Saturday, March 3, 2012

South River Falls

South River Falls during a March storm
4.5 miles loop, 1300 feet elevation gain, or 3.8 miles round trip, 1170 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; slippery rocks and narrow path at very end of trail
Access: Trailhead on Skyline Drive; Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

South River Falls, an eighty-foot drop, is one of the tallest and most impressive waterfalls in Shenandoah National Park, something I didn't realize the first time I visited. I first hiked this trail last September, when it was so dry that even an overnight thunderstorm couldn't restore any of the South River's flow. However, my second and third return trips helped me to appreciate the waterfall a lot more. I'll describe both of my trips; the first trip was done as a loop of the South River Trail to the fire road, a descent to the base of the waterfall by the fire road and a rocky footpath, and a return along the South River Fire Road and the AT. The second trip was a round trip to the base of the falls on the South River Trail both ways.

Last September, I managed to talk one of my friends into driving me to Shenandoah for a hike, so I arrived at the park on a Friday morning with two friends after a morning of intense thunderstorms. There was incredibly thick fog on the way up, which made driving on Route 33 through forest and pastureland almost dreamlike. At Hensley Hollow Overlook, the fog drifted up to and engulfed the Drive- it was quite magical.

It was also a little warm and muggy when we set out downhill from the trailhead at the South River Picnic Area, which is just four miles north of the Swift Run Gap entrance. The trail descended fairly steeply down the side of the mountain, switchbacking a couple of times to reach the South River. The river was almost entirely dry despite the overnight rain. The trail was incredibly verdant and mushrooms popped up all over the ground.


South River in fog
We then followed the South River for the next half mile as it flowed downhill to the lip of its gorge. Here the trail swung away from the river and onto the greenstone cliffs that towered above the South River. The South River Falls were visible from a walled-in overlook on the rim of the canyon, but due to the low water and the foliage, very little waterfall could be seen. The surrounding peaks were still encased in fog.

South River Falls from the overlook
Following the fire road, we descended down to the level of the river in the canyon and then followed a rough, rocky, and exciting trail up the narrow gorge. The trail dead-ended beneath a hundred-foot high greenstone wall down which the South River cascaded. A friendly snake sunbathed on a rock at the base of the falls and one of my friends found crayfish hidden under rocks in the pool at the base of the falls.

South River Falls from the base
The only drawback, really, was the amount of water in the falls: it might be more appropriately called South River Cliff in late summer. It was nonetheless an enjoyable hike. We finished the loop by following the South River Fire Road uphill, a bit of a workout with some wildflowers but no views or streams. At the junction with the AT, we ran into a couple from Louisa, with whom we chatted about the earthquake the previous week. They told me that they were planning on looking for Dry Run Falls; I am sure that this encounter played some role in my choosing to look for that waterfall in November. A flat portion of the AT then took us back to a junction with the South River Trail just a hundred yards away from the trailhead.

On a rainy Friday in March, the last day of classes before spring break, I decided to tack on a hike before going home. Due to the rain, I could only find one friend who was willing to hike with me; we set out from Charlottesville mid-afternoon and battle traffic to get to the trailhead an hour and a half before sunset.

I wanted to revisit South River Falls, partly because I hadn't seen it in full water, partly because it was very close to the park entrance at Swift Run Gap. Our car was the only one in the South River Picnic Area lot when we started downhill. As on my previous trip, fog had a prominent place in our hike. Rain was intermittent as we made our way down the switchbacks and along the river.

Fog in the forest during the descent
The ground was much wetter this trip than the previous time I had hiked it. South River was quite muscular by the time we reached a rocky portion of trail right above the falls. When we reached the overlook, I was astonished at how beautiful the waterfall was in full flow. The entirety of the waterfall was visible now: the lack of foliage allowed us to see the base of the waterfall.

View of South River Falls
 As we made our way down the fire road, I noticed many things that I hadn't known before: for instance, to the left of the fire road, there is a tumbling stream that has many cascades on its way down to the South River. We made our way up the footpath to the foot of the falls, which branch in two halfway through their descent. Standing at the very base of the waterfall, I was drenched by mist. The rainstorm had kept all other visitors away, so my friend and I had the amazing spectacle to ourselves.

We hung out around the waterfall until 6 PM, when we realized the sun was setting. By the time we had returned to the overlook, it was dark. As we began the final leg of the ascent, we found that our headlamps were useless due to an incredibly thick fog with five to ten-foot visibility, so we turned off our lamps and wandered back to the trailhead in the dark. There was something mysterious but reassuring about the darkness of the Blue Ridge woodlands at night- mysterious because there was some quality of the woods at night that was unknown to me, a sort of feel that is different from the woods in daytime- and reassuring because I was glad that there are still places in the world where such a quality can be found.

South River Falls
Getting home was fun: when we got in my car, I thought my windows were fogged up an proceeded to wipe them from both the inside and the outside; when nothing improved, my friend opened a door and shined a light outside and we realized that the real problem was the 5-foot visibility in the fog. This made for a fun 10 mph drive through thick fog on Skyline Drive on the way down the mountain.

A few notes on the geology: South River Falls and the gorge of the river are both cut into Catoctin greenstone, found at all of the major waterfalls in the park. The rock around the trail here is mostly of that single formation, so there is less of note here than on some other trails.

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