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Crabtree Falls/Spy Rock - Nelson County, Virginia

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Length Difficulty Streams Views Solitude Camping
3.8 mls N/A
Hiking Time:
Elev. Gain:
3.0 hours plus a half hour for lunch
1,380 ft
13.9 mls
Hiking Time:
Elev. Gain:
5.5 hours plus 1hr for lunch and breaks
3,610 ft

George Washington National Forest
Montebello Camping and Fishing Resort
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By Trail Contributor: Zach Robbins ()

Crabtree Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Virginia, and certainly the tallest. It is commonly referred to as the tallest waterfall in the East. This is a mistake because Crabtree Falls is actually a series of waterfalls, all beautiful and tall but not one distinct drop. Crabtree Creek flows from Crabtree Meadows through a rare hanging valley for this region before plunging 1,080 feet towards the Tye River.

There are 3 distinct sections. The lowest section is the tallest and consists of many drops, the lowest right near the parking lot. The middle section is a single drop through a crevice surrounded by trees and moss, it is wildly different than the lowest section. The upper waterfall is the largest single drop over a massive cliff. You could spend an entire day here taking pictures, soaking up the scenery, but there is so much more to explore.

Beyond the upper waterfall the trail climbs through a hanging valley on its way to Crabtree Meadows. From the meadows it is a short hike to the Appalachian Trail where you can choose to hike to The Priest or Spy Rock. This hike takes you south on the Appalachian Trail to Spy Rock. Spy Rock is an incredible rock dome on the east side of Maintop Mountain with 360° views of the Religious Range, Mt. Pleasant, The Priest, Three Ridges and St. Mary’s Wilderness areas, and the eastern foothills. You can do Crabtree Falls and Spy Rock as separate short hikes or you can try this hike for a wonderful day combining waterfalls with incredible vistas.

  • Mile 0.0 – Hike begins in the Crabtree Falls parking lot. Take the paved trail at the far left of the lot beside the information board.
  • Mile 0.2 – Reach a viewing platform at the base of the lower section of Crabtree Falls. For the next 0.7-mi the trail switchbacks up the lower falls. The lower section consists of multiple drops totaling over 350 feet. Mile 0.4 – The trail follows a large staircase below a boulder to the base of a beautiful drop. The water is funneled to the far left side of a cliff while the rest of the cliff is covered in moss and ice (in winter).
  • Mile 0.7 – Reach the largest drop of the lower section, well over 200 feet.
  • Mile 0.9 – After 0.7-mi of climbing the trail passes by an observation platform at the top of the lower falls. Crabtree Creek flattens out beyond this viewpoint on its way to the middle falls. There is a large cave on the right formed by fallen boulders.
  • Mile 1.0 – The trail reaches the base of middle falls section. The middle falls is a single drop ~90 feet where the water flows through a moss-covered crevice near the bottom.
  • Mile 1.6 – Arrive at the base of the upper falls. Crabtree Creek plunges over a towering cliff on a double drop over 200 feet high.
  • Mile 1.9Cross a wood bridge over Crabtree Creek at the top of the upper falls. There is a long, stone wall guarding the viewing area from the vertical cliff. From here you can barely see the water flowing over the rock face, but there are great views of the Tye River Gorge. Do not stray beyond the wall, the rocks are covered with a very slippery algae, and according to the Forestry Service sign, many people have fallen to their deaths climbing out onto the rocks.

    To complete the 3.8 mile out/back Crabtree Falls hike only, return down the trail. If you are hiking the 13.9 mile Crabtree Falls/Spy Rock route continue with the directions below.

    Beyond the waterfalls the Crabtree Falls Trail follows Crabtree Creek for 1.4-mi through a hanging valley. There are many wonderful campsites beside the creek.

