Up and down Apple Orchard Falls
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
Look no farther than Apple Orchard Falls to see the effects of the ongoing drought.
- Location: The Apple Orchard Falls-Cornelius Creek loop is east of Buchanan in the Jefferson National Forest along the western side of the Blue Ridge below the Parkway. Best trailhead access is from the end of Forest Road 59 or from Sunset Field Overlook at milepost 78.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. To get to the FR 59 trailhead, take exit 168 off I-81 just north of Buchanan, follow Route 614 just over 3 miles through Arcadia, then turn left at the North Creek Campground sign onto FR 59. In about 4 miles, past the campground, the road will end at a trailhead. The Apple Orchard Falls Trail leads left out of here; the Cornelius Creek Trail is to the right.
- Length: From 3 to 7.5 miles, depending on the route chosen.
- Elevation: From 1,580 feet at FR 59 to 3,474 on Blue Ridge Parkway
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): 3.5: It just doesn't lack for much. One of the state's tallest and most spectacular waterfalls. Singing streams, dancing down cascades. Huge boulders. Thick stands of forest, ranging from hemlocks to hardwoods. Stunning vistas of the Shenandoah Valley, especially in leaf-off. Towering blufflines. And on the September day I hiked the loop, some of the most colorful and varied mushrooms I've ever seen.
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): 3.5: Unless you start at the Blue Ridge Parkway and hike downhill to the FR 59 trailhead, shuttling in between, you will make some steep climbing somewhere on this route. Hiking down from the parkway and back can be particularly brutal for someone not accustomed to much hiking. Hiking up from FR 59 to the falls is a bit more manageable, even if a little longer, since the grade is generally less steep.
Sometimes, the undercard outshines the main event.
Such was the case on a recent loop hike on the Apple Orchard Falls and Cornelius Creek trails. After a pleasant hike along the gurgling branches of North Creek to a 200-foot waterfall, I thought that the Cornelius Creek Trail would merely be another route back to the trailhead that was different than the way I had come. I wasn't expecting much.
But I was wowed by one of the most intriguing streamside walks I've taken in Virginia, and I almost forgot about the falls.
To be fair, it wasn't my first hike to Apple Orchard Falls, so it might have seemed a little "been there, done that." Three or four times before, I had hiked down to the falls from the Blue Ridge Parkway; this time, I walked up from the Forest Road 59 trailhead near North Creek Campground, not far from Arcadia.
Even diminished by drought, Apple Orchard Falls is a spectacular sight, a multi-tier cascade bouncing to and fro from ledge to ledge down a sharp cliff. The National Forest Service has constructed a lovely wooden bridge with a viewing platform right below the falls. It's definitely worth the visit, whichever way you come.
But on this particular trip, it was the aquatic gymnastics of Cornelius Creek that stole my heart. The brook does so many different things on, around and through rocks as it dives from the Blue Ridge down toward the James River. The trail is the creek's constant companion, crossing it a couple of times as it returns to the FR 59 trailhead.
One great thing about the hikes in and around Apple Orchard Falls is the different trails and trailheads provide many options for loops, backtracks or hike-throughs with shuttles. The most common routes are simply to the falls and back from either the Sunset Field Overlook at mile 78.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway (about 3 miles round trip) or the trailhead at the end of Forest Road 59 (about 4 miles round trip).
Any way you go here, there will be some uphill hiking; there's just no getting out of it. It's a 2,000-foot climb between Forest Road 59 and Sunset Field. It's a gradual climb from FR 59 to the falls, which appear dramatically as the trail arcs toward the majestic bluff line that is home to the cascade.
Above the cascade, the trail gets even steeper as it climbs toward the parkway. A trip back and forth from the parkway includes a steep, ankle-buckling descent followed by a steep, lung-buckling ascent.
By using either the Apple Orchard Road -- closed to vehicular traffic -- a steep half-mile from the falls, or the Appalachian Trail another steep half-mile up, one can connect the Apple Orchard Falls Trail with the Cornelius Creek Trail to form loops of 5 or 7.5 miles, respectively, that return to the FR 59 trailhead.
You know you're getting close to the "main event" of the Apple Orchard Falls Trail when the boulders go from the size of compact cars to the size of studio apartments. These are pieces of the bluffline that the persistent dripping of water over eons has cut loose.
The approach to the falls from underneath is quite stunning -- you see a tiny ribbon of water high up on a bluffline, framed by tree limbs. As you climb above the falls on numerous wooden stairs, views behind to the Shenandoah Valley floor pop out, and the trail passes under a huge rock wall.
Neither the AT nor the Apple Orchard Road offer anything outstanding in connecting the 2 creek trails, other than wilderness solitude and perhaps some decent vistas during leaf-off.
I'll leave Cornelius Creek for you to discover on your own as I did. Some of the upper portions of the trail appear as if they don't get much action, judging by the weeds that had grown across the trail. So much the better.
On the day I hiked down Cornelius Creek, I met a couple with 3 dogs in tow asking me if I had heard their other hounds somewhere. That explained the commotion up on Backbone Ridge, the mountain between the two creek trails, that my own doggie and I had heard from 2 different directions. The couple were having trouble hearing the hounds over the rushing creek, but I had just heard them somewhere beyond the bluffline above.
"They've got a bear treed somewhere," the man said.
Just another reminder of what you might find around these parts.