Jefferson National Forest: Apple Orchard Falls Trail and Cornelius Creek Trail, Buchanan, Virginia
Virginia is known for its mountain vistas much more than for its streams and waterfalls. Interestingly, much of the terrain in the mountains of Virginia is not very supportive for large waterfalls, so when your Virginia hike takes you to a waterfall that is around two hundred feet high, it can be considered something special for sure. This hike visits Apple Orchard Falls. At 200 feet high, this waterfall is one of the highest in Virginia. Furthermore, the popular loop along North Creek, Apple Orchard Branch, and Cornelius Creek is one of the most beautiful stream hikes in George Washington and Jefferson National Forest and perhaps in all of Virginia. This hike occurred on Friday, November 25th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Apple Orchard Falls/Cornelius Creek Loop clockwise, by first following the Apple Orchard Falls Trail to and past Apple Orchard Falls. Then, I would hike the Cornelius Creek Spur Trail to the Cornelius Creek Trail, finishing the loop by taking the Cornelius Creek Trail back to the trailhead. This hike was the third of seven hikes that I did during a four-day Thanksgiving trip to the mountains of western Virginia.
R/T Length of Trail: 6.1 Miles
Duration of Hike: 3:45
Type of Hike: Loop
Difficulty Rating: 4 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: 1736 Feet
Pros: There is likely to be some solitude on the Cornelius Creek Trail and Spur Trail
Cons: The water flow on Apple Orchard Falls can be extremely low depending on time of year and recent rainfall
Points of Interest: Apple Orchard Falls - 6 out of 10; Several scenic cascades on Cornelius Creek
Trail Blaze Color(s): Apple Orchard Falls Trail - Blue; Cornelius Creek Spur Trail - None; Cornelius Creek Trail - Blue
Best Season(s) to Hike: Winter; Spring
Beginning Point: Apple Orchard Falls Trailhead
Directions from Buchanan, VA: From Exit 167 on I-81, follow I-81 North for 0.7 miles to Exit 1168. Take Exit 168, and then, turn right onto VA 614 towards the unincorporated community of Arcadia. In 3.2 miles, after passing through Arcadia, turn left onto Forest Service Road 59. This road actually remains paved for some time. Follow FS 59 for 4.4 miles to a dead-end at a turnaround and parking area at the Apple Orchard Falls Trailhead. The last 1.6 miles of the road are unpaved but in great condition.
Click here for more information and to download this trail map to view in Garmin Basecamp.
Due to the extreme drought conditions in most of the Southeast at the time, I had been looking forward to visiting some waterfalls in Virginia during my Thanksgiving trip to the area. Apple Orchard Falls was high on my list. This falls is quite tall and a beauty, but in my opinion, it is not perfect due to the low water flow. I'm sure that in a flood, this waterfall would be very impressive. During normal water levels, however, it is great but not top-notch. Without further ado, read on to see the description of the full loop hike. The main falls is not the only point of interest on this hike, as it visits many beautiful cascades and stream scenes, so it is still a very good hike.
Two trails leave the Apple Orchard Falls Trailhead: Apple Orchard Falls Trail and Cornelius Creek Trail. The Cornelius Creek Trail, which leaves along a gated forest road, is the return route. Begin the hike along the Apple Orchard Falls Trail, which starts to the left of a trailhead kiosk by crossing a well-constructed wooden footbridge across Cornelius Creek. The wide and well-marked blue-blazed trail then begins to follow North Creek upstream, providing great views of this beautiful cascading stream. The valley is framed well by Pine Mountain and Apple Orchard Mountain - the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia - and during winter, there are excellent views of these tall mountains from the trail. At 0.6 miles, the trail turns south, leaving North Creek and now following the much smaller Apple Orchard Branch. When I was hiking the trail along the branch here, I was wondering to myself how such a tiny creek could have a fairly impressive waterfall on it! Usually, all of the water in a creek collects in one place on single-drop waterfalls that simply drop down a sheer cliff (like Apple Orchard Falls does), so that explained the situation to me later on.
The trail to the falls stays in hearing distance of the creek the entire time, and most of the time, it is also within seeing distance. At 1.3 miles, there are two footbridges across Apple Orchard Branch, along with an intersection. The first footbridge to your left is actually for a spur trail leads to a secondary trailhead, which is only 300 feet away on the other side of the creek at the end of FS 3034. Continue straight on the main trail, which goes across the second footbridge. The second footbridge - that is located just above the confluence of the "twin prongs" of Apple Orchard Branch - crosses the west prong and follows the east prong (the one with the waterfall) upstream. After this, the terrain becomes increasingly more rugged, and the trail steepens and becomes slower and rockier as it approaches the head of the gorge. At 1.75 miles, where the trail makes a pair of short switchbacks, there is a cascade on the creek to the left that drops down a moss-covered boulder, with a miniature cave behind the small cascade. During high water, this could be a pretty scene. Using a double footbridge, the trail then crosses Apple Orchard Branch at 1.85 miles below a pair of giant boulders. During winter, Apple Orchard Falls can be seen upstream. The trail then briefly circles away from the creek, to avoid the extremely rugged terrain just below the falls, before reaching the long footbridge across the creek and observation deck at Apple Orchard Falls at 2.0 miles.
