the landscape. When you’re ready to continue the journey, go left at the end to start the hike up White Oak Canyon. You’ll see six stunning cascades along the way. Pets are welcome on the White Oak Trail, but be sure they can keep up the pace.

Pit Stop: To fuel up after a hard hike, head east to Etlan and visit The Little Country Store, situated at the foot of Old Rag Mountain. Deli sandwiches and pork BBQ await.

Crabtree Falls

For a truly scenic hike, check out Crabtree Falls. The 2 ½-mile loop is a moderate-level trail beginning with a view of a 60-foot rock cliff waterfall. Continuing on the trail, hikers will see towering oak and hickory trees, plenty of wildflowers, and a series of four more major cascades and smaller waterfalls. The falls measure a total distance of 1,200 feet, making it the highest vertical-drop cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River. While definitely not for swimming, the picturesque falls make a perfect photo opportunity.

Pit Stop: Grab ice cold craft beers and ciders at The Filling Station in Amherst, about 30 minutes from the trail. Choose a bite from their baskets of snacks, like fried green tomatoes and pork rinds, or dig into an Octane Burger, a take on a cheesy western except with bacon on Texas toast.

Dismal Falls

If you can take or leave the hike but want the instant gratification of a view, check out Dismal Falls in Giles County. A short tenth of a mile walk from the trailhead, the 40-foot-wide falls drop 12 feet into a single whirlpool. The water has carved the surrounding rocks into stepping stones and ledges for exploring. Take a dip in the swimming hole to cool off in refreshing mountain water.

Pit Stop: After a day of wading, stop by Trent’s Grocery, located a mile from the trail and highly recommended by Dismal Falls hikers. It offers snacks, refreshments, and made-to-order pizza and sandwiches.

St. Mary’s Falls

Off the beaten path, St. Mary’s Wilderness in Raphine is a large area protected thanks to the Wilderness Act of 1964. Nestled within its ridges, summits, and switchbacks lies the 15-foot St. Mary’s Falls, which tumble into a deep plunge pool. A 4.3-mile-long trail leads to the falls, with river crossings (depending on the time of year) and wildlife to see all along the way. Cliff jumpers are big fans of jumping from the waterfall into the invigorating mountain water below, while others will enjoy several little swimming holes around the falls.

Pit Stop: Kenney’s in Lexington serves up famous fried chicken, ice cream, and burgers in an unfussy walk-up style building a 30-minute drive from the trail. Rest on one of their picnic tables and enjoy a cold strawberry milkshake.

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