Tag Archives: Waterfalls

Seng Mountain National Scenic Area

This article reviews the newest federally protected area in Southwest Virginia, the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area. 

Rowland Creek Falls

In 2009 the United States enacted the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act of 2008.   Sponsored by Senator John Warner (R-VA) and Rick Boucher (D-VA), the Act preserved over 50,000 acres of wilderness areas in the western part of Virginia.  Part of the Act created the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area, a 6,500 acre tract, and the Bear Creek National Scenic Area, a 5,500 acre tract (I will review the Bear Creek National Scenic Area in a future article).  See 16 U.S.C. § 546b.  The designation of these tracts as “scenic areas,” as opposed to “wilderness,” was a compromise to allow continued non-motorized recreational use by cyclists (mostly single track mountain biking).

Some groups and individuals have known about this part of the northern ramparts and mountainsides of Iron Mountain for a long time.  The Seng Mountain area has been part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area for 25+ years.  The scenic area designation simply gives it more protection and makes permanent the designation of the area as one for the limited recreational uses enumerated in the statute.  Ok—enough with the legal mumbo jumbo—let’s talk about the area itself:

 The area is located in the southern section of Smyth County and is about 30 miles as the crow flies from Abingdon.  Its boundaries are roughly Route 600 (Skulls Gap) on the west, Hurricane Campground on the east (off of Route 16), Forest Road 84 near the top of Iron Mountain on the south, and private land near the Stony Battery community on the north. 

There are two major single track trails that cross the scenic area, Jerrys Creek Trail on the west side, and Rowland Creek Trail on the east side.  Each of the trails follows a small creek that runs down the mountainside.  The high point in the scenic area is Round Top Mountain, 4626′. 

Mountainsides Draw Close Together to Form Miniature Gorge

In mid-April my family and I drove to the upper trail head of Rowland Creek Trail.    Our starting point was at 3850′.  You reach this trailhead by traveling on FR 84, which is a gravel forest road.  Getting to the trailhead from Route 600 takes about 20-25 minutes. 

This is an unusual mountain hike, in that the hike starts the top, so you start hiking downhill, and return going back uphill.  Rowland Creek trail starts out wide as it descends around Seng Mountain, down towards the headwaters of the creek below.  The area forms a mini-gorge, as the mountainsides are steep and drop quickly down into Rowland Creek. 

Rowland Creek Trail - Steep Switchbacks

 Where we started, on FR 84, there were no leaves.  However, within a half mile of going down the trail, we descended into the foliage of springtime.  The protection of the gorge-like formation protects the trees below from the elements, creating a micro-climate that is much milder than at the top. 

Leafed Out Trees Below Contrast with 4000'+ Bare Ridge Lines

After several switchbacks, you arrive at the headwaters of Rowland Creek.  There are some nice potential campsites at the upper end of the trail, within easy walking distance of the creek.

Moss Covered Rocks and Boulders
Photo by Karl Thiessen

One thing we noticed is that the trail was quite moist and rutted out from horses near the creek.  It is probably extremely muddy after rains.  The trail roughly parallels the creek the rest of the way down the mini-gorge. 

The area along the creek is lush.  We spotted numerous flowers.  A bit of research shows that the trilliums we saw are native to the Southeastern United States, particularly in mountainous, gorge-like hollows such as that on this trail.  They bloom in April or May at the earliest, while sunlight reaches the forest floor before the trees are fully leafed out.

Southern Red Trillium
Photo by Karl Thiessen

One thing we were not anticipating, but had some fun with, were the creek crossings. 

Rowland Creek Crossing Number 1

While none of the creek crossings were too difficult, we were hiking after several dry days.  The trail could likely become completely washed out, and the creek crossings more difficult (at least to get across without getting soaked) under wetter conditions.

Rowland Creek Crossing 2

Even our dog, Magnus, was enjoying the creek crossings (here is creek crossing 3): 

The highlight of this trip is most definitely Rowland Creek Falls, a 50′ cascade-type waterfall that drops down a series of stairs for about 80-100′. 

