A little over three years ago, Jeff and I visited family in South Carolina. It was my birthday, and the only thing I could think that I really wanted to do was drive toward the mountains.
From Spartanburg, South Carolina, the Pisgah National Forest is an easy drive north, and there we saw the gorgeous and famous Blue Ridge Mountains that travel 615 miles between Georgia and Pennsylvania.
It was a very memorable birthday driving up, up, and up through the windy roads to an overlook that spanned as far as I could see. I was stunned, seduced, and mystified by the true beauty of these unadulterated mountains that I had only seen in The Last of the Mohicans. And now, flash forward 3 years later, we have found ourselves back among the Blue Ridge Mountains for good.
We relocated to Lynchburg, Virginia, which is a perfect starting point to go in any direction for a hiking trail. Boots strapped on and maps in hand, on Thanksgiving Day we hopped in the car and started driving toward the Peaks of Otter, a three peak mountain range overlooking Bedford County, Virginia about an hour’s drive away.
That day, we tackled two of the three Otter summits: Sharp Top (3,875 ft.) and Harkening Hill (3,372 ft.); leaving Flat Top (3.994 ft.) for a future date. Sharp Top was about a mile and a half of sharp ascent where every switch back gives you a view that will take your breath away. It was hard for me to just keep climbing because I was stopping to take in the view every few seconds much to Jeff’s chagrin.
But once at the top, the view was unmatched.
Sharp Top was originally thought to be the tallest peak in Virginia at 3,875 feet and even had portions of the stone sent to Washington D.C. for the famous Washington Monument with Thomas Jefferson saying, “the mountains of the Blue Ridge, and of these the Peaks of Otter, are thought to be of a greater height, measured from their base, than any others in our country, and perhaps in North America.” However, that has been disproved with Mount Rogers in the far southwest corner of the state measuring 5,728 feet, and, of course, Denali in Alaska marking the tallest peak in North America.
Mr. Jefferson certainly had the right idea though.
After catching our stolen breath and taking a gander at the Buzzard’s Roost summit a mere half mile from the Sharp Top summit, we climbed back down and began the Harkening Hill trail positioned directly across the highway from the Sharp Top trail head. At first, I thought this would be a quick 4 mile jaunt, but it turned into its own challenge through rough terrain and sharp inclines. But it was really neat to see a historical homestead site of the former Johnson Family, homesteaders from 1766, at the very end of the trail.
After our legs recovered and a few weeks passed, we found ourselves in pursuit of the Devil’s Marbleyard in the outskirts of Glasgow, Virginia. Famous for its massive, white boulder avalanche, this hike was really fun…for the first couple miles.
We started our climb and made it to the avalanche field, spry, excited, and amazed. Jeff scaled a few of the boulders against the rules set out by the national forest, and then came back down for us to continue on our trek up toward the Appalachian Trail intersection. And that’s where things got a little hairy.
We were about three miles in, and we got a bit lost. I had a feeling we were off the trail when we were bent at 90 degrees, pushing brush and tree branches out of the way, so we retraced our steps, and using our handy compasses, we relocated the trail and continued onto the Gunter Ridge Trail, an 8 mile stretch with 14 switchbacks and a long and monotonous descent toward the Belfast Trail Head where our car was parked.
Knowing what I know now, I would have turned back at the AT intersection instead of going the long way around because the trail was not that exciting. Surrounded by dense wood ravaged by a massive fire in 2007, there weren’t a lot of views to take in, and the scenery became really tedious.
A quick note: make sure that if you decide to do the Gunter Ridge Trail, to pay attention to the signage. We nearly went right back up to the Marbleyard by misreading a sign. Suddenly my manic picture taking came in handy as I recognized our surroundings.
Still enthralled with what scenery surrounded us, we next found ourselves deep in the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Apple Orchard Falls Trail is known for its waterfalls and rushing creeks, and I’m here to tell you, it did not disappoint. And neither did our extended hike up the Cornelius Creek Trail making it a full loop.
You have the option to do the two mile trek down from Sunset Field Parking Lot or ascend from Cornelius Creek Trail head. We chose Sunset Field and weaved our way through a narrow path down, down, and down until we came to a wooden staircase and a small waterfall. At first, we thought this little fall was the famous “Apple Orchard Fall,” but as we turned a corner, we saw a field of rhododendrons and then the massive waterfall. As we laughed and exclaimed, “Oh!” we finally took it all in. The fall is 200 ft long and cascades beautifully down the mountainside.
We continued further along the path until we found the other parking lot, and then we made the steady up-hill climb along the Cornelius Creek, which we found almost more beautiful than the falls themselves. It was a steady stream that curved and moved during the vast majority of our hike back up, and for the whole 5 mile trek, we found ourselves in bubbling serenity.
Only at one point did Jeff stop me and tell me to be quiet because off in the distance of maybe 40 feet, a tree stump decided to masquerade as a small bear.
In pursuit of the highest vertical drop east of the Mississippi, just last week Jeff and I ventured to Crabtree Falls nestled in the foothills of the George Washington National Forest. Consisting of five cascades, there are portions of the falls that have water falling in sheets, down rock faces, in streams, and just flat out.
It was 1.7 miles straight up through a winding, but very well marked trail with several places to stop and take pictures of the falling water. Toward the top, I was enthralled to see several mini stacks of cairn rocks signifying the hundreds of serious hikers this part of the Blue Ridge see every season.
Since we went on a perfect Spring day, the trails got quite clogged with Boy Scout groups and families making the scenic trek, but once we made it to the top, with a gorgeous overlook of the National Forest, we didn’t care.
With all of the dozens upon dozens of choices we have left to climb in Virginia (not to mention the Appalachian Trail we keep bumping into), I have no idea what trail to conquer next, but something tells me it will be soon.
If you find yourself in Virginia, the Grandmother of all states, I say, “Happy Hiking!”