Apple Orchard Falls – Cornelius Creek Loop
This 6-mile hike is jam-packed with spectacular stream scenery and waterfalls – the most impressive being the 200 foot Apple Orchard Falls.
Apple Orchard Falls has been on our ‘must hike’ list for years now, and I’m so glad we finally got out there and did it! It’s a bit of a drive from our home-base of the central Shenandoah valley, but it was well worth the trip! We hiked it on a cool, rainy day in mid-April. We thought we’d have the trail all to ourselves, but as our car bumped along the forest road nearing the parking area, a runner went by. Then three more runners… and then a cluster of ten. Pretty soon we realized that there was some kind of race going on in the vicinity. It turns out we picked the same day as the Promise Land 50K for our hike. We ended up sharing the first half of our six-mile route with 300+ trail runners.
They were all friendly folks, but it was a little stressful to constantly be looking over my shoulder, watching to make sure there wasn’t a racer on my heels, needing to pass. I certainly didn’t want to get in anyone’s way as they cruised toward victory or a personal record! I still enjoyed the gorgeous stream scenery as we ascended alongside North Creek. The sound of the water was soothing. The hillsides along the trail were covered with trillium and purple wild geraniums. The air was filled with a light misty rain and all the trees were unfurling their brilliant spring green leaves. With all these pleasures along the trail, I tried my best not to let the constant stream of passing racers disrupt the zen-like peace.
The trail was in great shape and ascended steadily and moderately uphill. There were several sturdy footbridges across the creek on our hike up. Around 1.3 miles into the hike, the climb became a little steeper and rockier. Right before reaching the base of the falls, we passed through a jumble of huge boulders. At first, we could only see the falls through the trees. They were majestic, but obscured by the foliage. We continued uphill, making a wide switchback before coming to a curved wooden bridge and a viewing platform at the base of the fall’s largest plunge.
Adam set up my tripod and I spent some time photographing the waterfall from a variety of angles. I wish the trees around the falls had been a little more ‘leafed out’. The green would have made an even more attractive frame for the falls, but it was still very nice. I was challenged by the rain – which was beginning to fall at a steadier pace. Droplets kept landing on my lens, and making blurry bubbles on each of my photos. I used a hat as an umbrella as much as I could. While we were enjoying the waterfall, the bulk of the racers passed us by.
After leaving the falls, we climbed the 175 stairs above the falls. About halfway up the stairs, we caught our one open view of the hike – a pretty peek out over a spring green valley. Shortly after the top of the stairs, we passed another small waterfall. There was a nice established campsite near the smaller fall. What a idyllic place to spend a night! In fact, we saw many great campsites all along this loop. I think it would make a great beginner backpacking trip or short gear shakedown route.
About a third of a mile past the small waterfall, we reached Apple Orchard Road, which is a grassy fire road that connects to the Cornelius Creek trail. The racers all continued uphill toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. We turned right and followed the fire road for about a mile to its intersection with the Cornelius Creek Trail. Fire roads are typically sort of dull, but this one was actually quite nice – lush green, curvy, and decorated with wildflowers – more trillium, geraniums, violets, and enormous dense patches of Dutchman’s Breeches.
The Cornelius Creek trail was probably my favorite part of the hike. The racers were off our tail, and I could fully focus on the spring forest and sound of flowing water. The rain was coming down steadily, so my photo opportunities were a bit limited. Hopefully, I captured enough to adequately convey the feel of Cornelius Creek. It was lovely with so many small cascades and swimming holes. The only real challenge on this part of the hike were the two significant stream crossings. The first (pictured at the top of the post) was wide, but not very deep. Our toes got a little wet. But the second was quite deep, wide, and fast-moving. We packed all of our camera gear and electronics away in dry bags and plunged in. Even rock-hopping, the water came halfway up to my knees. The footing was small, shifty, and slick! Thankfully, we made it across without falling completely into the water! The last bit of walking was done with sodden shoes and socks – that squishy feeling is always so weird!
When we got back to the car the first thing I did was take off my soaked shoes and socks and put on flip flops! Then we were off on our way for a well-deserved lunch at Peaks of Otter!
We got up early to hit the road and beat the crowds on this hike. With a gloomy day with some rain scheduled around the early afternoon, we wanted to make the best use of our day. When we first saw the runners on the gravel road, I thought well at least they are going in the opposite way. We parked our car at the end of the road and there was a race stop set up for people to check in, get some snacks and water and keep running. Little did we know we would see most of them all again on the trail.