Upper Rowland Creek Falls

The falls are not directly on the trail, so we needed to go down a hill in order to get some clean shots of the cascades.

Multiple Cascades

My son Karl made it all the way to the bottom and took some nice shots of the lower end of the falls, including this photo:

Lower Rowland Creek Falls
Photo by Karl Thiessen

 Below is a map of the entire scenic area.  Rowland Creek Trail and Jerrys Creek Trail can be connected by either FR 84, or an older, no longer used forest road that parallels FR 84 about 100′ downslope of it.  This loop is about 12 miles in length.  It is also used by mountain bikers, although there are sections that are very difficult due to the grade and the wetness near the creek beds.    

Seng Mountain Map
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Linville Falls

This March we visited Linville Falls, one of the most famous waterfalls in North Carolina, during the 2012 Banff Film Festival in Boone (the inspirational film festival trailer can be seen here).   The falls are located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 316.  There is a visitor’s center and a short hiking trail (about .8 miles) to the falls.

Water Swirls Around Ancient Stone

The closest viewing area shows the upper falls (not pictured here) in one direction, and beginning part of the lower falls in the other direction.  The photos above and below show the beginning part of the lower falls.  The lower falls churn through a cavernous semi-circle of eroded limestone, and then plummet about 45 feet into a large pool.  

Water Diverted in a Semi-Circle Above Linville Falls

“Chimney Rock Overlook” can be seen from the upper viewing area, as highlighted in the photo to the right.  From Chimney Rock Overlook, you can see the lower falls in their entirety, as well as the large cliffs that surround the falls and mark the beginning of the Linville Gorge.  

Highlighting the Overlooks Shows the Scale of these Falls

 The cliff face next to the lower falls is as impressive as the falls themselves.  When we viewed the falls, there was a relatively large volume of water flowing.  This caused the falls to jettison outward from the upper pool.

Linville Falls is a very popular stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway (the parking lot at the visitor center is huge), so it is recommended that if you want to visit the falls without hordes of tourists, you should try to see them during less visited times of year such as in spring or winter, or during the middle of the week. 

The viewing areas were built in a manner to try to fit into the natural surroundings and are constructed of stone and logs.  When they are wet, it is possible they could be treacherous.  In particular, the Chimney Rock overlook could be dangerous if someone got too close to the edge of the viewing area, as a fall from that location could be fatal. 

The Linville Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in the Eastern United States.  I have seen claims that it is in fact the deepest, but there are several others that are comparable (including the Russell Fork Gorge in Southwest Virginia).  Suffice it to say that it is deep and impressive.  Experienced hikers have become disoriented and lost in this place.

Linville Falls from Chimney Overlook

 

The Linville Gorge reminded me of the gorge below Abrams Falls close to Abingdon, although without doubt the Linville Gorge is much deeper and longer. 

If you find yourself in Boone, Blowing Rock, or on the Blue Ridge Parkway in this neighborhood, a trip to Linville Falls makes for a nice day trip and provides a nice little outdoor experience without too much effort.

Peering into Linville Gorge

Little Brumley Creek Falls

Immediately above the confluence of Little Brumley Creek and Brumley Creek on Clinch Mountain is a unique 16-20 foot plunge-type waterfall known as Little Brumley Creek Falls.

Little Brumley Creek Falls

This past weekend some friends, my son, and I hiked, climbed across mountainsides, and otherwise bushwhacked through state forest to reach this remote waterfall. 

This waterfall is unique in that the waterfall drops over a huge slab of overhanging rock.  There is a shallow cave behind the falls.  You can actually get up in the cave and walk behind the falls.

Little Brumley Creek Falls Front View

Here is some footage of my son and another person in our party walking behind the falls:

Abrams Falls

In Washington County, Virginia, less than a score of miles from Abingdon, is one of the most impressive series of waterfalls in Virginia. 

