PHOTO: Clambering down more than 200 steps, visitors can get up close and personal with the 62-foot Blackwater Falls, or they can see the falls from the Gentle Trail vantage point on the opposite ledge of the canyon.
One of the advantages of an Appalachian driving tour is that you can pretty much plot out your waypoints using waterfalls. Some are hidden, while others are out in the open. Some are smack by the side of the road, while others require insiders’ knowledge or a long, careful trek over jagged rocks.
The bigger falls are typically near lodges or B&B’s where you can put your head on a pillow at night, while smaller but equally scenic ones offer the possibility of more rustic digs or even primitive camping.
Waterfalls in the Appalachian region make for year-round recreation. Many are suitable for swimming in the summer. In winter, photographers flock from distant parts to capture the columns of frozen water. Here are four in Virginia and West Virginia – two large and two more modest – that are worth going out of your way to see.
Blackwater Falls near Davis and Thomas
The drive into massive Blackwater Falls State Park starts the fun, with curvy country roads and a bank of giant wind turbines part of the surrounding landscape. The park’s crown jewel is 62-foot Blackwater Falls. The best way to access it – at least for the physically fit – is to clamber down the more than 200 steps of an angled series of boardwalks and stairs. Just remember that it’s uphill all the way back! Across the canyon, a short, level walk on the Gentle Trail gives a fine view as well, almost as if you were hovering over the falls in a helicopter.
The park’s 20 miles of walking trails provide several scenic overlooks, including Lindy Point, one of the most photographed spots in West Virginia. Walk less than half a mile to the observation platform, where enormous rock outcroppings will add drama to your photos of a magnificent landscape: 45 acres of mountain views overlooking Blackwater Canyon.
While you’re still in the state park, you have two other falls to see. Pendleton Falls is visible from a spot along the road, while a short walk from the state park lodge leads to the upper section of Elakala Falls. A wooden bridge over the top of the latter provides a vantage point for hikers and a charming element for photographs, should you choose to pick your way down to the water’s edge for a panoramic view.
For those who wish to be unplugged for a day or two, a stay in the older, rustic cabins will cut you off from cell phone service. A newer bank of cabins in a different section of the park provides all the luxuries, including a generous kitchen, TV and cell service. For those who don’t plan to rough it in any way, the state lodge has a restaurant and modest rooms for well under $100.The state park offers sledding and skiing in winter, including 10 miles of trails dedicated to cross-country skiing.
Nearby Elkins and Thomas have amped up their small-town assets to cater to Blackwater Falls visitors. Art galleries, antique shops and a well-stocked whole-foods market make Thomas a must-see berg, while Davis sports not only hippie-oriented shops (selling incense and handmade deodorants, for instance) but also an addictive eatery called Hellbender Burritos. It’s named after the hellbender, an actual North American salamander, found only in the clearest of silt-free mountain streams. It can grow to over two feet in length – who knew! At any rate, do not miss the spicy chipotle black-bean dip and the house-made seitan, as satisfying to vegetarians as Hellbenders’ pulled pork is to the meat-eaters.
Valley Falls near Fairmont and Grafton
You can while away an afternoon walking on the enormous rock surfaces of Valley Falls State Park, and you can even stick your toes in a few inches of water here and there if you duck the park staff. But don’t plan to swim, even though the waters are tempting. Many tragic drownings – swift currents can pin hapless victims in hidden nooks and crannies – prompted the state to close the waters to full-body immersion.
The site, with three or four different drops to wander around, sits on more than a thousand acres on both banks of the Tygart Valley River. They aren’t the largest or deepest waterfalls in West Virginia, but their rock-dominated scenic qualities can’t be overstated. The canopy of oaks, maples, evergreens and sycamores makes the park a popular wedding venue.
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One source of amusement is watch kayakers make their runs. Their dashes down the falls look nothing if not impossibly dangerous. That’s right – swimming has been prohibited since shortly after a double drowning in 2008, but inflatable or fiberglass kayaks are allowed if the kayaker signs a detailed “release of liability” agreement in advance.
The flat rocks all around are expansive and make for handy tabletops on which to spread out a picnic lunch. Insiders’ tip: If the day is hot and you absolutely must swim, drive downriver and across the banks, well away from the falls. You’ll find dirt roads and places to float far from the watery torrents.
Cascades Falls near Pembroke and Eggleston
Situated in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, the sweep and splash of the 66-foot Cascades is your reward for having picked your way along two miles of trail. You can get there on your two feet only, as not even bicycles or horses are allowed.
You have a choice of paths. One is billed as more rugged than the other – in truth, both require stamina, and yet the falls are easily accessible to a range of people at all levels of fitness. Pay $3 to park your car, and plan your excursion to complete your four-mile-total hike between sunrise and sunset.
For many, it’s all about the view. You can sit for hours sunning yourself on the rocks. Many also choose to swim during summer. However, before you take the plunge, be aware that the falls have claimed their share of drowning victims. After extra rainfall in Giles County this past summer, two deaths occurred within a span of weeks. Good swimmers probably need have no fear, but be advised that in certain circumstances water can be chilly and currents can churn.
The turnoff to Cascades National Recreation Trail is from Highway 460 at a landmark business where you can get gas or visit an outfitter to rent kayaks for exploring the nearby New River. Wild and snaky, the ancient New River sports rock cliffs and an unusual south-to-north flow.
Adjacent to the New River in the nearby town of Eggleston is the Palisades Restaurant, housed in a historic building. The Palisades is run by Shaena Muldoon, who grew up near the Cascades. Returning to the area, she created an out-of-the-way establishment with an outsized reputation. Locals from Blacksburg and even farther away drive 20 or 30 miles to patronize the restaurant, with the Palisades frequently topping magazine “best” lists in the New River Valley.
Dismal Falls in the middle of nowhere
Unlike the Cascades, a premier tourist destination, Dismal Falls is less prominent – even though it, too, is situated in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. It’s well known to two groups of people: hikers along the Appalachian Trail and horse-owners who camp in the Forest Service’s equine-friendly, 10-year-old White Cedar Horse Camp atop Flat Top Mountain.
The nearest close-by localities include unincorporated Bland and the community of White Gate, so your best bets for a memorable meal are the Palisades (see above) or the Draper Mercantile and Trading Company, just off Interstate 81 in Draper. For a big-city meal, drive a few extra miles to Blacksburg, Christiansburg or Roanoke.
PHOTO: The beauty of Dismal Falls belies its unfortunate name.
The falls are 40 feet wide and drop just 12 feet into a single whirlpool, making for a refreshing swim in summer. The ledges are built like steps and can be fun to walk on or jump off, but take care – they can be slippery.
How to get to Dismal Falls? It can be tricky. If you’re a long-distance hiker, you can take the Appalachian Trail, of course. For motorists, here is the way recommended by the U.S. Forest Service: From Interstate 77, take exit 52 toward Bland, Virginia, and turn right onto Highway 42. Continue for 14 miles, turning left on State Road 606 (Wilderness Road). Travel one mile and turn right on Dismal Creek Road, aka State Road 671. The waterfall is down an incline and surrounded by trees.