The area that would eventually become Shenandoah National Park has a presidential past: It once served as the summer refuge of Herbert Hoover. The higher elevations and cool breezes of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains offered the former U.S. President a welcome escape from Washington D.C.’s blistering heat.
Those same heat-busting qualities also offer Charlotteans a respite from the thick blanket of humidity that covers the Queen City in the summer. Mountain-top campgrounds and deep forest trails are often 15 degrees cooler than downtown, and the same dramatic elevation changes that make iconic Shenandoah hikes like Old Rag and Hawksbill so splendid also create a plethora of waterfalls and swimming holes to explore.
From gently tumbling cascades to energetic cataracts that fill the forest with the sound of rushing water, Shenandoah is home to dozens of waterfalls. Hunting the falls in the southern part of the park makes for an excellent long weekend trip from Charlotte. Here’s a list of the best falls in Shenandoah National Park (those that are named, that is), how to find them, and what to expect.
1. Jones Run Falls
Skyline Drive is the backbone of Shenandoah National Park. It runs the length of the park for 100 miles and serves as the main access for most of the hikes here. Mile markers increase from north to south, so the higher the mile marker, the more southern the location.
Jones Run Falls is the southern-most prominent named waterfall in the park. At just over 40 feet, it’s impressive not by sheer height, but by the surrounding scenery. Tightly packed forest and moss-covered rocks make for an all-encompassing serenity that embodies Shenandoah. Reach Jones Run Falls via a 3.5-mile out-and-back hike from the parking lot just south of the Dundo picnic area near mile marker 84.
2. Doyles River Falls
Continue walking past Jones Run Falls onto the Doyles River Falls trail and in approximately two miles you’ll reach a second set of waterfalls. Two distinct cascades make up Doyles River Falls. The 28-foot Upper Falls bounces off a rock platform midway and spreads out before its final landing. The Lower Falls is much longer at 63 feet and is typically narrower. Both are encased in rough rock cliffs and can be quite peaceful in the morning.
Complete the 6-mile loop with a left turn up an old fire road and another left along the Appalachian Trail. Like most waterfall hikes in Shenandoah, expect rapid decent off of Skyline Drive and steep inclines to return.
3. South River Falls
One of the most spectacular experiences in Shenandoah National Park is standing in the thigh-high pool at the base of the South River Falls, gazing at its precipice 83 feet above, and being bathed in its cooling mist. It takes some effort to achieve this kind of experience, but it’s worth every step.
Access the trailhead at the South River Picnic Area near mile marker 62. The trip begins with a steep hike down South River Falls Trail. After 1.2 miles, follow the horse trail to the right until it ends. Here’s the tricky part: Look to the right as you’re facing upriver, and you’ll see a rough, rocky trail. Take that to the base of the falls. You can return the way you came or, for a smoother trek, take the horse trail up to the AT and the AT back to your car.
4. Lewis Falls
The deceptively short trek to the Lewis Falls observation point is adjacent to the largest campground and visitor center in the park. This draws many visitors to the trail who may not normally attempt a challenging hike. The result is a steady stream of red-faced hikers puffing their way back up the super steep, rocky trail. It’s doubtful that many would argue the worth of such an effort, however.
Unlike the rest of the hikes on this list, the only view of Lewis Falls is from up high. The two-ish- mile roundtrip trek leads only to the rock-walled observation platform. But what a view it is: The falls erupts out of dense tree cover before falling, uninterrupted, for 81 feet to the forest floor below. The vista extends for miles beyond. Perhaps the best perk of this hike is the sheltered cove to the left of the large waterfall sign just before you reach the observation spur trail. It’s a shady picnic spot like no other.
Access the Lewis Falls trailhead near mile marker 52, just south of the Byrd Visitor Center.
5. Dark Hollow Falls
In Appalachian parlance, a “hollow” is a small, sheltered valley, and the broad, multifaceted cascades of Dark Hollow Falls are entrenched deep within the walls of a steep valley. The hike down is pleasant and only a mile from Skyline Drive. As a result, you won’t be alone when you visit the falls.
Standing at the base of the gorgeous, 70-foot falls is worth sharing, however. Abundant fauna drapes over the outermost channels, and a shallow pool at the base is a welcome stop on the warmest of days. Access the falls from the Dark Hollow Falls trailhead near mile marker 51.
6. Rose River Falls
You can shed some of the crowd at Dark Hollow Falls by continuing past the bridge at Dark Hollow to the Rose River Loop Trail. This path is one of the most pleasant in the park as it cuts through the valley, mirroring its namesake river. The real payoff, however, is up ahead.
There are two back-to-back segments of the Rose River Falls. The top is a gentle cascade into a shallow pool with a good view downstream. The second is more dramatic with a nearly waist-deep swimming hole buffered on three sides by steep rock walls. If visited at the right time, it can be one of the most romantic spots in the park.
The entire loop to see both Rose River and Dark Hollow Falls is about 6 miles. You can park either at the Dark Hallow Falls lot or begin right from the Byrd Visitor Center with a short stint on the Story of the Forest Trail.
If You Go
There are four campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park. To explore the southern and central segments of the park, many people head to the Lewis Mountain Campground. While it’s more centrally located, it also fills to capacity often. For a more relaxed and peaceful setting, try the Loft Mountain Campground, which is the southernmost in the park and has many semi-secluded sites. The “F” loop is generator free, so it’s a bit less noisy than other areas. Site F123 is buffered on three sides by thick vegetation and has a couple hammock-worthy trees.
Each campground has a well-stocked camp store (including a small but admirable selection of local craft beer). A basic restaurant and pay showers are also available.
This is, without a doubt, bear country. If you hike each of the above trails, you are likely to run into one of these beautiful, timid animals. Pay attention to signage at the park, pack your food away properly, and do not feed them.
High-capacity campgrounds and easily accessible waterfalls means you won’t often be alone in your waterfall hunting. But a bit of seclusion can be found with effort, planning, and good planning. Weekday and early Sunday mornings are the best options for alone time in nature. Also, many trails continue beyond the falls. Putting in those extra miles will help you lose much of the crowd, so you can truly savor the beauty of these natural wonders.
Originally written for OrthoCarolina.