Abrams Falls

This October the owner of Abrams Falls, who is an acquaintance and client of mine, graciously took my son Karl and I for a viewing and photography shoot of the falls. 

This is a special place worthy of protection and preservation.  It’s almost hard to believe such a natural formation exists on private property, right in the most populous county in Southwest Virginia, unknown to most people who live here.

Front View of Abrams Falls

There is a series of waterfalls here, the major of which is a plunge-type waterfall of about 70′ that continues with a secondary cascade waterfall that drops over a series of ledges for another 15 or 20′.  The main falls drop into a large, natural amphitheatre of sedimentary rock that forms a semicircle  of 180°.   Below the falls, Abrams Creek continues to flow through a 500′ deep, extremely steep, horseshoe-shaped gorge for over 1/2 mile.

Boy in Foreground Shows Scale of the Falls

The size of these falls can be appreciated in the photo above.  Note the boy in the foreground on the right of the photo; he is almost 100′ from the base of the falls. 

Abrams Falls create their own micro-environment.  Mist and moisture at the base of the falls make for conditions that allow certain rare plants to grow.  

Abrams Falls – The Main 70′ Plunge

Upper Falls

The falls are located on private property not currently open to the public.  There is no road directly to the falls.  To get to the falls, one must hike in for about a mile.  There is not any developed trail to the falls.  There are two semi-trails that property owners and trespassers have used.  Numerous trespassers have died or been injured over the years trying (without permission of the landowner) to see the falls.

Abrams Creek has several additional noteworthy falls.  On our hike, we passed the first, unnamed cataract below.  The fall colors were either at their peak, or just slightly past their peak, and made for a great backdrop.

Abrams Falls - The First Cataract

There is another waterfall, I will call it the Upper Abrams Creek Falls, and it is impressive in its own right.  It is about a 15-20′ cascade waterfall that spans about 40 feet across.  It is at the Upper Falls that the mountains begin to close in to form the gorge.

Abrams Falls - The Upper Falls
Abrams Falls - The Upper Falls - The Full Second Cascade

The Gorge

The mountainsides become quite steep downstream from the Upper Falls.  Our hike left Abrams Creek at this point, and we began to climb up the mountainside in order to take a safer way to the main falls.  This path also allowed us to better view the horseshoe-shaped gorge.  The hiking here was strenuous.

The Upper Falls - The mountainside entering into the gorge

The photograph below shows the opposite side of the gorge.  This gorge is so closed in that it is difficult to photograph in a way that conveys how steep and deep it is.  It reminded me of a miniature version of the New River Gorge in West Virginia, or perhaps even more the Russell Fork Gorge.  There are rock outcroppings and cliffs on both sides of the Abrams Creek Gorge.  Abrams Creek flows about 500 vertical feet below the highest point of the trail.

Abrams Falls Gorge

We traveled to a point at the top of the mountain that allowed us to view the horseshoe shape of the gorge, and then we began our descent into the amphitheatre where the main falls are located.  This descent was quite steep.  As we descended, we could hear the ever-increasing sound of the falls crashing on the rocks below.  In the photo below, the property owner leads the way down the path toward the falls.

Abrams Falls - Descending into the amphitheatre

The Amphitheatre

The amphitheatre is formed by 70-80′ cliffs that surround the falls.  The photo below is from about 3/4 of the way down into the amphitheatre and shows the steep cliff face.

Abrams Falls Cliff

When there is high water, the force of the creek and the falls must be incredible.  In the photo below, you can see a large tree that is up against the opposite canyon wall.  This tree was about 35′ in length, and could not have been moved even if we had tried to do so. 

There were several large, ordinarily immovable pieces of wood that looked like they had been thrown around down into the gorge.  It reminded me of the way you might see random timber lodged against the walls of a Southwestern U.S. slot canyon from flash floods.  I would surmise Abrams Creek is also susceptible to flash flooding.