We got out of our car and found out that there were going to be runners on the trail. We thought we would at least try to get a head start, so we jumped on the trail right away. We took the blue-blazed Apple Orchard Falls trail left of the kiosk that came to a wooden bridge almost immediately. We soon came across the first runner of the day on the trail, who we heard ended up coming in 2nd in the race. Along the trail, there were funny signs to try and inspire the runners along the way (and most were done with Game of Thrones references). At .2 miles, take a right at the intersection to stay on the trail.
The trail continues along North Creek for a steady uphill. At 1.2 miles, you reach a couple of bridges and a small creekside campsite. Crossing over the second bridge, the trail becomes steeper uphill. Eventually, you get some views of the falls to the right as you make the climb up. But don’t worry, the trail leads right up to the falls. The climb up to the falls is also very steep. But, as you reach the falls at 2.0 miles, there is a nice bench and platform, inviting you to take your time to enjoy the views. We stayed here for a while and saw a ton of runners pass by. Some of them just took a quick glance, some walked slowly by, but one guy stopped to take a picture. I guess the runners had different levels of competitiveness and different levels of exhaustion at this stage of the race.
The trail continues on and winds around the hillside before beginning a series of stairs. Along the climb, there was a nice viewpoint that gave you glimpses of mountains to the west. We continued uphill along the trail until we reached another waterfall around 2.3 miles. There was a nice campsite by this waterfall also and we thought it would be a great overnight stop for a backpacking trip. At 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a fire road. We took this fire road to the right. At 3.7 miles, the trail meets a junction with the Cornelius Creek Trail. We headed straight to start the Cornelius Creek Trail. This trail descends quite steeply. As we had seen the runners on this trail when we first arrived at the parking lot, I felt that I too was having to run down the steepness of this trail in the beginning. Be careful where you step, since the trail is incredibly steep and filled with loose rock, begging for a twisted ankle or fall. At 4.2 miles, the trail runs along Cornelius Creek.
Cornelius Creek was a long exposure photographer’s dream. There were so many spots where you saw small waterfalls and swimming holes along the way. Contrasted with the lush green forest, it was truly beautiful to see. We did have to cross Cornelius Creek a couple of times and with any recent rain, you are likely going to get your feet wet. Be careful as there are some deep holes along the creek crossings that could have you up to your waist if you don’t step carefully. We made it across and continued our hike. The rain was coming down fairly steadily, so we didn’t stop a lot for fear of ruining camera gear, but it was one of the most beautiful creekside hikes you will see in Virginia. Right before you return to the parking lot, you’ll see a large campsite (with even a rope swing put in). We got back to the parking lot at the 6 mile marker.
On our way back home, we took a detour and drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway to have lunch at Peaks of Otter. My family used to picnic here yearly, so this spot always holds a near and dear place in my heart. We had a nice lunch with music from a local singer. We decided also to stop by Apocalypse Ale Works brewery for one of our favorite post-hike things to do – beer sampling. The drive back home was rainy most of the day, but we felt like we had accomplished a lot on a dreary day.
- Distance – 6 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1438 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. This is a great moderate hike!
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is very pleasant to walk. Sturdy bridges and a wide viewing platform are available so the walk up to the falls along North Creek is pleasant and safe. There are a couple crossings on the Cornelius Creek descent that can be tricky when there has been recent rain.
- Views – 2. There is one nice view when you’re climbing the stairs after visiting Apple Orchard Falls.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 5. Spectacular – you are within view of the stream for most of the hike.
- Wildlife – 1. Too many people to see much wildlife!
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The signs make this route pretty easy to follow. There are several places where trails go in multiple directions, but this route is well marked.
- Solitude – 0. It’s supposedly the most popular hike in Jefferson National Forest. It was cool and rainy when we hiked it, so there weren’t many other day hikers. But there were 300+ racers on the trail with us.
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take exit 168 for VA-614 toward Arcadia. Turn on to VA-614 heading east and go 3.3 miles. Turn left on to North Creek Road. Go 2.8 miles and turn right on to an unnamed road*. This road is a gravel road. Follow it for 2.2 miles until you reach the large parking lot. The trail starts left of the kiosk. Right of the kiosk, the trail going uphill is your return route. *Since this unnamed road can’t be found on GoogleMaps, I would suggest printing the trail map above to have a way to find this road.