Apple Orchard Falls is a tall waterfall that cascades down a sheer rock cliff. During high water, I have no doubt that it is spectacular, but even during normal water, it is still a picturesque sight. All online information about this waterfall states that its height is 200 feet. Personally, it seems to me that this is overestimated, as the topo lines seem to indicate that the waterfall is hardly higher than 120 feet. That is not crucial though, as the height doesn't determine the waterfall's beauty, in this case. One of the elements that adds to the beauty of the falls is a large boulder located near the base of the falls. It appears that it would be possible to scramble up the boulder to get a closer view of the upper section of the falls, but I did not do this.
A lot of folks prefer to simply retrace their steps from this point, but in my opinion, the best part of the hike is along Cornelius Creek. If you're doing this trail, I highly recommend continuing farther on the Apple Orchard Falls Trail to complete the loop. The steepest part of the trail and the steepest ascent on the hike is right after the falls. Over the next tenth of a mile, the trail ascends around 150-200 vertical feet, partially using a steep wooden staircase. Part of the way up the staircase, a small platform to the left provides a winter side view of Apple Orchard Falls. At the top of the steep pitch, an opening in the trees to the right provides a view into the North Creek valley and beyond. Then, the trail makes a switchback and returns to Apple Orchard Branch just above the falls, crossing the creek via a footbridge at 2.25 miles. Above the footbridge is a small but pretty waterfall. A moderate ascent along the east side of Apple Orchard Branch brings the trail to a junction at 2.6 miles. Here, the Apple Orchard Trail continues south to the Appalachian Trail and to Sunset Field at the Blue Ridge Parkway. Meanwhile, a wide forest road intersects the trail from left to right. This is where the Cornelius Creek Spur Trail begins (or ends), heading right onto the old forest road. Unless you want to hike a bigger loop that involves the AT, turn right onto the Cornelius Creek Spur Trail.
A welcome downhill begins as the forest road leads northwest. In general, the forest road has more downhill than uphill, but there is some of both. The last stretch of uphill on this hike occurs from mile 3.5 to mile 3.75, as the trail crosses the west fork of Apple Orchard Branch and then reaches the top of Backbone Ridge. This is where the Cornelius Creek Spur Trail ends at a junction with the Cornelius Creek Trail. The Cornelius Creek Trail comes in from the south, from the Appalachian Trail. Bear right to continue on the Cornelius Creek Trail northwest, in order to close the loop and return to the trailhead. The blue-blazed trail begins to drop off Backbone Ridge, at first gently. At 3.9 miles, at a sign, the trail makes a sharp switchback to the left and begins an extremely steep descent into the Cornelius Creek valley. In the next half-mile, the trail descends nearly 500 vertical feet. At 4.35 miles, the trail reaches a campsite near Cornelius Creek. After this, the trail begins following the creek's east side downstream at a much more manageable grade. Cornelius Creek is a very beautiful stream, with many photogenic cascades and slides, and during spring's high water flow, I am sure that it is even more picturesque. At 4.8 miles, the trail passes to the left a small 3-foot waterfall with a pool.
The trail fords Cornelius Creek at 4.9 miles (although during typical late fall water levels, all fords on this hike were easy rock hops). However, just 250 feet later, the trail recrosses Cornelius Creek on a footbridge at a set of sliding cascades. Passing more cascades, the trail crosses/fords Cornelius Creek again at 5.35 miles. After this, the trail stays on the west side of Cornelius Creek the rest of the way. In general, it also stays farther from the creek after this. At 6.1 miles, the Cornelius Creek Trail ends at the Apple Orchard Falls Trailhead, concluding the hike.
0.0 - Apple Orchard Falls Trailhead
1.3 - FS 3034 Trailhead Spur Trail
2.0 - Apple Orchard Falls
4.8 - Picturesque cascade on Cornelius Creek
6.1 - Apple Orchard Falls Trailhead
Hike out and back to Apple Orchard Falls from FS 3034 Trailhead - 1.5 Miles
Hike out and back to Apple Orchard Falls from Apple Orchard Falls Trailhead - 4.0 Miles
The nearby Peaks of Otter, accessed of the Blue Ridge Parkway, afford several great hikes, including to Sharp Top Mountain, Flat Top Mountain, and Fallingwater Cascades. In fact, after doing this hike, I completed the hike to Sharp Top Mountain in the same day. It is a very steep but relatively short hike to a breathtaking 360-degree view.
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