Side Wall of the Amphitheatre

While the main plunge is the central scenic feature, the cascades at the base complement it and complete the falls.  In the front-on photo of the falls below, you can see how the cascades spread out beneath the plunge.

Abrams Falls - The Main Lower Cascade

The falls are a true plunge-type falls.  Viewed from the side, they look like a bridal veil.  There is actually room to get behind the falls, but the rocks are extremely slick, and it would have been dangerous to approach any closer that we did.

Abrams Falls - Side View

The mist from the falls can be felt 50′ from the base of the falls.  The roar of the falls at the base of the amphitheatre makes conversation difficult.  The whole experience of being at these falls—a completely natural, pristine, and extraordinary place so close to Abingdon—was quite remarkable. 

Abrams Falls - Misty Bottom of Plunge

NOTE:  The photos here are published with permission of the landowner.  Please enjoy these photos, and at this time appreciate this place through them.

These falls are not on public property.  It is illegal to trespass on private property in Virginia.  This trip and photo shoot was conducted at the invitation of the landowner.  The general public is not invited to visit the premises at this time. 

There have been fatal and other serious accidents involving illegal trespassers at Abrams Falls.  Respect the landowner of this property, and do not attempt to visit the falls unless you have permission.

Fox Creek

One of the gems of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is Fox Creek.     Nestled between the south side of Iron Mountain and the north side of Mount Rogers, Fox Creek flows east through about 5 miles of National Forest before entering private property down the mountainside. 

Fox Creek

Lower Fox Creek

The lower section of the creek that lies within the national forest flows through a miniature gorge.  Large boulders and timbers create numerous beautiful pools of water.  Fox Creek Falls, a fan-type cascading waterfall, is a much photographed feature.  The photo below shows Fox Creek Falls from a side angle, a less traditional view.  (Click on any of the photos in this article to enlarge them.)

Fox Creek Falls

The two trips we took to Fox Creek in October revealed remarkable foilage on the moss-covered boulders.  Although past their peak vibrancy, the leaves created a tapestry of color that I needed to capture with the camera.

Fallen Timber and Boulders Create a Striking Foreground

The first day we arrived in the middle of the afternoon.  The sunlight was too harsh for good photography, so we came back the next day in the later afternoon.  The boulders in the creek are quite large; in the photo below, you can see my son Isaac playing on one of them.    

One of the Larger Pools
Autumn Leaves Dress Up Huge Boulders

Upper Fox Creek

The upper part of Fox Creek is formed when Lewis Fork Branch joins the Fox Creek headwater.  At this point, the creek becomes a full fledged, albeit small, trout stream.  A modest, high elevation valley forms between Mount Rogers and Iron Mountain.  The National Recreation Area has a large, split rail fence that runs along Virginia Route 603 for several miles.

Along this section of road is the trailhead for the Mount Rogers Trail, Grindstone Campground, a parking lot for the Appalachian Trail, the Fairwood Horse Camping Area, and the entrance to the unimproved road that goes up to the Scales area of Pine Mountain.

One Entrance to Upper Fox Creek

Fox Creek in this area is a small, swiftly moving creek with a gentle gradient remiscent of a Midwestern trout stream or an Eastern chalk stream as much as typical freestone stream.  However, the flow of the creek is variable as it is dependent on runoff from Mount Rogers.

Stalking Wild Trout

The views up and down the valley are Western-like.  In fact, much of the Mount Rogers area reminds many people, including me, of the West.  It’s like a little slice of the West dropped into Southwest Virginia.

Evening Glow in Fox Creek Meadow
Fly Fishing for Wild Trout

The large meadows along upper Fox Creek provide many starting points for short hikes.  There are also numerous places to begin longer hikes up Mount Rogers or Iron Mountain. 

Another Entrance to a Meadow in Fox Creek

The New River, Part II: Camping and Fishing at Foster Falls

This is the second article in my short series on the New River.  This summer we canoed and fished several sections of the New River, first exploring the upper section in North Carolina, then the middle section that flows through Virginia, and finally the section that flows through the New River Valley and into West Virginia.  In the first article, I reviewed the section of the New River below the confluence of the North and South forks of the river.  This article is about our second trip where we fished and camped at Foster Falls in August 2011.

