Crabtree Falls may or may not be the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi, depending on how you qualify a waterfall, but there is no doubt that Crabtree Falls is the highest waterfall in Virginia. Crabtree Falls is really a name given to five major waterfalls (and several smaller ones) on Crabtree Creek, which flows into the Tye River. Within a half-mile, the creek drops twelve hundred feet. There is one vertical drop of five hundred feet.
Crabtree Falls is a popular attraction. If you spread out the estimated twenty thousand visitors over a year, you'd have about fifty-five a day. Unfortunately, most people come between May and October. Try squeezing that number into twenty parking spaces. (In March, yours may be the only car in the lot.)
Crabtree Falls is famous for its connection to the well-known television show The Waltons. The falls were not shown on television, but the name was referred to several times during the life of the program. The mention of Crabtree Falls was usually in reference to a Sunday outing.
The name “Crabtree” is thought to have come from William Crabtree, who settled in the area in 1777. Some even say he discovered the waterfall. Another noted pioneer, Allen Tye, who did extensive exploration in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is identified as having discovered the Tye River.
The land at the base of the falls was almost developed as a resort area in the late 1960s. Land owner Hugh D. Bolton put up “No Trespassing” signs and stated that he wanted to create something called “Living Waters.” The residents of Nelson County encouraged involvement from the forest service, who had purchased acreage around the falls since the 1930s through small acquisitions and land exchanges, acquiring the falls in 1968. By 1972, after many unsuccessful offers to obtain the land at the base of the falls, proceedings began to condemn the two tracts.
The land became part of the George Washington National Forest, and Southern District Representative Jay Robinson secured money from Congress to be used to improve the area around the falls. The waterfall trail has been developed into a showpiece of the Pedlar District. There are wooden stairs, gravel paths, railed overlooks, and a spectacular bridge over the Tye River.
The 110-foot wooden bridge across the Tye River has a most interesting story. It was the first of the trail improvements made by the forest service in the late 1970s. When I read the cost, I thought it must be a misprint—$62,000! Why so much? This beautiful bridge, a laminated arch, was shipped from New York in one piece. Cranes lifted and placed it over the Tye River in 1978.
The trail parallels the Tye River a short distance before crossing on the bridge. Then, the blue-blazedtrail follows Crabtree Creek for three miles through a sliver of old hemlock, as well as yellow birch, striped maple, and American elm, to Crabtree Meadows. Or, you can turn around at the last waterfall overlook (1.5 miles) for a hike thatalso totals three miles. The first of many observation decks begins only seven hundred feet past the Tye River.
Crabtree Meadows is an open area with crab apples and apple trees. In the 1930s, several families lived on the site of Crabtree Meadow Campground, a national forest primitive campsite with water and pit toilets. The Appalachian Trail can be accessed from here via a 0.5-mile side trail.
Crabtree Falls has a fascinating history and offers many nice features, but something I found struck me as most unusual—a pay phone. There is a telephone right after you cross the Tye River—a strange thing to see in the woods. It was put in because of the growing number of accidents at the falls: rescue numbers are posted inside. There have been twenty-one deaths and many injuries at Crabtree Falls. The forest service even maintains a four-wheel-drive road at the top of the falls primarily for use in rescues.
From Waynesboro, access the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 0 and head south to milepost 27.2. Exit onto VA 56 going east (left) andfollow the signs to Crabtree Falls (about 6.3 miles). There is a paved parking area on the right and the trail begins at the upper end. To reach Crabtree Meadows, head back towards the Parkway for 2.8 miles and turn left onto SR 826. The upper trailhead is 4 miles down and on the left.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication