Virginia’s Saint Mary’s Falls Hike

It seems I alternate between seeking a breathtaking sunset or a jaw-dropping waterfall so being that Andy and I had just hiked Annapolis Rock and Black Rock Cliff for one of the best sunsets we have yet to see, turned next to finding a beautiful waterfall.

Our destination: Saint Mary’s Falls, which is a relatively short and easy hike in one of Virginia’s largest forested areas:

  • A little less than five miles
  • 305-foot elevation gain
  • Level Two of Five difficulty

You should know this trail briefly passes through a longer one we hiked and camped three months into knowing one another back in 2016 — That one is called Saint Mary’s Wilderness Trail, and at the time it was challenging for our newbie selves because it was an unblazed nearly twenty-mile path with a 5,300-foot elevation gain that ranked a Level Five of Five. Surprisingly though, that hike went smoothly — We saw relics of the old mining area; we explored the mountain wetlands, meadows, and valleys; and we savored the wild fern and rhododendron forests. However, the one part of the hike we did not explore was the waterfall — hence why we wanted to return.

We could not have asked for a more beautiful April day as the forest seemed to be wakening after a deep winter slumber. Beautiful wild succulents clung to moss and tree trunks as we made our way onto the path . . . and I totally admit, I was thrilled to see these little plants because we’ve yet to find wild succulents on our outings.

There were also several little flowers popping up between the crevices of rock and thick leaves on the forest floor . . .

The trail hugged Saint Mary’s River, which was equally beautiful with its clear water and Blue Ridge Mountain backdrop . . .

Along with this, both sides of the river had unusual rock formations which seemed to stretch from the ground . . .

and in front of one of those formations, we had our first river crossing . . .

It’s important to note that the Saint Mary’s trail was eroded due to rainstorms so while earlier hikers may have been able to forge on for miles on one side of the river, today hikers faced limited trail access. I did read that there are trail restoration crews that are rerouting and restoring the area, but until then hikers are left with minimal options, such as zigzagging back and forth through the river . . . and so this was the start of that process.

At the first crossing, other hikers were ahead of us, meticulously planning where to walk before taking shoes and socks off then painstakingly journeying across the water. Andy and I are though are mostly the opposites type of hikers — We’d rather leave on our boots to use their protected soles to move faster over the rocks versus be barefooted to slip in the freezing water. Don’t get me wrong, we still plan our steps as we cross to limit water inside our boots, but we mostly charge right on through . . .

This one barely wet our boots so we happily continued on until to the next crossing.

“It’s a bit deeper,” we heard ourselves say as we analyzed and debated our method of attack. Meanwhile, the hikers from earlier were catching up so we once again decided to go for it.

Here, we got a bit wetter with the tops of our boots covered by the water so some water did leak inside. This was fine though because we saved time and — what we soon discovered — there were still more crossings to come . . .

This one was deeper than the others and so Andy and I took extra time to determine the most shallow place to cross. By this time, the group of hikers had caught up again and gathered at the water’s edge to keenly listen to our conversations and plans.

“I’m going this way,” Andy announced to all of us, pointing to my left where rock tips were seen above water. We all nodded where he pointed, eyes following his path, then began to shake our heads — The stretches between the rocks were grand and drops, deep. I heard whispers of disagreement behind me. I felt the same.

“You sure? I like think my way better” and I pointed ahead of where I stood. The gazes of all hikers turned towards me. My way, for sure, had more rocks to use for the crossing but the water on both sides was even deeper than what Andy faced. I heard gasps at this realization.

“Boots on. This way,” Andy proclaimed and all eyes returned to him. I felt as if we were in some intense game and the hikers, our audience. Then without a need for further discussion, Andy tore off, slipping and sliding as he navigated across. We all held their breath . . . A foot glided into the water, another so deep his shin got wet, and another boot plop but overall he made it.

“Great job!” I called from the other side as the hikers moved from behind me to in front of his trail, which was evidently the audience favorite.

Still, I wouldn’t be phased and so I stuck to my water-trail — Boots on also, I started so smoothly that I heard the hikers return to my side, clearly voting my way as the win . . . and that’s when I kinda sorta got stuck.