The Cliff at Foster Falls
Shallow Water and Rocks Visible at the Falls

The New River leaves Ashe County and Alleghany County in North Carolina and crosses the state line and flows into Virginia at Mouth of Wilson in Grayson County.   It then briefly crosses back into North Carolina and then back into Virginia again near Fries, Virginia.  The river then flows through the eastern part of Grayson County and into Wythe County.  As the river flows through the eastern part of the Appalachian Mountains in these counties it gains considerable volume and size as various tributaries add water to its flow.

Shortly after flowing under I-77, the New River has a series of step-like waterfalls that spand the entire width of the river and are collectively classified as a class 3 whitewater.  This area is known as Foster Falls and is the site of Virginia’s New River Trail State Park

Great Biking

The New River Trail State Park is a unique Virginia park: A 57-mile linear state park with various facilities located at different segments of the trail.  The main facilities are located at Foster Falls, where there is a small “walk in” campground, river access for fishing and a boat ramp, picnic areas, horse stables, and a canoe livery with a small shop.

The New River Trail itself is a converted railroad bed.  The trail is a packed dirt/ash trail that is excellent for mountain bikes or cross bikes.  The trail has several trestles that cross the river and also has a tunnel or two that cyclists travel through.  The trail is a level grade, with only a few minor hills, and generally follows the New River between Fries and Pulaski.  Foster Falls is the approximate half-way mark on the trail, and makes a good base camp to cycle in either direction on the trail. 

This trail is scenic with minimal traffic and road crossings.  After the Virginia Creeper Trail, it’s probably the nicest off-road cycling trail in Southwest Virginia.

Smallmouth Country

Low water allowed for great wet wading and fishing

The New River is renowned as one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in Virginia.  Actually, it’s one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in the United States.  The river also has large populations of musky and other game fish.  The New holds Virginia’s state records for largest smallmouth bass (8 pounds, 1 ounce) and largest musky (45 pounds, 8 ounces.) 

Isaac nabs a nice 14 inch smallie

There are several areas to fish right at Foster Falls.  I believe the key to fishing any large river, but especially the New, is to spread your casts methodically over fairly large areas of water to reach the most fish as possible and then move on.  Unless you are bait fishing and patient, covering a section of water and then moving on to another section is the best way to cover this river. 

We therefore first bank fished the river, then waded parts of the river where it was shallow and fished across a large island adjacent to the campground.  I fly fished with streamers and caught about 10 smallies with a size 8 olive wolly bugger.  My sons Karl and Isaac used Mepps and Blue Fox spinners on light and ultra light spinning tackle.  They caught about a dozen fish between them. 

Great Camping

Foster Falls campsite. The New River is seen right behind the campsite.

There are only 12 campsites at Foster Falls.  Thus, although it is a group camping area, the sites are dispersed and there is a wonderful absence of what I sometimes call the “Camp Jellystone Effect”−hundreds of sites jammed together creating a permanently smoky area that from a distance resembles a foreign refugee encampment as sometimes seen on the evening news.

The Falls Near the Camprground

Also, because these are “walk in” sites, there are no RVs or trailers.  You have to park in a designated parking area and carry your camp gear between 100-200 feet to the designated campsites.  This is not that difficult, and, much to my surprise, the state park provides little wagons for campers to transport their gear from the car to the campsites. 

"Walk In" Campsites

Most of the campsites are either right on the river, or very close to the river (with river views).  The camground also provides a sheltered area with dry wood for the campers.  You simply have to pay a daily fee, and then you may transfer the firewood to your site for your own use.  This was convenient and a reasonable way to provide firewood (if you run out, you simply go back to the covered area and get a few more logs).

