|View towards Three Ridges from the Priest|
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; stay on trail at Crabtree Falls as rocks near falls are dangerous
Access: Paved road to trailhead; $3/day use fee per vehicle
I may be prone to hyperbole, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that this hike is one of the most varied and scenic in the state. This fairly challenging full-day hike ascends the most impressive peak in the Blue Ridge north of the James River by following what some claim to be the highest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Sure, it's not a trip for solitude seekers- Crabtree Falls sees hundreds of visitors on most weekends and there are numerous 4WDs rumbling up and down the Crabtree Meadows Road near the Priest- but the scenic beauty of this hike outweighs having to put up with crowds.
The Priest is the tallest peak in the Religious Range- not truly a subrange of the Blue Ridge, but rather just a number of peaks with religious names, including the Cardinal and the Friar across the Piney River watershed. It is not the tallest peak in the Blue Ridge north of the James River- that honor belongs to nearby Rocky Mountain- but from all angles the mountain seems immense. The Appalachian Trail passes over the summit of the mountain as it heads north before it drops 3000 feet in 3 miles to the Tye River in one of the steepest sections of the AT in Virginia. This hike climbs the peak from its gentler northwestern side, but still requires climbing to the summit from its base at the Tye River. The peak's summit lies within the Priest Wilderness, one of the few federally-designated wildernesses in Central Virginia. I did this hike during the spring, when the waterfalls were in full flow and the flowers were blooming; I imagine that this hike is also good during the winter, when the falls are flowing and the views are clearer.
I did this hike on a gorgeously clear late May day with my parents, who were visiting Charlottesville and hiking with me to train for an upcoming long-distance hiking trip. We drove to the Crabtree Falls recreation site in the morning, heading south on US 29 from Charlottesville past Lovingston to VA Route 56 west. We turned right onto 56 and followed it, making two turns along the way to stay on that route. As Route 56 neared Massie's Mill, the Priest came into full view before us, bathed in shimmering morning light, its summit grandly towering over the Piedmont and the Tye River watershed. We followed 56 past Massie's Mill and the road's junction with the Appalachian Trail, continuing as the road became progressively narrower and windier. Eventually, when it seemed as if the road could curve no more, we reached a turnoff to the left for Crabtree Falls. We parked in the very large lot and paid the $3 day use fee, then headed up the trail. I have previously detailed the first 1.7 miles of the hike to the top of Crabtree Falls.
The first 0.7 miles of the hike was packed with cascade after cascade as we ascended along Crabtree Creek. Crabtree Falls is actually a series of many waterfalls, which together add up to a height of around 1200 feet; this makes Crabtree Falls one of the tallest series of cascades in the eastern United States. The water flow was plentiful in spring, making most of the falls quite impressive.
|The highest cascade of Crabtree Falls|
|View from the top of Crabtree Falls|
This was perhaps the least pleasant portion of the hike. We had to follow the road for half a mile between the Crabtree Meadows trailhead and the intersection of Meadows Road with the Appalachian Trail. The road was deeply rutted and passable only for 4WD vehicles; this meant that every now and then, a large, noisy vehicle would pass us, sending up large clouds of dust. The road passed a few campsites and then began a very steep ascent to a saddle on the west side of the Priest. In fact, the half-mile of road might actually be the steepest portion of the entire hike. At the top of the ridge, we met up with the Appalachian Trail, which ran to the right through a grassy clearing and to the left into the forest. We turned left, taking the AT north and quickly entering the Priest Wilderness.
|The AT entering the Priest Wilderness|
|Large granite boulders on the summit plateau of the Priest|
|View north from the Priest|
|Maintop Mountain from the Priest|
|View north from the Priest|