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South River Falls

November 30, 2009

This 4.6 mile hike leads you along the South River to an impressive waterfall that plunges deep into a canyon.  When the park has experienced lots of rain, this waterfall hike is one of the nicest Shenandoah has to offer.

Cascades along the South River

The South River is impressive in times of heavy rain.

Adam Says…

We have kept with a tradition the last few years of doing a hike on Thanksgiving morning.  It’s a great way to appreciate nature and try to do something active before a big meal.  This year, we decided to break the tradition of having a huge Thanksgiving meal with turkey and all the trimmings.  We decided to have an easier meal that we would both enjoy – homemade pizza.

We’ve hiked South River Falls before, but we’ve never had as much water in the falls before.  We thought it would be impressive, since we could hear rushing water through the South River a lot earlier than normal.  Waterfall hikes in Shenandoah National Park tend to be fairly tough ones.  Since you park on Skyline Drive at a high elevation, you have to hike down to the valleys where the falls are created.  What makes it difficult, at least psychologically, is that you get to the payoff fairly easily and then have to do the hard work on your way back to your vehicle.

The South River right at the crest of the waterfall.

The beauty of the South River is found mostly in its small details. The cascades and little falls leading the large waterfall are prettier than the main waterfall.  Pictured below: South River Falls from the overlook at the top of the canyon; the falls from the base.  You’ll see neither vantage point of the waterfall is terribly photogenic (especially after the leaves have come down). Both of the small photos below are from another date.  This time, the falls were much bigger – but it was too sunny to photograph them.

The view from the top of the canyon. The view from the base of the falls

The hike begins at the South River Picnic Area.  Look for the large sign about the hike on the northeastern side of the picnic area.   At slightly over .1 mile, you will cross the Appalachian Trail.  You will continue your descent and around 1 mile, you will rock-hop across a small creek that drains into the South River.  Usually this is not much of a challenge due to the water, but we found the water was higher than normal this time.  At 1.3 miles, you will come to a nice overlook for the South River Falls.  You really get a great view of the 83 foot waterfall.  It plunges to a rocky ledge and splits in two about half of the length of the waterfall.  If you continue on the trail for another .2 miles, you will arrive at a cement post and join a spur to the South River Fire Road.  If you continue on for another .2 miles, you will descend even further and arrive at another cement post.  Following the path from the cement post for another .1 mile, you will arrive at the base of the falls.  For any adventurous shutterbugs, there are ample opportunities near the base of the falls for long-exposure photography. Make sure you have your strength up, because you have 2.2 miles to hike at a steady incline back to your vehicle.

To follow the trail as a loop as we did, once you make your return from the base of the falls, go .7 miles until you reach the cement post and the junction with the South River Falls Trail. Stay on the fire road instead and after .4 miles more, you will reach the yellow-blazed South River Fire Road.  Take a left on the road.  In about a mile, you will reach the junction with the Appalachian Trail.  Take a left on the white-blazed AT, heading south for about .4 miles.  You will then reach the junction with the South River Falls Trail and only have about .1 mile to reach the picnic ground.

The hike was a tough one, but it was nice to get some exercise.  The thought of carving into our pizza helped us muster the energy to make it back.

Christine Says…

This was a great trail to burn off Thanksgiving calories!  The terrain is rugged and the return arm of the loop is nothing but steady, tough uphill climbing.  Even Wookie, who is normally a bundle of boundless energy, got quite tired on this hike.  By the time we got to the Appalachian Trail junction, his corkscrew tail was completely unfurled.   Even though there are some hikes in the park with more elevation gain, I think the 1300+ feet on the South River trail provides some of the park’s tougher climbing.   Anyone looking for an easier version of this hike should consider doing the short loop (3.2 miles) that returns after the overlook at the top of the falls.  By taking that route, you reduce the elevation gain to a very manageable 850 feet.

Despite the hard work required to get there, I really enjoyed seeing the South River and its namesake falls so flush with water.  The Shenandoah area has had over five inches of rain in the month of November – more than double the normal amount.  All of the park’s streams, rivers and waterfalls are flowing beautifully right now.  It’s a great time to get out and enjoy the scenery and the less-crowded conditions in the park.

Cascades along the South River

There are many small, but beautiful, waterfalls along the trail. Pictured below: Another pretty spot along the river.

Cascades along the South River

I had hoped to get some photo opportunities along the river on our Thanksgiving hike.  I did take a few shots, but the weather was less than cooperative.  It was too sunny to take shots of the moving water. Every now and then, I found a shady spot down in a deep ravine.  I did a bit of bushwhacking to get to a few pretty spots, but overall I don’t feel like I came home with any special photos.

Honestly, while South River falls is probably the park’s most impressive waterfall, it is not one that translates nicely on film.   The falls plunge into an enormous natural amphitheater.  The sheer rock walls are amazing, but they aren’t photogenic.  I’ve seen a few nice shots of South River Falls in the spring, when the water is flowing and the falls are surrounded by the lush new green of the trees and plants.  In the late fall and winter, the falls are really scrubby and barren looking.

