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Crabtree Falls

June 15, 2009

Crabtree Falls is probably Virginia’s best-known waterfall hike. The hike is located a short distance from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trail climbs alongside the falls and ends at an overlook of the Tye River Valley.

This is the first large cascade you'll encounter on the hike.

This is the first large cascade you’ll encounter on the hike.

Christine Says…

Crabtree Falls, located in George Washington National Forest’s Glenwood & Pedlar Ranger Districts, is one of the classic “must-hike” Virginia trails. When the area is experiencing good amount of rainfall, the 1,200 foot series of falls can be truly impressive.

Adam and I left our house at 5:45 a.m. on the morning of this hike. I wanted to get to the area before the sun started shining into the gorge. Sunny days usually mean crappy waterfall photos. On the morning of our hike, the area was forecast to have quite a bit of fog. I was really excited and had visions of the falls – cascading through the mist, lined with lush, blooming mountain laurel. Unfortunately, it was not to be. When we arrived, the fog was gone, the sun was already high in the sky and the laurel had mostly gone to seed. Nonetheless, I was still able to find a few shady spots along the way to take photographs.

The beautiful arched bridge over the Tye River.

The beautiful arched bridge over the Tye River.

The trailhead is located at the upper parking lot of the Crabtree Falls area. There is a $3.00 fee to use this area. Even though the trail starts from the upper lot, don’t miss walking down to the lower lot to take a walk across the beautiful laminated wooden arch bridge that crosses the Tye River. It was delivered to the area in a single piece and has graced the spot since 1978. Crossing the bridge used to be part of the hike, but improvements to the area expanded parking, added restrooms and shortened the trail.

As you start the hike, don’t neglect reading the bulletin board at the trailhead. It provides many cautionary tales concerning the waterfall’s deadly terrain. To date, more than twenty-five hikers have fallen to their deaths at Crabtree Falls. The most recent fatality was in November of 2010, when a 21 year old Virginia Tech student fell to his death on a day-hiking trip with friends. The rocks surrounding the stream are coated with transparent algae. It doesn’t look wet or slippery, but it’s honestly as slick as grease in some spots. The forest service is always warning hikers to stay off waterfalls – but they really mean it at Crabtree.

Adam climbs the steps along the Crabtree Trail.

Adam climbs the steps along the Crabtree Trail.

The first impressive cascade is at the very bottom of the trail and is accessible along a level, paved walkway. The trail to the summit starts on the right side of the paved path, and climbs quickly upward. The trail makes use of steps, railings, wooden walkways and switchbacks to traverse the steep terrain. Some of the switchbacks meander quite a distance from Crabtree Stream, but the sound of rushing water is ever present in the woods. You never move so far from the stream that you can not hear the sound of the waterfall. It’s such a soothing sound. There are five major cascades (and many smaller ones) that make up Crabtree Falls.

The trail is mostly well-graded and maintained. There are a few rocky sections, and some of the rocks may be loose or slippery. On the day we hiked, the trail was really muddy from all the recent rain, but it was still easily passable. I think most of the pretty sections of the falls are within the first three-quarters of the hike. The big, dome-shaped cascade at the top is impressive to see, but it just doesn’t photograph well. At the Tye Valley overlook at the top, you can’t see the falls below you at all. If you hadn’t just walked along the waterfall on your hike, you might not even believe it’s there. The view from the top is just so-so – mostly just tree-covered mountainsides. It pales in comparison to the waterfall views. Most hikers choose to turn around at this point, but you also have the option to continue the hike along the stream, ending up at Crabtree Meadows.

There are discrepancies about the length of this hike. On the internet, I’ve seen it listed everywhere from 2.2 to 4 miles. The on-site plaque at the base of the falls says the hike is two miles to the top, for a total 4 mile out-and-back. Our Blue Ridge Parkway hiking guide lists the hike at 3.4 miles, out-and-back. It seems like the happy medium distance, so we’ll go with that measure.

Adam Says…

The hike along Crabtree Falls is one of the best waterfall hikes, since you hike along the falls for most of the way.  I haven’t experienced any other hike in Virginia that allows you to walk along such an impressive series of falls.

Another beautiful section of falls along the trail.

