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Riffles and Cascades

The allure of falling water is timeless. Thomas Jefferson is said to have stood at the foot of Dark Hollow Falls, a set of four cascades that drop 71 feet, which is now a popular hike for campers at Big Meadows on the Skyline Drive. Move forward a few centuries and Andy Thompson, a staff writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, reminisces about college days spent sliding down the slick rocks of Station’s Creek Falls and  escaping chemistry books on hot days at Panther Falls, both near Lexington (“Virginia Offers Many Places to Get Your Feet Wet,” July 20, 2008).

These are but a few of the myriad waterfalls scattered throughout the state, including Crabtree Falls in Nelson County, thought by some to be the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi. It consists of five major cascades, the tallest of which is close to 400 feet. Crabtree is definitely the highest waterfall in Virginia. While Virginians might want to claim Great Falls of the Potomac, it is technically located in Maryland since the commonwealth’s state line follows the shoreline on the Virginia side of the river. Great Falls consists of a series six-foot falls, making it the steepest fall line rapids of any river in the United States.

Waterfalls are located in several major areas in the Old Dominion including the Blue Ridge and along the fall line, according to Charles Grymes’ Virginia Places Web site. Grymes is a geography professor at George Mason University. A fall line is an area where an upland and coastal region meet and in Virginia this occurs about 60 or 70 miles from the mountains. For waterfalls to form, three elements are needed – water, a drop in elevation and rock that doesn’t erode easily. For example, there are a few dramatic bluffs in the Tidewater area east of I-95, where waterfalls might exist, but the bedrock in that area is too soft for them to occur.

However, at the fall line, Virginia rivers drop 50 to 80 feet in elevation from the Piedmont to sea level. The rock in the Piedmont is hard and resistant to erosion. The tallest waterfalls, however, are in the Blue Ridge because the difference in elevation is highest there. There is a 2,000-foot difference between the top of the mountains and their base. On the other hand, rivers such as the New, Big Sandy, Holston, Clinch and Powell, that flow to the Mississippi, are not near the fall line. They also have waterfalls, such as the New River’s McCoy Falls near Blacksburg.

Back to Andy Thompson and his list of favorite waterfalls. In the mountains, he recommends Sugar Hollow Falls on the Moorman’s River, St. Mary’s Falls in the 10,000-acre St. Mary’s Wilderness Area, the 69-foot Cascade Falls in Giles County and Roaring Run Falls, a 30-foot cascade in Alleghany County.

In Shenandoah National Park, there is Overall Run Falls, the highest sheer drop in the park. The lower falls drop is 93 feet, the upper is 29 feet. Then there is White Oak Canyon in Madison County with six waterfalls ranging in height from 35 to 86 feet and Cedar Run’s three falls.

Thompson even scoped out a waterfalls in the relative flat lands of the Richmond area, specifically The Falls of the Nottoway River near Crewe, about 40 miles from Petersburg.
Waterfalls in Virginia are so plentiful and scenic that they even merit a book (“Waterfalls of Virginia and West Virginia,” Kevin Adams, 2002). Other resources for exploring the commonweath’s cascading waters include Virginia Waterfalls and Best Waterfalls in Virginia on

Still, there may be a reason that waterfalls in Native American myth often have a dark reputation. In legends, they are often the place where star-crossed lovers jump to their deaths. Even Adams, in his above-mentioned book, cautions visitors to Crabtree Falls, Virginia’s centerpiece cascade, to take care. At least 20 people have fallen to their deaths trying to walk out to a ledge for a better view.

So, while we can’t boast a Class 10 falls like Niagara or even a Class 6 like Yosemite, and nobody is apt to ride a barrel over a Virginia waterfall, our fine cascades still make for some grand scenery.

NEXT: Cathedrals, Temples and Other Spiritual Shrines in the Old Dominion

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