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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.