I only stopped my drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to use the restroom facility. But when I saw the sign pointing the way toward The Cascades, I grabbed my photo gear and trekking poles and was off on the trail. I wasn’t disappointed with what I found, just sad I didn’t have an eternity I could have spent right here.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a beautiful scenic route along the peaks of mountains through Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, but it can also be sneaky. The familiar, small parking areas on either side of the Parkway invite drivers to pull in, enjoy a majestic view of a nearby mountain top or deep valley, but if you’re not careful you’ll miss the hiking trail. Almost all the small parking areas have hiking trails, but if you don’t know to look for them you’ll hop back in the car and miss something amazing.
That is exactly what happened when I pulled off the Parkway at Milepost 272. I wasn’t planning to spend very long on the Parkway this particular day because I was in the midst of an epic journey Road Tripping to the End of Highway 16 Through Western North Carolina. But I had left West Jefferson behind about an hour ago, I’d already finished off a bottle of water in the hot temps and high humidity, so I needed a restroom.
Just as soon as I had decided to turn around at the next parking area, I came across the restrooms at E.B. Jeffress Park. But as I was coming out I noticed a sign pointing toward The Cascades at Falls Creek. It was supposed to be a short, 1-mile round trip hike that takes less than 30 minutes (the sign is inaccurate, but more on that in a few moments). I switched my flip flops for hiking shoes, grabbed my photography backpack, and headed down the trail.
After a few short minutes the trail splits. If you stay to the right, the trail follows a ridge for awhile in lush vegetation before beginning a long descent. If you stay to the left, the trail immediately drops and meanders along a creek, crossing it a few times. This is a loop trail, so you can go either way and return either way. But the shortest, quickest route is to go left and stay along the creek.
The trail crosses over this beautifully rustic but extremely sturdy wooden footbridge about halfway to The Cascades. You’ll start to hear the rushing waters before reaching the top of the falls. With this trail you reach the top of the waterfall first before beginning a descent to two scenic overlooks. The first is located just a few feet below the top. It is a small area with a stone wall and enough room for a large family. I couldn’t get any photos here the day I visited because a young couple had thought this was a great place for a picnic. Now, don’t get me wrong, having a picnic here is an amazing idea. But keep in mind this isn’t a private balcony at your resort hotel; you need to share this space with other visitors, so refrain from taking the entire area for just yourselves. After a few dirty glances from the couple who were just itching to make out, I decided to head down to the next overlook.
The second overlook is the one you really want for a great view of the waterfall. This trail is a bit different than most because you never really end up in front of the falls, or far off in the distance, but rather you’re always right next to it. The second, and final, overlook brings you right next to a churning section of the waterfall and a really fantastic view. When there has been adequate rain throughout the season the waters really tumble over the rocks and splash quite a bit. I stood near the slight corner (to the left of the sign) while shooting a long exposure shot and ended up a bit damp. The corner of the overlook was also muddy, so this isn’t exactly a good place to hang out for awhile. Remember that first overlook? Yeah…that’s the picnic spot.
The waterfall churning is pretty noisy, but it’s that kind of noise from nature that soothes the soul. I could not hear a single motor of any kind, no planes or helicopters, and no sirens even in the far distance. It was peaceful, tranquil, almost as if the noise from the waterfall surrounded me like a curtain to block out all other sounds. I could have spent an eternity here, especially since I’m a sucker for waterfalls, but I had to get moving on my road trip journey so I only gave myself a half hour.
From here you could continue further down to the very bottom of the cascades, but that trail is now closed. I asked a local about it who was visiting the same time I was there. He told me it was never really a sanctioned trail, but had become so well worn from visitors that people just kept using it. However, the National Park Service never properly built a trail to the bottom. While it does provide a beautiful view of The Cascades from the bottom, please don’t use this trail. It belongs to nature, not to us. The trail is blocked off by a simple rail, but that doesn’t usually stop curious people. Maybe they should post a black bear there instead?
Be careful on your way up and down the trail beside the waterfall. On most days the stone steps are a little wet and slippery. Be sure to wear good hiking shoes or tennis shoes. I am a flip flop kinda guy myself, but I was smart enough (at least this one time) to ditch them for hiking shoes. I’m glad I did; on my way back up I passed a family with a mother who slipped on one of the rocks while wearing flimsy slip on shoes. Kids will be okay on this trail as long as they are able to walk well on their own; if you have toddlers you may find it difficult to carry them while also balancing yourself. These stones aren’t large boulders; most are smaller than a basketball, but it’s still enough to make it a tenuous hike.