Of the many hikes in the Peaks of Otter Recreation Area—part of Jefferson National Forest in central Virginia—the most popular is the Sharp Top Trail for its stunning views of the area. A second walk to consider, however, is the nearby Fallingwater Cascades Trail, which explores a shaded stream valley just off the northbound Blue Ridge Parkway. To call the tumbling waters along the trail “waterfalls” may be giving them too much credit, but the perennial drops do make for a pleasant destination, especially to cool off on a warm summer day.
Driving north on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway from the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center, you will pass two trailheads on the left in quick succession. While the first provides a staging point for a nearby hike to Flat Top Mountain, the second is the main trailhead for Fallingwater Cascades—about 2.8 miles from the Visitor Center. There is room for around a dozen vehicles in the parking area.
The sign at the trailhead indicates that hiking routes head off in two directions: left to Flat Top Mountain, right to Fallingwater Cascades. While you will return via the path to the left, start the 1.4-mile circuit hike by heading right at the fork. Here the pavement immediately gives way to a gravel surface, with the easy-to-follow path heading downhill at a mild incline. Mountain laurel, maples, Virginia pines, and oaks dot the hillside, with rhododendrons becoming increasingly frequent as you approach the streambed.
About 150 yards from the start, there is a bench and large rock jumble on the right, followed by a set of stone steps. As the path gets rockier, you can begin to hear the creek below. At 3/10 mile, the trail hangs a sharp left, then drops down a wooden staircase to the banks of Fallingwater Creek. Cross a wooden bridge over the creek, which drops precipitously over a bluff on the left—the top of the highest cascade.
From the west bank of the stream, the trail curves left and begins a relatively steep downhill, using man-made steps and switchbacks to ease the descent. It is possible to view the cascade from about halfway down, but a spur trail at the base at 0.45 miles provides the easiest access. Head left on this spur for an up-close view of the main waterfall. Here Fallingwater Creek tumbles over a two-tiered slide perhaps 40 feet tall, creating a perennial cascade that soothes travelers on a hot summer day.
While this is the highest drop visible on the trail, the cascades continue downstream. About 75 yards from the initial waterfall, the creek spills over a three-tiered cascade and iron-tinged rock, giving the stream an orange-hued sheen. There are a number of spurs leading to the streamside, including one where the water rushes through a stony channel.
Finally, at 0.55 miles, the trail descends to cross the creek, requiring careful footing as you traverse the rocky stream. Leaving the creek behind, the route begins its relatively lengthy ascent back toward the trailhead. After an initial set of stone steps, the trail levels off briefly. But a steeper uphill kicks in at about 2/3-mile. In winter, when there is limited foliage, there are likely to be decent views westward, down into the Jennings Creek Valley.
The Fallingwater Cascades Trail continues to climb to a left-hand bend at 9/10 mile, while the Blue Ridge Parkway comes back within earshot. At 1.05 miles, take a left at the junction onto the Fallingwater – Flat Top National Recreation Trail. From here the path narrows, climbing mildly to the hike’s highest point at about 1.2 miles. From here it is a gentle downhill back to the Fallingwater Cascades parking area.
This moderately difficult hike gains 360 feet in elevation and should take most hikers between 1-1.5 hours to enjoy.
Lace up your boots for the rocky and strenuous climb to the summit of Sharp Top, which offers panoramic views of the Peaks of Otter area. The combination of Fallingwater Cascades and Sharp Top makes for a nice day in this particularly scenic part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
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