Kayaking and Canoeing

Although we didn’t do any boating, there is the possibility of boating both up river and down river from Foster Falls.  Running the falls looked a bit sketchy.  When we were there in August, there did not appear to be sufficient water to successfully navigate the falls.  We saw one kayaker dragging his kayak down the river; it didn’t look fun.

I have kayaked the section of the river above the falls previously (my brother-in-law once took me down this section when a summer lightning and thunderstorm developed in which I feared for my life−getting caught on the water under these conditions can be scary).  During higher flows, this can be a moderately challenging kayak with lots of riffles and fast water, but there are not too many obstacles.  Downriver from the falls the river slows considerably as it approaches and eventually forms the upper part of Claytor Lake.

Kayaker Down River from Foster Falls

We will definitely return to Foster Falls, probably with a bike focus on our next trip.  However, I will also have to bring more marshmellows, Hersheys chocolate, and graham crackers next time.  Because this time, these ingredients seemed to mysteriously disappear each night.

Someone was stealing the S'mores. Who Was It?

St. Mary’s Wilderness

St. Mary’s Wilderness is in the George Washington National Forest in Augusta County.  St. Mary’s River, a small river that is better characterized as a large creek, empties a large drainage area on the west slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  It’s about three hours from Abingdon via I-81.   In fact, it’s as close to Washington, DC and Richmond as it is to Abingdon.In April 2011 I hiked and did some trail running up the main St. Mary’s “trail”—if you would call it that—on a weekend trip to the Shenandoah Valley.  The last time prior to this that I hiked in the St. Mary’s Wilderness was as a student and member of the Washington & Lee University Outing Club in the late 1980s.  Unlike most hiking areas, St. Mary’s Wilderness has become more inaccessible since my trips there when I was in college. 

There is a sign at the entrance to St. Mary’s Wilderness that states that the trail was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  There was a well-established trail prior to the hurricane.  Now it starts out as a trail but within a half-mile deteriorates to sporadic rocky areas and only remnants of a trail.  There are numerous areas where the “trail” is blocked by blow-downed trees, and where the trail meanders or peters out and then reappears several hundred feet further along the river.  The trail also runs along some embankment areas that are somewhat dangerous, requiring hand-holds on tree branches.  This trail could be challenging with a large, heavy pack for these reasons. 

Due to limited time, I was only able to get several miles up the trail, so I cannot comment on the further reaches of the trail.  However, the lower areas are not in very good condition.  In fact, the conditions were so poor that I carefully retraced my hike back to the entrance parking lot, to make sure that I had not missed the trail somehow.  Considering that this was early in the season, with the leaves not fully out and the underbrush not obscuring the trail, I do not think was this the case.

While there are interesting cliff faces, views up the gorge, and glimpses of the Blue Ridge mountains above, the reason to hike this trail is the St. Mary’s River itself.  The river is clear, runs over a light-colored stone bed, and has a couple of waterfalls.  There are also numerous deep pools, several which are suitable as swimming holes or places to take a dip on a hot day.  Here is a typical deep water pool:

The St. Marys River is purportedly a good trout fishery.  The river is not part of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ stocking program, however it is a designated special regulation trout water.  Only single hook artificial lures may be used; no bait may in possession of the angler; and all trout less than the minimum—for St. Mary’s River, a 9-inch minimum—must be released.

Comprising 9,835 acres, St. Mary’s Wilderness is one of the largest federally designated wildernesses area in Virginia.  Under the Wilderness Act of 1964 a federally designated wilderness is described as:  “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Although designated as a wilderness, it is not remote compared to many areas of national forest southwest of Roanoke in the Abingdon area such as the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, parts of the Clinch Mountain Ranger District, or the Cherokee National Forest in Upper East Tennessee.  St. Mary’s Wilderness  is nonetheless remarkable for being such a large, contiguous wilderness area so close to the major metropolitan areas of Virginia.

Here are some additional thumbnail photos of the St. Mary’s Wilderness.  Click to enlarge them.