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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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e.g.. 12000 Government Center Parkway 22035 or Fairfax VA
Parking at Crabtree Falls. 37.85144, -79.07922

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. There is no viewing area here but there are safe spots to take pictures below the waterfall. The middle falls is a single drop ~90 feet where the water flows through a moss-covered crevice near the bottom. A large tree has fallen across the base and is wedged in the rock crevice.
  • 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: Rating: Date of Hike: Tuesday, January 20, 2015
This hike was a significant challenge for my small family because we took our 3 year-old daughter along our black lab was no hindrance at all. Out of 1.7 miles, our daughter hiked 1.3 up which really slowed us down. Also, there were about 4 places where the trail was covered in ice. We stuck it out and carefully navigated around the icy patches, and made it to the top. We were really glad we did, and the hike back down was much faster because my husband carried our daughter in a carrier. The falls were gorgeous and the cave was neat. Lots of things to explore like downed logs and even a part where we would have played in the water had it not been so cold. I would love to do this hike again on a warmer day, but would do it again in the cold in a heartbeat. If you're planning to go during the winter, be sure to take some rope and wear shoes with good tread. Tennis shoes made the slick parts treacherous. If you have a dog, don't carry water for them, they can drink from the creek in several places without danger.

By: Rating: Date of Hike: Sunday, December 21, 2014
Started this hike from the lower parking lot on VA-56 on a chilly Sunday (25F). The waterfall was never iced over but there was plenty of ice to see from spray/mist. Some parts of the trail towards the upper falls had ice but it was never an issue, no traction needed. This collection of waterfalls (it is not one waterfall, probably 3 or 4 separate waterfalls) is one of my favorites and never disappoints. An under appreciated part of this hike is the calm section of Crabtree Creek above the waterfalls. The creek originates in a hanging valley and is a rarity in the Southeast. This was part of a long hike all the way to Spy Rock.

By: Dman Rating: Date of Hike: Saturday, October 25, 2014
A fantastic hike over all . Highly recommend you arrive early on weekends though .We arrived at 10 am and got 1 of 2 spots open. This is a tough hike the further you go up in altitude , but the falls are amazing . Probably best to take a day off work and go as lots of people and their dogs to avoid on the way down cars dbl parked on both sides way out. Made for some great pictures with the fall leaves in there peak this time of year. I also would have given it 5 stars but just too many people , kids and dogs on weekends .

By: Hans und Heidi Rating: Date of Hike: Sunday, October 19, 2014
We was scheduled to fly a balloon but it was cancelled, so we were in proximity for an early start ( 8 ) at the Falls. The morning was perfect with great colors, with many of the trees still having some time to change. The trail had maybe 10 people going in the same direction, with folks alternating the many over looks along the way. The way back it was getting much busier with people on the way up. I was here once before, like 40 years back. Now the trail is very people friendly and improved to handle the traffic. I reluctantly give it 4 stars, as it is truly a magnificent place. Just not our favorite place.

As for the season this weekend, there is still time to see the fall colors in the Blue Ridge. We drove the Parkway north all the way to RT 29 ( 85 miles? ). The colors on the west side of the range are about at Peak, but there is still time on the eastern and southern slopes. It was really spectacular.

By: Perfect Day for a Hike Rating: Date of Hike: Saturday, October 18, 2014
From Newport News, VA. Me and 5 friends drove to Crabtree Falls. Took us about 3.5 hours to get there. The weather was beautiful and perfect: mid 60's, slightly overcast with clouds, no rain. Since it was a Saturday in the prime hiking month of October, we probably passed 100-200 people on the hike the whole time we were there. It was very busy, but that didn't negatively affect the hike in any way. The waterfall is beautiful. Since it is the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi, it really did feel like it went on for forever. But it's not one of those waterfalls that has a ton of rushing water off of it. But still beautiful. The path and trail was narrow at some places so when there were lots of people that had to pass each other, some had to wait until others passed. The leaves were changing colors - lots of yellows, oranges, greens, and a few reds. The ground was a little muddy and wet, which made some of the leaves on the pathway wet and slippery, but it wasn't too bad. There are a ton of spots you can stop and take pictures which was great, because the hike is a little steep with lots of steps. You can't see the waterfall from the very top, but it's still a beautiful view as you sit on this huge rock looking out at the mountainside. It took us about 2 hours to climb to the top and about an hour to climb down. I would definitely recommend this hike to others.

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