I think some of the prettiest and most dramatic places along the South River come at the bottom of the falls.  In the last .1 mile of the trail, leading to the base of the falls, the water tumbles over a hundred feet down over giant boulders.  There are many small, beautiful waterfalls to enjoy before you get to work climbing back up to your car.

When we got home from our hike, we found several TICKS!  Can you believe it – ticks in late November; ticks after the mountains have had snow and temperatures at night are regularly below freezing?  These were tiny ticks – about the size of a pinhead.  We pulled one off Adam’s sweatshirt and two off of Wookie.  I hate having to watch for ticks year round, but it seems that we must.

Wookie Says...Wookie Says…
Hey all of you fellow hiking dogs.  It’s been a while since I’ve been hiking, so I’m going to let you know what I thought of the trail.  I enjoy getting the chance to get in the outdoors and I usually run laps around the house when my masters ask,  “Would you like to go on a car ride?”

The hike on South River Falls was pretty fun for the most part.  I enjoyed going downhill until I reached the stream to try and rock-hop.  I’ve done this hike before with my masters, but there was a lot of water this time around.  I don’t really like to get my feet wet and when I see any water on the hike, I try to take the driest option.  After Adam crossed the creek, I really didn’t want to follow him.  Only after Christine gave me a little nudge with her trekking poles, did I take the plunge and hop across the rocks.

Wookie Enjoyed the Hike

Wookie enjoyed the hike, but was exhausted the rest of the day.

All the rushing water on the trail, really made me need to go to the bathroom.  I tried to make my mark as much as possible to let all my fellow canines know that Wookie was here.  The hike back from the falls was pretty brutal for a small dog like me.  My tail was down a lot of the trip back, because it was exhausting.  At least I got some pizza scraps and a taste of sausage instead of turkey scraps this year.  For that, I was truly thankful.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4.6 miles – loop.
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike – added 5/16/15)
  • Elevation Change –1315 feet.
  • Difficulty – 3. The return arm of the circuit climbs steeply uphill along a fire road for two straight miles.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is in great shape.
  • Views –0. You are deep in the woods for the entire hike.
  • Waterfalls/streams –4. In times of heavy rain, the South River is an impressive stream.
  • Wildlife – 0. We didn’t see *anything*, but over the summer there was a bear with three cubs in the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are clearly marked.
  • Solitude – 2. This trail’s proximity to a park entrance makes it a popular hike.

Directions to trailhead:
From Skyline Drive, follow the drive to the South River Picnic Area (near mile marker 62).  The trailhead is located at the back end of the picnic grounds, across from the restroom facilities.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Josh permalink
    October 2, 2015 5:02 pm

    I ran this trail yesterday, didn’t see a soul! Just me and the dog had the whole area to ourselves. Great hike with nice views. Definitely was wet but, that provided for plenty of small falls. Also a couple of the stream crossings were mostly washed over.


  2. Martine Zimmer permalink
    July 13, 2014 5:01 pm

    We just hiked this one on June 30th. It was absolutely beautiful and we had the falls all to ourselves. We met quite a few people but they did not go to the base of the falls. Thanks for your post. It helped a lot since the trail to the bottom is not marked.


  3. Howie Atherton permalink
    December 6, 2013 7:07 pm

    We enjoyed the hike to the base of the falls and back up the fire road (phew) in early Dec. but in a t-shirt. Beautiful. Our GPS had it 1.8 at the overlook and over 5 for the full trip. And we went straight up to the road as opposed to along the AT. (We couldn’t force ourselves back down to come up again, whimpy, I know) Longer than advertised but worth every step.


    • December 7, 2013 2:00 pm

      Thanks for the visit, Howie! We had a Garmin GPS when we did this hike, but I’m almost certain it always undercounted mileage by cutting straight across switchbacks. The park service lists this hike at 4.8 miles. Someday we’ll get out there and re-map with new, more accurate technology. 🙂


  4. August 19, 2013 9:39 pm

    I did this hike a couple days ago, but just found your write-up of it now. 🙂 I wrote my own here as well:

    Needless to say, I’ll be referencing your site a lot during my stay here in Harrisonburg!


  5. November 30, 2009 11:59 am

    This hike is one of my favorites in Shenandoah. The last time I did it I saw a Timber Rattlesnake on the way back up. I was completely zoned out just focusing on hiking back uphill and almost stepped on it. Luckily I didn’t and it stuck around for a few photos. Looks like you guys started off your Thanksgiving nicely! I hope the rest of the day went well also.


    • November 30, 2009 2:38 pm

      It was a good hike, Matt! This is our third or fourth time hiking it. For some reason, we always seem to do this hike in the late fall or winter. I’d love to see the falls with green leaves around it sometime. I bet it would be much more photogenic!



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