Spring is for waterfall hikes. The snow and ice have melted, the spring rains have fortified the mountain waters, and waterfalls everywhere are flowing with abandon. Apple Orchard Mountain is in the Jefferson National Forest, and the waterfall that graces it is known as one of Virginia’s most beautiful. In order to get an early-morning start we decided to stay the night before at a small, primitive Forest Service campground near the trailhead, and to round out the trip we chose to stop on our way to the mountains at Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s country home near Lynchburg.
Poplar Forest is an octagonal structure designed by Jefferson for use as a retreat when he retired from public life. It took decades to build and was not yet complete at the time of his death. After being occupied (and altered) by many others after he died, the house is now being restored to its original appearance.
After the tour we drove through the Peaks of Otter (having just learned that at the age of 72, Jefferson undertook a solo 5-day camping trip to survey one of the peaks, Flat Top, which was believed at that time to be the highest mountain in the state). We then took a dirt forest service road down from the Blue Ridge Parkway to find our unexpectedly idyllic campground. Located along North Creek near Buchanan, VA, the sites were so far apart we could see no one else and it was almost like having the creek completely to ourselves in the middle of the woods.
Up early, we made our way down the road to the head of the Apple Orchard Falls trail. The trail twists gently up the mountain alongside Apple Orchard Creek. Shortly after we started we spotted a prospector in the stream, but for the remainder of the day we saw not another hiker anywhere.
Hiking with me in the springtime can be a bit of a trial, because I am constantly crouching down to get a closer look at the ephemeral spring wildflowers along the path. This trail was especially rich with flowers, including some beautiful orchids:
I made a note to myself to return next year about a week earlier, because the trail was strewn with trillium all the way up the mountain, and the blooms had just passed their peak. I haven’t seen such a large colony anywhere else in Virginia. This section of the trail will also be known henceforth as “Newtapalooza”, as there were so many newts traversing the trail with us we lost count:
All the way up the trail the creek gurgled alongside, showcasing one small cascade after another.
About 2 miles into the hike we reached the falls, which dwarfed all that had come before:
Still in disbelief that we had this enchanting place to ourselves on such a beautiful day, we continued upward before using a fire road as a connector to the Cornelius Creek Trail, which wends its way back down.
These are fairy-tale woods. I love the expansive, unending views in the western U.S., but eastern forest hikes have an intimacy and magic entirely their own. It is in woods such as these that you might encounter a toad that speaks your name, or a fox that leads you with glances and nods onto a hidden trail, or a bear dancing slowly in a grove of hemlocks, fully aware of your gaze.
The Cornelius Creek trail is also flanked by a stream, which tumbles down the mountain in the form of waterfalls, eddies, and rock slides, and swimming holes that were ridiculously tempting even in early May.
This hike ended far too soon–we both felt a bit bewitched in those woods, and as if we could have kept going for miles. Seeing the glint of the car below us was a shock to the system, as was seeing that the parking lot was still empty. The waters are high my friends, and the glass is deliciously full–drink up!