Another beautiful section of falls along the trail.

This was our second trip to Crabtree Falls.  We were hoping to go in the late spring or early summer for views of mountain laurel along the stream.  It looks like in this area, we just missed the peak by about two weeks or the laurel didn’t bloom as well this year.  When you reach the top of the falls after a 1.7 mile hike, there is a stone platform at the top that provides you with nice views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The view from the top.

The view from the top.

Near the entrance to the paved trail you will see a small family cemetery.  These are actually distant relatives of mine.  My great grandmother was a Fitzgerald and owned the farm next to the McCormick Farm.  My mother used to visit that farm often when she was little.  If you are interested in history, the McCormick Farm is open to visitors and has lots of exhibits showing the early farming techniques.  Cyrus McCormick was the inventor of the mechanical reaper which revolutionized farming.

This is a great hike that a lot of families do before picnicking at one of the tables near the lot entrance.  I know we will visit this location time and again.

Trail Notes

  • Distance - 3.4miles out-and-back.
  • Elevation Change – 1000 feet
  • Difficulty – 3. This is a fairly steep trail with plenty of switchbacks.  However, most people will stop along the way to enjoy the falls, so it breaks up the pace.
  • Trail Conditions – 3. There are lots of pointy rocks along part of the trail, but there are some sections that are very nice.  The view to the lower falls is even paved for wheelchair access.
  • Views – 2. At the top of the falls, you get a decent view of the Tye River Valley
  • Waterfalls/streams - 4.5. This is one of the best waterfalls in the Central Virginia area.
  • Wildlife - .5. You probably won’t see anything here other than people.
  • Ease to Navigate - 4.5. Just stay on the trail.
  • Solitude -1. This is an extremely popular hike, so you will surely see people along the way.

Directions to trailhead: If you are approaching from I-81, take exit 205 towards Steeles Tavern.  Take a left on to Rte. 11 and then a quick right on to VA-56 heading east.  Follow this past the Blue Ridge Parkway (near BRP Mile Marker 30).  After a few more miles, you will see the signs for the parking area of Crabtree Falls on your right.  The parking lot loops around and you will see the trailhead and map near the restroom facilities.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Beth permalink
    March 17, 2014 10:14 am

    Owners – PLEASE, PLEASE keep your dogs on leashes – for their safety and for the safety of other hikers. During our visit there last fall, an owner let her dog run free and he almost tripped several of us as he was running away from her and he then tumbled down the falls. He did survive luckily – but it all could have been avoided with a simple leash.

  2. Butterfly permalink
    November 16, 2013 11:33 am

    So, A) do you have any more info on the 2 Fitzgeralds buried in the small gravesite and B) do you know anything about this dog,”Worm” that has a dedication at the top of the falls for helping to save 2 people? I can find NOTHING in any searches about it.

    Thanks

  3. August 31, 2013 3:34 pm

    Nicky, I am so sorry for your loss. That said, I’m fairly certain off-leash dogs are not allowed there anyway. For good reasons…the trail itself is not dangerous, but a human or dog going off the trail can be. The signs stating this are well-posted. In addition to the dangers for dogs that you experienced, the trail is high-traffic and narrow and some people do not want their hike disturbed by a loose dog. And well, loose dogs cause problems for people with leashed dogs as well. I only ran into 2 people with loose dogs today. One was an aggressive mutt that the owner quickly leashed as it snarled at my 4 mo old pup. Had the dog made contact with my pup, she would have received a boot upside the head (& probably the owner as well). The other were 2 very large but friendly hounds. My pup is already 50lbs and will mature over 100. He is a GSD and it is extremely important that he doesn’t have bad experiences with strange dogs as eventually he will be more than capable of inflicting serious damage to most dogs if he wants to. I am very careful, but these situations make it very frustrating.

    The rules are there for a reason. Again, I am so sorry about your dog. Its a harsh way to learn a lesson.

    • August 31, 2013 9:18 pm

      Amy… you might know from reading our blog that we also have dogs. Small dogs. Pugs. They only hike with us occasionally – always leashed. I wish it wasn’t the case, but we’ve had lots of bad experiences with unleashed dogs on the trail. Our youngest pug has been attacked a couple times. He’s always been minding his own business, not engaging the other dog, walking at the heel like he was trained, when a larger, unleashed dog comes at him. He’s terrified of other dogs now – even friendly ones – too many bad experiences, I guess.

