Fallingwater Cascades and Flat Top Mountain – Peaks of Otter Recreation Area, VA

 

Fallingwater Cascades
Fallingwater Cascades

It was my birthday, but Duke was playing in the NCAA Round of 32 in the middle of the afternoon and there was no way I’m missing the game. I really wanted to get outside for a birthday hike but had limited options for driving and hiking. I decided on Peaks of Otter Recreation Area, which is under 2.5 hours away and offers multiple short hikes. On my first visit I did a quick hike to Sharp Top Mountain on my way to DC, this time I wanted to park at the trail access to Fallingwater Cascades and Flat Top Mountain. Although Flat Top Mountain can be accessed from a lower trail head at Abbott Lake, this is a steep route. It may be shorter in distance but it will likely take the same time to reach the summit. In addition to the casual long walk to the summit, the upper trail head gives you access to Fallingwater Cascades. My mind was set, a new waterfall and a new summit in 7.7 miles. Fallingwater Cascades is a nice waterfall, well worth the short hike. Flat Top Mountain has multiple cliffs on the summit offering exceptional views west and east. This is a fairly easy hike that was a great half-day choice for my birthday trek along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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Crabtree Falls to Spy Rock – George Washington National Forest, VA

 

East view of The Priest from Spy Rock
East view of The Priest from Spy Rock

I don’t get to Virginia enough. From afar I look down on it but when I hike there I enjoy it just as much as North Carolina. After 3 hikes I’ve come to love the mountains around VA-56. The Tye River crashes through a narrow gorge which highway 56 follows through the Blue Ridge Mountains on its way to the foothills. Around this area the Appalachian Trail crosses dramatic peaks through The Priest Wilderness and Three Ridges Wilderness, and other trails follow steep water drainages to popular or secluded waterfalls. There’s a lot to see, and trail access is easy. Crabtree Falls is billed as the highest waterfall on the East Coast. This is decidedly untrue because Crabtree Falls is actually 3 or 5 waterfalls (depending on your source), and when combined would become the tallest waterfall in the East. However, it is still an incredible series of falls that in my opinion is unrivaled in the Southeast. Beyond the top of the waterfall you can continue up a rare hanging valley to meet the Appalachian Trail. During my previous visit to the area, I hiked north to The Priest. My plan on this day was to hike south on the Appalachian Trail to Spy Rock, an incredible rock dome with 360° views. You can easily be satisfied with a short hike to either Crabtree Falls or Spy Rock but I love combining trails for a long day. If you are looking for a hike in this area of Virginia, Crabtree Falls is the place you should start.

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Little Wilson Creek Wilderness – Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, VA

 

Summit of Stone Mountain
Summit of Stone Mountain

The day did not end as expected. I spent a wonderful hour exploring cascades and waterfalls along Wilson Creek before meandering up Stone Mountain taking in the panoramic views. Despite being chased away from my lunch spot by an irritated wild pony, the fall colors and perfect temperatures made it a great hike so far. Per norm the sights in Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area exceeded expectations. That changed beyond Stone Mountain as I entered the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. What followed was a boring and sometimes painful 3.5 hours of hiking through the quagmire of horse trails in the wilderness. These trails were always extremely rocky, and at times very muddy. To end the day I slipped in Wilson Creek and ended up wading the creek and Wilburn Branch multiple times as I got lost trying to connect the Big Wilson Creek Trail to Upchurch Road. I eventually found my way out though after a few trial and errors and lots of exploratory running.

 

So, to summarize – the first half of this hike was awesome and the second half left a lot to be desired. My hiking plan was to take the Wilson Creek Trail from the Hickory Ridge campground/amphitheater parking in Grayson Highlands State Park then connect to the Appalachian Trail north towards Scales compound. From there I would loop around through the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness via First Peak, Kabel, Big Wilson Creek, and Upchurch Road trails. This loop is 13.1 miles without getting lost – I hiked 14.4 miles – but I would recommend turning around at the summit of Stone Mountain and taking an easier return trip. I also was trying out my new footwear combination of La Sportiva Ultra Raptor’s and Mont-Bell Stretch Short Spats (gaiters). They worked really well but I’ll need to try them a few more times before I write reviews.