  • Mile 3.3 – Crabtree Falls Trail ends at the upper parking lot at the Crabtree Meadows campground. Go left on the forest road heading uphill towards the Appalachian Trail.
  • Mile 3.4 – Pass by Crabtree Meadows, a large field at the headwaters of Crabtree Creek. The forest road climbs above the meadow passing by multiple campsites on each side of the road.
  • Mile 3.8 – Junction with Appalachian Trail (white blaze), turn right heading south.
  • Mile 4.8 – Pass through a junction with an unmarked forest road to Cash Hollow.
  • Mile 6.1 – The trail passes over a series of large rock faces that have open views to the southeast of Spy Rock and the peaks of the Religious Range. The rock face looks to be the result of a landslide.
  • Mile 6.5 – A small campsite on right in a grass clearing.
  • Mile 7.0 – Spy Rock Trail branches left away from the Appalachian Trail and passes through a very inviting sparse, flat forest with many campsites.
  • Mile 7.1 – Reach the base of Spy Rock. There are no trails to the top and you will have to find scramble routes. The summit of Spy Rock is a huge rocky dome with 360° views. Due west Black Rock is clearly visible on the south side of Maintop Mountain. The southern view includes the Religious Range and Mt. Pleasant. The best view is arguably to the north of The Priest, Little Priest, and Three Ridges Mountain. The scramble down is tougher than going up. Pick your footing carefully. In the winter there are large patches of ice.
  • Mile 7.3 – Turn right heading north on the Appalachian Trail.
  • Mile 9.5 – Cross the intersection with the forest road to Cash Hollow and avoid the slight right on another forest road than wasn’t noticeable from the other direction.
  • Mile 13.9 – Hike ends at the Crabtree Falls parking lot.
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Hiker Reviews For The Crabtree Falls Hike (5 Most Recent)
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By: JGowen Rating: Date of Hike: Saturday, May 07, 2016
This is a review of the entire hike to Spy Rock and back. Started out Saturday morning around 10:00 am with the destination of Spy Rock to camp for the night. Our group is in decent shape and this hike was definitely a burner with 30lb packs. The hike starts off ascending very quickly up the falls and the vistas are amazing. Lots of switchbacks and 'easy' hiking up the 1.7 mile ascent to the top of the falls, but like everyone says it was very busy. The views of the falls are really fantastic and are much more impressive in person than any picture you will see. We paused at the top of the falls (amazing view) for a snack and continued on to the upper parking lot. After the upper lot there is a VERY steep up hill to the AT. Once hitting the AT its ridge hiking, up and down, mostly up, with great vistas pretty much the entire time. We ended up stopping at the campsite listed in the description at about 6.5 miles which was more than enough uphill for the day. After setting camp we headed the last .5 to Spy Rock and were rewarded with fantastic 360 views that are rare in Virginia. In the morning we hiked back down and were back at the cars in less than 2.5 hours which was almost entirely downhill. After hiking many routes in VA I will say this is one of my favorites. Even though it is an out and back route, the vistas from both the ridge and the falls make this hike entirely worth it, not to mention the mountain laurel tunnels on the AT. I recommend filling water around the upper falls parking lot as this is the last place you will find water before Spy Rock. The camping at Spy Rock is more like 'group camping' and I recommend the spot at 6.5 miles if you want some solitude. Dont let the crowds on the falls scare you away, this is an amazing part of VA and a really great hike.

By: Jeff Rating: Date of Hike: Friday, March 25, 2016
Surprised that the "views" were only rated 2. View from the top is great. The whole family enjoyed this hike. Easy for kids, too. There are lots of slippery spots on the trail, especially after a rain, so watch your steps on the rockier sections. The kids enjoyed adding their rock towers to the collection before you reach the top.

By: Rating: Date of Hike: Sunday, March 13, 2016
Wife and I hiked up and back to the top of the cascading waterfall. The switchbacks made for a surprisingly easy hike considering how much elevation we gained over such a short distance. The trail surface was challenging at times. Some very rocky sections and the occasional muddy seep required careful foot placement, but the trail surface was not that technical overall. All this was underscored by the many hikers we encountered who spanned the range of ages and fitness levels. Wanted to take more photos than we did, as the scenery and views were postcard material!

By: Ethan Rating: Date of Hike: Saturday, January 16, 2016
Beautiful sunny day for this hike despite the cold temperature. Ran into 3-4 patches of ice along the trail but they weren't too bad. Waterfall views are gorgeous and easily the best I've seen in Virginia. Take your time on the hike and enjoy the beautiful views along the entire trail. It winds back and forth right next to the waterfalls. We brought our dog and she didn't have any problems at all scaling the mountain. Not the hardest hike but certainly one you need to check off the list.

By: Rating: Date of Hike: Thursday, January 14, 2016
This hike has a great balance of steep climbs, tree cover, and crossover between wooded and rocky paths. If your group is perfectly organized it's a 5.5hr hike with 1hr for breaks, but otherwise plan for 6.5-8hrs.

The most dangerous part of this hike was the Crab Tree Falls climb and the pools of ice sheets covering the path. The most strenuous part is the climb from the creek head/private road area to the Appalachian Trail.

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