      Another reason to leash dogs on hikes is the wildlife. I’ve known people that have lost their dogs after they ran off after deer/bear or been bitten by snakes they bothered.

    • Butterfly permalink
      November 16, 2013 11:38 am

      We want our suburban and city dogs to have the chance to run free, but it isn’t always possible, even in the wilderness. And one populated with other people and dogs, it’s only a courtesy to them and a safety precaution to your animal, to leash them. I passed one couple with a dog on a leash, the dog approached me and I held out my hand for him to sniff. He got a pet on the head and then snapped at me. They seemed surprised, but maybe they knew he would do that and just did not precaution me? Then on the way down, I saw a big black lab, beautiful dog, running unleashed. His owner spotted me and both he and his companion were frantically calling for the dog. When I got to them, he was leashed and the man said, He is not particularly friendly. OK….so he should definitely be on the leash.

  4. Nicky permalink
    August 11, 2013 8:32 pm

    I lost my dog at the fall today, I’m still shaking and tearing, I want to warn everyone that it is a dangerous area, always keep your dog on leash. ALWAYS

    • August 11, 2013 8:48 pm

      Nicky… we are so heartbroken for you. We adore our dogs and can’t even imagine how awful you must feel right now. Thanks for taking a moment to remind everyone to leash their dog for safety’s sake.

    • Butterfly permalink
      November 16, 2013 11:31 am

      This is horrible to have had happened to you. I would not know what to do. But this is the second read I’ve had of a dog falling to their death at the falls. Yes, PLEASE keep the dogs leashed on this trail.

  5. July 1, 2009 3:03 pm

    Some friends went to Crabtree Falls over the weekend, and I kept asking, “Have I done this before? Why is it so familiar?”

    You’re in my head, Virginia Trail Guide.

  6. craigproulx permalink
    June 16, 2009 1:47 pm

    The second and third photo are excellent! You did a great job considering the conditions! I don’t believe I saw those in your flicker photostream. That just means I will have to visit here more often!

    Craig

  7. June 16, 2009 10:34 am

    Thank you for this wonderful description, Christine! We moved away from Nelson County in June, 1978. Before that we hiked that trail in every season for many years. The area has had many improvements, but it remains a favorite place in our family’s memories.

    • June 16, 2009 12:33 pm

      Did you by chance see them install the bridge before you left the area in 1978. I’ve read it was pretty amazing to see the cranes maneuver it into place.

  8. Jim Hopkins (kayaker729) permalink
    June 16, 2009 10:32 am

    Thanks for another awesome write up guys!
    We backpacked this, twice in the snow…talk about trecherous!
    You may recall a small cave on your right as you ascend the trail. We spent the 1st night in here on our way to the meadows…
    Then a couple of weeks later I returned with a buddy and we decided to spend another night in the cave due to nasty rainy and cold wet melting snow conditions. Well we got loaded on Scotch and passed out in the cave. I was rudely awakened about 4:30 in the morning with the cave flooded from all the rain and the snow melt. Got a good case of hypothermia that night…My down sleeping bag was soaked and had to leave it behind. Left before the sun came up using flashlights and hiked down the trail in the pouring rain and melting snow…I shivered for like 12 hours…True story (-:

    • June 16, 2009 12:30 pm

      That sounds like quite an adventure, Jim! I know the cave you’re talking about. It really doesn’t offer much in the way of shelter, so I’m not surprised you got drenched. Have you hiked up The Priest? We also did that hike on Sunday. It will be our next blog entry.

    • Jim Hopkins (kayaker729) permalink
      June 16, 2009 3:20 pm

      I haven’t done The Priest but it’s on my long list of stuff to do! Looking forward to your trail report from that one…

Trackbacks

  1. Biking, Walking & A Little Crawling — I Made It To Lexington, VA | Dot to Trot
  2. Exploring in Crabtree Falls, VA | katherinehpurdy
  3. Crabtree Falls | My Aim Is True

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