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Rock Castle Gorge – Rocky Knob Recreation Area, VA

 

Rock Castle Gorge view from Rocky Knob
Rock Castle Gorge view from Rocky Knob

Although not featured heavily in guidebooks, Rock Castle Gorge is an extremely popular loop hike for the Piedmont Hiking and Outing Club. The trail is located along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Rocky Knob National Area, and is described as Doughton Park-lite by hikers. Due to its close proximity and description, I was anxious to check it out. I brought along my friends Ryan and Rachel, and we tackled the nearly 11-mile loop starting at the bottom. The Rock Castle Gorge loop climbs out of the valley along a steep creek drainage and traverses open fields before climbing over Rocky Knob, then drops into Rock Castle Gorge and follows the namesake creek back to the parking area. Since I hiked it over a year ago, some memories have faded but it is an excellent loop hike that is worth the trip for the creeks and vistas.

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Pine Mountain and Wilburn Ridge – Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, VA

 

Southeast from Wilburn Ridge
Southeast from Wilburn Ridge

It was the perfect day to visit a spot I hadn’t hiked in years. I have backpacked here twice in March 2010 and October 2010 but never a day hike. I drove out to Grayson Highlands State Park planning to do a big loop in the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. Most of the hike would be on trails I’ve never touched and I was excited because it was sunny and mid-70s. Once I got started though and started ascending Stone Mountain towards Scales, I could not resist doing a loop I did years ago backpacking. The views and weather were too good to pass up. I started at the Massie Gap parking area in Grayson Highlands State Park and took the Appalachian Trail north past Scales before using the Pine Mountain Trail to form a loop with the AT. After a quick out-and-back to the Thomas Knob Shelter I trekked over Wilburn Ridge and said hi to some ponies on my way to the car. This loop hike is one of the best hikes in the Southeast and everyone should try to experience at least a portion of this area.

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Henry Lanum Trail – Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area, VA

 

Cold Mountain view
Cold Mountain view

Until recently, I have focused on finding trails in North Carolina that aren’t well-known. However I have been mostly ignorant to the fact there are a lot of great hikes just across the border in Virginia that are sometimes closer than our own mountains. In the past year I’ve gone on 6 hikes in Virginia and am continually impressed by what I find. On Memorial Day, still recovering from my grueling hike in the Black Mountains, I slept in and struck out to do a casual hike in the Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area in George Washington National Forest. There are 2 excellent loop options in this region, I chose to hike the Henry Lanum Trail, a 5.2-mi loop hike that crosses Mount Pleasant and Pompey Mountain. I read Mount Pleasant has one of the best summit views in Virginia and it did not disappoint on this beautiful Monday afternoon.

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Old Rag – Shenandoah National Park, VA

 

Old Rag from Nethers Rd
Old Rag from Nethers Rd

I have always wanted to hike Old Rag. It’s very well-known and supposed to be one of the best hikes in Virginia. But it is a considerable distance from Chapel Hill and is also supposed to be extremely crowded on the weekends in the summer months. I had my chance on the way back from Washington DC on a beautiful Monday. It poured rain a few days prior, and the weather couldn’t be better with clear skies in the 60s. While not exactly on the way back from DC, I did not mind the detour and I knew the crowds would be small because it was a weekday. Old Rag Mountain (3,268 feet) is located on the eastern periphery of Shenandoah National Park, standing separate and alone from the mountains that line Skyline Drive north to south. Although it was a short hike, it took a long time and lived up to its billing as an exciting rock scramble with excellent views. This hike should be on everyone’s bucket list if you live within driving distance.

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