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.
From US-29 take a left on VA-151 heading north for 10.5 miles. VA-56 will join the highway from the right and both continue north. Take a left on VA-56 just before the bridge over the Tye River heading west. In front of you The Priest and Three Ridges Mountain dominate the landscape as the highway crisscrosses the Tye River heading deep into the gorge. After 11.7 miles you’ll see a sign pointing towards Crabtree Falls parking on the left. The trail head is on the left side of the upper parking lot. There is a daily use fee of $3, you can find information about the fee and the trails at the signs by the trail head. I’m not sure if this is required during the winter, but I paid anyways.
Max elevation: 3868 ft
Min elevation: 1637 ft
Total Time: 06:25:00
The Crabtree Falls Trail starts on the left side of the parking lot and is paved to the lowest drop of the waterfalls in a few hundred feet. Immediately you are faced with an impressive 40-foot drop that drops again under the viewing platform. Even more impressive is the view above as you can see Crabtree Creek cascading over many drops as high and far as the eye can see. The trail begins to switchback up the valley, attaining a ridge far away from the creek before returning at a higher elevation. You can mark your progress as you hike farther and farther up the waterfalls since the trail continually doubles back on itself. The next series of falls should be considered part of the lower drop, or possibly considered a different section. The lowest drop closest to the parking lot is approximately 100 feet in 3 drops. Just above that is the highest section with an immaculate drop over a cliff that funnels the water to the far left side. This is one of the prettiest drops along the creek. Above this drop the trail frequently switchbacks directly beside the waterfall. It’s difficult to describe or illustrate how tall this waterfall is, how many drops there are, and how impressive the setting is. Personally, I combined the two sections of lower waterfalls calling it Lower Crabtree Falls. I estimate it is easily over 300 feet with 4 or 5 significant drops. It’s probably easier if I just present this section in pictures.
At the top of the lower section is a small observation area where you can peer down towards the bottom. The creek levels out briefly for a quarter of a mile before the middle falls. On the right side of the trail is a cave formed by huge, fallen boulders. As you keep walking the middle falls comes into view through the trees. Middle Crabtree Falls is easily my favorite section. It is the smallest drop, approximately 90-100 feet. The water flows over a wide cliff and is funneled to the left side of the rock through a deep crevice before spilling out into a gorgeous pool. The rock is covered in green moss, and a large tree has fallen across the lower portion of the falls and is lodged in the crevice. There are so many cool aspects to this waterfall. It’s difficult to get a great view without trees blocking part of your picture but if you climb down the hill below the waterfall you can capture the full drop. I personally enjoy walking out along the fallen tree close to the crevice so I could get close and personal to the waterfall.
The trail continues its climb above the middle falls, traveling quite a distance to the south before returning to the creek. At this point you reach the base of Upper Crabtree Falls, the largest single drop of Crabtree Falls over a massive cliff. The creek spills from a hanging valley and falls over 200 feet on a shimmering rock face covered in ice. It is quite a sight, and after over a mile of waterfalls this somehow tops everything. It is so tall that it is tough to frame a good picture that represents the scale. The upper falls alone is likely the tallest waterfall in Virginia.
One last switchback brings you to the top of the falls. There is a wood bridge across the creek to a beautiful stone wall guarding an observation area. This is all very necessary, a reported 20 people have died at Crabtree Falls and this is easily the most hazardous area. People may have tried to creep closer to the edge to see the top of the falls, but the rock is sloped and covered in moss. The view from the stone wall is beautiful, you can see the Tye River snaking through the mountains far below. It’s incredible how quickly and how far the creek drops in such a short distance.
This is the last of the waterfalls, and for the next 1.4 miles the trail follows Crabtree Creek as it mellows out in a beautiful hanging valley. Here you can easily make up some time if you dawdled too long at the waterfalls, but you might want to take your time experiencing the forest. Hanging valleys are unusual in the Southeast. We usually don’t have high enough mountains, plateaus, or enough water for a true hanging valley to have year-round creek with a waterfall exit. There’s a small one in Doughton Park, NC, and Hickory Nut Falls flows from a hanging valley in Chimney Rock State Park, NC. Beside the creek there are many campsites and I could see this place being popular in the summer with casual campers. The trail ends at the upper parking lot beside the Crabtree Meadows area. Take a left on the gravel road heading north.
Crabtree Meadows is on the right side of the road, a huge field sitting in a bowl below the mountains. Crabtree Creek at this point is a tiny stream. The forest road climbs briskly uphill as it passes by numerous reserve-only campsites. This is the steepest climb of the hike ironically. The road flattens out at a gap where it intersects with the Appalachian Trail. On my previous visit I went left, heading north into The Priest Wilderness. This time I went right heading south towards Spy Rock. This is a much longer hike, so if you have less time or stamina I’d suggest hiking to The Priest. It still has very good views. The Appalachian Trail briefly climbs a ridge before descending. Throughout this trek the forest is mostly hardwood and there are always distant views through the trees.
At mile 4.8 the AT crosses an unmarked forest road. On the topographic map this road leads downhill to Cash Hollow. There are multiple drainages in this region named __ Hollow. From here the Appalachian Trail starts switchbacking up a mountain unnamed on the map. Eventually I came across a very rocky section with an open rock face. The rock face looks to be the result of a landslide. There are open views southeast of the Religious Range, and I was able to spot a large bump on a ridge due south. I assumed this bump was Spy Rock. Beyond this landslide area there was a very inviting grass clearing on the right side, perfect for 1 or 2 tents. The trail begins its climb up Maintop Mountain as the forest opens up and there are large boulders strewn everywhere off the trail. Initially I thought I would pass over the summit but the trail stays on the east shoulder of the mountain. Upon reaching a wide, flat section of the forest the AT turns right while the spur trail to Spy Rock turns left. The next few hundred feet is a remarkable camping area with a grassy floor and sparse tree cover. The rock dome of Spy Rock is at the end of this flat area.
From what I could tell there is no trail up Spy Rock. You have to do some rock scrambling to get to the top, but it is routine. The summit of Spy Rock can be summed up easily with one word – incredible. I knew it had excellent views but I assumed it was only an upgrade on The Priest. It’s not in the same class. This is one of those 360º views where you actually get the full 360º with no trees in the way. To the south some of the smaller mountains in the Religious Range give way to the foothills. The sun was shining far too brightly in the southern direction for me to make out the summits around Mt. Pleasant. To the northwest Maintop Mountain is very close, with Black Rock on the left side of the mountain looking like a very inviting outcrop. My favorite view was northeast and east. The Priest and Little Priest dominate the surroundings. On the left side of The Priest the Three Ridges Wilderness looms behind, while the mountains of St. Mary’s Wilderness loom farther behind Three Ridges Mountain. I loved the fading layer effect of these three spectacular mountain wilderness areas. On top of Spy Rock, which is huge and has plenty of grassy spots to sit, there were frozen potholes of water that allowed me to take some cool pictures. I stayed at the summit close to 45 minutes, probably a record for me. Although the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia are not tall, they still provide some spectacular vistas.
Descending Spy Rock was much tougher than the ascent. Some of the steep areas had lots of ice and footing was tricky. From Spy Rock it is a little under 7 miles to the parking lot. I traveled quickly. I thought the sunset from Upper Crabtree Falls was particularly pretty but the pictures turned out poorly. On the way down I decided to bushwhack down to the creek far below Middle Crabtree Falls to get pictures of the entire drop. With the dim lighting it proved difficult but some of the pictures turned out well. This hike has it all for someone looking to do a full-day hike with water and views. I am not particularly knowledgeable about what Virginia has to offer but I’d say Crabtree Falls and Spy Rock rate amongst the best waterfalls and views in Virginia.