“Just keep going . . . or turn around to face forward first — How you got turned the opposite direction is beyond me — just keep going!” I think Andy thought he was helping — yelling aloud his confusions as if they were words of encouragement, but I knew I was alone . . . on a sharp, jutting rock . . . surrounded by water that was rushing by much faster than it appeared earlier.

I admit, it is around here my memory becomes a bit unclear — I know at one crossing I squatted on the top of some tiny, pointy rock — in the middle of the river and in the middle of walking across — to take off my boots and socks. Possibly this was the time but what I remember most was my rock-slip and, therefore, tumble into the water.

The result? I perfectly showcased what crossing not to take as I waded the rest of the way through the water and so looked like this when I got out: Both legs were wet and one arm, drenched after catching my fall.

Getting wet comes with hiking some days though and this was definitely one of those days so onward we continued, closer to the falls.

As we walked, we passed a gorgeous swimming hole with deep emerald water — which we returned to on the way back . . .

but until then, we continued above and along the river edge . . .

then climbed uphill beside more rock formations . . .

and finally, arrived at the waterfall . . .

When we arrived, we briefly had this twenty-five-foot fall to ourselves and so Andy and I climbed down the small rock ledge to stand at the base of the gushing water . . .

Once we got beside the waterfall though, the other hikers arrived so we moved to the side to allow them to enjoy the view. There, we found a little rocky landing under the main viewing area, which I confess surprisingly provided an even prettier view of the waterfall, and it was here we ate our lunch . . .

“I could stay here forever,” I remember telling Andy, staring at the falls and mountain walls, feeling content in the middle of the forest beside him. Even though time passed slowly for us this day, it was not slow enough so at some point, we had to leave our watery haven to return the way we had come . . . and this meant repeating all those river crossings . . .

It was here my Englishman started off strong but made the same error I did earlier so one rock slide lead him into knee-deep water, too.

Because Andy was essentially soaked below his waist, when we made it back to that glowing green pool, he made a bold statement: He wanted to embrace all life offered us on this hike by jumping off the rocks and into the water . . . the very cold water because keep in mind, we were only a few days into spring.

Yet, my Englishman is used to cold water so in he plunged . . . still wearing — yep, you see it now — his socks. As he said: Gotta protect your feet.

I admit, I was a bit too chilly to jump into the freezing water so I happily took pictures of Andy’s swim, along with pictures of our trail back to the car because the view and the water were just too pretty to pass up . . .

Trails often feel shorter and therefore faster on the way back, but this time we didn’t mind, knowing that we had savored every bit of the hike and left having no regrets.

Author: L

Hi there! I am the impulsive do-er, the jumper, the one tugging to move past comfort zones to embrace a life of sheer surprise. I am a writer -- a pursuer of stories -- because I believe in the destination over the journey. I am a chaser of sunrises and sunsets and cherisher of the moments between. I have an overwhelming curiosity, an insatiable desire travel, and an obsessive yearn to turn dreams into realities. For all of these reasons, the word that best summarizes who I am is "seeker" -- I am forever a seeker.

2 thoughts

  1. Thank you again for the hike up, and down, memory trail. This stirred up some images and sounds of backpacking into the high sierras with my Dad, and sometimes the Boy Scouts. The 1970s saw us on most peaks around Southern California for weekender overnights, then at least 2 weeks each year we would expedition into the Sierras West of Owens Valley. Hike and climb to a peak, eat lunch (Pilot biscuits and hard salami frequently), then go down to camp for the night about 1/2 way to the next mountain or high pass. Catching Golden Trout in the little creeks most days to supplement our protein needs, taking only pictures leaving only footprints. Please share a big hug to both of you on my behalf.Love and Cheers!

    1. Hi David, What an awesome comment to read! Your backpacking trips sound incredible — I’ve Googled images of Owens Valley area and around it, which is nothing short of stunning. What amazing memories of being there, with the Boy Scouts, and being with your dad too! We would love to have tales like this . . . and I know Andy would love to catch those trout as well (now you are really talking his language)! Absolutely beautiful — Thank you for sharing!
      PS–Hugs shared so now we both send you a big one back!
      L (and Andy)

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