The last trail I hiked in 2018 was also the first trail I hiked in 2019, the South River Falls Trail at Shenandoah National Park.
I went the first time with this bitch a day before the government shutdown. It was her very first visit to the park, despite being born and raised in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It wasn’t the trail I planned to take her on, but a winter storm closed the southern part of the park and I couldn’t get her out to this waterfall-filled trail, so I improvised, opting for the southern-most trail with a waterfall that I could still get us to.
The day was moody, with clouds and threats of rain and we were the only ones on the trail that day. We hiked 1.3 miles down to the stone-walled observation point overlooking the South River Falls, the third highest waterfall in the park at 83 feet. We sat on the wall, opened our trail beers and talked about budgets and money, about our travel and life goals for the year. Then, instead of retracing our steps, we made our way back via the South River Falls Fire Road, then the Appalachian Trail.
The fog rolled in almost as soon as we started back and by the time we reached the AT I’d put my camera away and couldn’t stop yelling about how bogged in we were. We were in the clouds, barely able to see 10 feet in front of ourselves. We found a rock and opened a second trail beer and sat in the foggy mist as it started to rain.
“This is why we’re friends,” one of us said . “Because we can do this, we can just sit and be. We don’t have to rush.”
I went back to the same trail two weeks later, determined to make good use of my first free Sunday of 2019. This time, I wanted to hike all the way down to the base of the falls, an additional 3/4 of a mile that promised to be steep and rocky.
I also went because I was curious. We were two weeks in the shutdown, news about bad behavior in our parks already had me enraged and I wanted to see for myself what types of bullshit was going on in my park.
So I packed a trash bag, some snacks and a trail beer and headed out.
The picnic area that includes the trailhead was closed, so I parked at a pull-off up the road and walked in. There were 8-10 other cars there, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone on the trail this time. It was early though, before 10 a.m., which seems to be the magic hour when everyone gets their shit together and shows up at our parks, and I saw only two couples on the way down the trail which was far less rocky and treacherous than I’d been led to believe.
I parked my butt on a rock overlooking the falls, ate a snack and drank my trail beer while talking to two gentlemen who said they spent most of their free time hiking around the country. We talked about New Mexico and Utah, Death Valley and the Pacific Northwest, cooing over all the places we haven’t seen yet and giving each other tips on our respective upcoming scampers. Then they left, headed back up the trail and I was all alone again, just me and my waterfall.
My favorite feeling is the one that overwhelms me when I step into the woods alone. There, I don’t owe anyone anything, don’t have to do anything for anyone else, can go as fast or as slow as I want.
I walked back the same way, doing a total of 4.1 miles with an elevation change of around 1,000 feet.
The trail was busier then, but most everyone was well-behaved and following the rules, minus a couple of assholes going off-trail around the waterfall. I picked up some trash on my way back to the car, encountered a bigger group doing the same and then drove to a few of the overlooks off the Skyline Drive where I added to my trash collection. The trash crew was right behind me and they scooped up the yuckier bits – like a discarded dirty diaper – that I wasn’t brave enough to touch with my bare paws.
I think of the parks as mine and yours and ours. They belong to us, the American people. They’re special places, set aside for us to enjoy and experience, and it was heart-warming to see so many people out and about in the park enjoying it respectfully while also taking care of it and keeping it clean for me and you and us.
NICE TO KNOW
For more info on the South River Trail, click here. The trail starts at the South River Picnic Grounds at mile 62.7. From the trailhead, you’ve got a few options:
- Hike down + back to the South River Falls Observation Point – 2.6 miles roundtrip: Start on the blue-blazed South River Falls Trail, cross the white-blazed Appalachian Trail (marked with a trailpost) and head straight down to the observation point. Retrace your steps to return.
- Hike a circuit past the South River Falls Observation Point – 3.3 miles roundtrip: Follow the instructions above, then continue past the observation point on the South River Falls Trail, then go left at the South River Fire Road (intersection marked with a trailpost) before turning left on the Appalachian Trail (also marked), then right when you reach the South River Falls Trail.
- ⭐ Add a hike to the base of the South River Falls to either of the above – 4.1 or 4.8 miles respectively: From the observation point, continue on the South River Falls Trail to the trailpost, then go right down the South River Lower Road. The trail gets rocky and steep when it hits the river, right before you arrive at falls. To return, retrace your steps or make it a circuit by adding the Fire Road. It’s worth the extra mile and a half to see the falls – they’re much more impressive when you’re standing right next to them.
Shenandoah National Park is always open, but parts of the Skyline Drive, the only public road in the park, are often closed for inclement weather. Before visiting the park, visit the website or call (540) 999-3500 for the latest conditions. Admission to the park is $30 per vehicle, valid for seven days.