Trail Trials: Crabtree Falls, VA
Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains are home to some spectacular waterfalls, but none quite compare to the scale of Crabtree Falls. At nearly twelve hundred feet in total drop, Crabtree Falls is the highest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Though relatively isolated, hundreds of thousands of tourists from across the country visit this majestic landmark each year.
The history of the falls can be traced back to their namesake, Reverend William Crabtree, who explored the region in the mid-1770s. The area remained unsettled until the early 1800s when Bartlett Hawkins Fitzgerald acquired the land surrounding the falls as part of his Revolutionary War pension. Fitzgerald served as a private in the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons ("Lady Washington's Guards") having enlisted in January 1777. On September 27, 1778, while campaigning in New Jersey, Fitzgerald's 116-man unit was ambushed by 650 British soldiers commanded by General Charles Grey. The ferocious surprise attack known as Baylor's Massacre resulted in 69 Dragoon casualties. Fitzgerald, himself, was stabbed eighteen times but managed to survive. He was furloughed in March 1779, only to rejoin his company later that October. Fitzgerald would go onto serve in the Battles of Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse before being wounded again at the Battle of Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781.
Descendants of the Fitzgerald family lived around Crabtree Falls until the early 1900s. During the 1960s, developers considered converting the base of the falls into a mountain resort; however, these efforts were stopped by a group of conservationists led by Leonard A. Snead—the former U.S. Assistant Fuel Administrator during World War I. The falls were placed under the protection of the National Forest System in 1968 and are currently one of George Washington National Forest’s most popular attractions.
The Crabtree Falls Trail is a heavily trafficked, 3.5-mile out-and-back route that features five major cascade overlooks. The trail begins in the parking area, just across the Tye River. There is a $3 entrance fee per vehicle, so please honor that obligation prior to parking. Near the trailhead is a slightly morbid feature of Crabtree’s history, the Washington-Fitzgerald family cemetery. Elizabeth “Betsy” Fitzgerald—the granddaughter of Bartlett Hawkins Fitzgerald—and her husband, Achilles Washington, are buried here along with two of their children, both named Mary.
The lower falls overlook is located just 0.1 miles away from the cemetery. This part of the trail is paved, making the view easily accessible for all guests. Several dozen steps rise adjacent to the lower falls, transitioning the gently inclined pavement into a rocky uphill climb. Stairs and switchbacks are commonplace along the trail due to Crabtree’s steep and slick terrain.
The second overlook—arguably the most picturesque of the five vantage points—is situated near the 0.3-mile mark. Underneath a canopy of trees, visitors feel like they are hiking through a jungle as the footpath winds its way around the cascading creek and flora-covered boulders. The trail widens out near the 1-mile mark where hikers can observe the middle falls and explore a large cave formed by fallen rocks. The fourth major cascade can be viewed about one-third of a mile up the trail.
The fifth and final waterfall view is located at mile 1.6. Here, the upper falls—the largest of the five cascades—tumble over two hundred feet down the mountain. From the base of the upper falls, the trail ascends another 0.1 miles up the ridgeline and finishes at the Tye River overlook, which offers fair to middling views of the valley below.
It took me about two hours to complete the entire Crabtree Falls journey. The trail is very well-maintained, although the steep grades and rocky terrain make it somewhat strenuous for novice hikers. However, it is extremely important to stay on the trail, no matter your expertise. At least thirty people have died within the past four decades due to carelessness on the falls. Bring sturdy footwear and enjoy the falls from a distance. The trail runs parallel to Crabtree Creek for most of the climb, providing hikers plenty of opportunities to appreciate this Appalachian gem. While the Tye River overlook was rather underwhelming, Crabtree Falls was truly captivating and well worth the experience. Trail Rating: 8/10