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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. 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: Rating: Date of Hike: Sunday, November 22, 2015
This turned out to be one of my favorite hikes. The Crabtree Falls are gorgeous and the 360 degree views from Spy Rock are some of the most spectacular in the region. Aesthetically speaking, I find the undulating jumble of peaks that characterize the Blue Ridge so much more pleasing than the parallel ridges of the ridge and Valley Appalachians further west. And while it's true that the section of the trail that runs along the falls is a bit busy (and I can imagine it's absolutely packed when the weather is warm), once you reach the top of the falls, there's almost no one on the trail all the way to Spy Rock (at least not in late November). One note of caution: there's already some ice on Spy Rock so be careful scrambling up it.

By: Rating: Date of Hike: Sunday, October 18, 2015
The views are beautiful, but the crowds were very heavy. It can be difficult to find parking (and be sure to bring $3.00 in cash or check) and the bathroom facilities weren't maintained very well. The overlooks are very scenic, but I found it a little hard to relax since it was so heavily trafficked. We were frequently halted on our climb by groups of people all taking photos of themselves and not attempting to make space for other hikers. I would highly recommend a good pair of hiking boots, as the trail can be muddy, rocky, and slippery.

The worst part was how many people refused to follow all of the signs. Many people left the trail to hop on rocks or get the perfect selfie. PLEASE STAY ON THE TRAIL. Over the years, 29 people have died here (the most recent on August 29, 2015, as another reviewer discusses). The rocks can have clear algae, which is very slippery and difficult to see. We even saw the body of a deer floating in pool right below one of the steeper falls.

It was a lovely fall day and the views were gorgeous, but you'll have to look for solitude elsewhere.

By: Carol Rating: Date of Hike: Monday, October 12, 2015
If you continue on past Crabtree Falls to hike to Spy Rock, be aware that it is very easy to miss where the AT crosses the forest road.  There is a small grouping of boulders on the left side of the road. One of which has a white blaze facing the road.  Since we missed the AT we hiked to far on the forest road and had to turn back before reaching Spy Rock. It was still a great hike on a beautiful day.

By: H. Allen Rating: Date of Hike: Saturday, August 29, 2015
As we arrived and entered, a man was running out, yelling for a phone with service.  It was a terrible day.  PLEASE, PLEASE, stay on the trail.  That early afternoon, a young man died, as 29 or more had died before him since 1982.  Obey the signs.  Stay on the trail.  The trail can be dangerous enough.  This was the second death this year.  Don't be the one that makes your brother run for your life, trying to get you help.  Don't be another one that finds out how life can end suddenly.  Don't be another one to bring sorrow to your family and friends.  Enjoy the beauty, but STAY ON THE TRAIL.

By: Rating: Date of Hike: Monday, May 25, 2015
Got to the parking lot a few minutes before 7:30, thinking it would be a busy Memorial Day and we wanted to beat the heat. Much to our surprise, we were the first ones there! Took us (mid-20s, decent shape) just under 2.5 hours to get all the way up to Spy Rock, and just over 2 hours to get back down. Pretty views of the falls, but the view from Spy Rock was one of the best I've ever seen! Mostly downhill on the way back helped up pick up the pace, but beat up our legs quite a bit. The fire road is the worst part -- much steeper than we had imagined! Stop at a few breweries on the way home for lunch and drinks.

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