Dark Hollow Falls
We thought we would start off the Virginia Trail Guide site with one of the most popular hikes in Virginia – Dark Hollow Falls.
This trail is probably the most popular of all the hikes in Shenandoah National Park. Due to the short length and the waterfall views, it is a quick hike that gives you a lot of bang-for-your-buck.
I used to hike this trail a lot while a student at JMU. We would choose the coldest day of the year and sit under the falls for as long as we could stand it. It was our version of the Polar Bear Club, but we always brought a change of clothes to save us from hypothermia.
Dark Hollow Falls are created by the Hogcamp Branch, which will come into quick view on your right as the trail descends. At the top of the falls, you will see a sign that depicts “Falls Can Kill”. Make sure you stay on the trail! A college friend of mine tried to cross the falls near the top and fell to a lower shelf. He broke his coccyx and had to sit on a donut for about a month. His butt looked like a cross between a baboon and a Smurf. After the sign, you will approach an impressive rock formation on the left. The trail descends sharply at this point until you reach the base of the upper falls. When there has been a decent amount of rain, water falls impressively over three rock shelves. However, in dry times, the entire waterfall is usually reduced to a mere trickle. The lower falls are significantly less impressive and are a short walk down the trail. The lower falls also mark the spot where the Dark Hollow Trail converges with the Fisher’s Gap Fire Road and the Rose River Trail.
Since there is a 440 foot elevation change in this short hike, the hike back up is more strenuous. There are plenty of places to rest along the way back up.
Without a doubt, Dark Hollow Falls is Shenandoah’s iconic hike. Whenever I talk to anyone about the park, they almost always ask, “Have you hiked Dark Hollow?” It’s short, it’s close to Big Meadows and it gives you easy access to one of the park’s more impressive waterfalls. Photographically speaking, Dark Hollow isn’t the most photogenic of waterfalls. It’s usually crowded and the falls are surrounded by lots of scraggly brush and bare rock. The upper falls are definitely more impressive in size and scale, but the lower falls are probably a little more picturesque. During autumn, the lower falls are a nice spot to photograph colorful leaves on rocks surrounded by rushing water. The other benefit Dark Hollow offers for photographers is hinted at by its name. The water stays in the shadows most of the day, so it’s usually pretty easy to get even light and longer exposures.
When we hiked the trail this Saturday, it was cloudy and very still. We’d had days of rain, so the water was really running down the gorge. We got to the trailhead around 7:30 a.m. The only other people on the trail were a pair of photographers. We saw a lot more people coming down the trail when we were hiking back up. When we got back to the top, it was perfect timing for a fantastic breakfast at Skyland, one of the park’s two lodges.
Until yesterday, it had actually been years since we’d hiked the Dark Hollow Trail. I walk down to the falls frequently, but I prefer to use the fire road – fewer people and less wear and tear on the trail.
- Distance – 1.4 miles round-trip
- Elevation Change – 440 feet
- Difficulty – 2.75. Like most waterfall trails, you typically hike down to see them and hike up to return. While it is only .7 mile to see the falls, coming back will definitely make you break a sweat. The way down is more like a 2 and the way back is more like a 3.
- Trail Conditions – 4. Since this is a well-traveled trail, the trail is maintained often. Mostly small gravel on the trail, but due to the steepness of the trail and erosion fro heavy foot traffic, there are often muddy areas.
- Views – 1. Views are only of the waterfalls and streams below. Wooded trail doesn’t lead to overlooks.
- Waterfalls/streams – 4. Great waterfall view at the end of the trail and the Hogcamp Branch is in view along the much of the trail.
- Wildlife – 2. You would be likely to see deer that have visited here from Big Meadows area. Chipmunks are everywhere. Bears tend to stay away due to the human traffic. Many bird species in the trees.
- Ease to Navigate – 5. Trail is easily marked and it would be nearly impossible to get lost.
- Solitude – 1. Due to the trail’s popularity, you will not get a lot of solitude there. Early morning visits will get the highest possibility of solitude.
Directions to trailhead: On Skyline Drive. Parking lot is located around mile marker 50.7 in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park. Trail begins near signs on the north end of the parking lot.
Alternate Hike: You can also approach Dark Hollow Falls by hiking down the Fisher’s Gap Fire Road which originates across from the overlook of the same name. Across Skyline Drive, you will see the fire road with the road gate. After about .75 miles, you will come to an iron bridge at the bottom of lower Dark Hollow Falls. You can then walk up the trail to get a view of the upper falls. This alternate is a great idea for anyone who wants a less strenous option. The fire road is smooth enough that I’ve actually seen parents pushing strollers down the trail.