How Crabtree Falls Came To Be
While most of the details of William Crabtree’s life have disappeared into the mists of time, his name will forever be remembered for a bit of land he settled in Nelson County in 1777. Through this unspoiled mountainland runs one of the most famous and beautiful waterfalls in the United States—Crabtree Falls.
It comprises five major cascades (one of which drops 400 feet) and several lesser ones, descending a total distance of about 1,200 feet. The trail along this natural wonder provides five overlooks that offer memorable views of the Crabtree Creek Falls.
Crabtree Falls is also famous for its connection to the popular 1971-1981 television show, “The Waltons,” which is set in the years 1933-1946. While the falls were never shown in any of the show’s episodes, they were referred to several times by the family, who enjoying visiting them for their Sunday outings.
Crabtree Fall’s Close Call
Crabtree Falls is visited by thousands of hikers, picnickers, sightseers, photographers, artists and adventure seekers every year, but this spectacular scenic wonder very nearly became something else entirely. It fell out of private hands in the early 20th century when it was purchased by the Atlantic Lumber Co., of Boston, which had visions of stripping the land of its marketable trees. The terrain, though, was too rugged for timbering, and the company never pursued it.
Local efforts to place Crabtree Falls in federal hands so that it could be appropriately developed and made accessible as a public recreation site were made as early as the 1930s. World War II delayed these efforts, but in 1948 Nelson County native and environmentalist L.A. Snead spearheaded a serious movement to save Crabtree Falls from commercial development. He and a group of concerned Nelson County residents maintained their vigilance over the land for 19 years until, in 1967, the Atlantic Lumber Co. sold it to Snead.
In June of 1968, he deeded Crabtree Falls to the National Forest System.
But that was only part of the battle to save Crabtree Falls. The other part was to stop adjacent development that would compromise the pristine beauty and majesty of the falls.
In 1969, Hugh D. Bolton owned the land along Route 56 adjacent to the falls. He planned to open a roadside attraction called Living Waters that would feature a trout lake, food concessionaire, souvenir stand and winter ice skating, as well as access to Crabtree Falls.
“To a large number of Nelson County residents, this is equivalent to planting a carnival complete with striptease on the front lawn of Monticello,” wrote Charlottesville’s Daily Progress on June 2, 1969.
Living Waters never came to be, and the necessary rights of way were obtained through purchase and condemnation proceedings by the federal government, largely through the efforts of Snead and the Nelson County citizens group.
The Hand of Man: The Forest Service and Crabtree Falls
Over the years, the Forest Service has gone to great lengths to make Crabtree Falls
accessible to all. A moderate, 2.7-mile trail has been established by which hikers can view Crabtree’s five major cascades.
The first overlook is the most easily accessible to people of all ages and is located only a short distance along a paved trail. The other four outlooks are situated along the remaining 2.5 miles of trail and require a bit more stamina to reach.
However, access to the falls has been facilitated over the years by the Forest Service with the installation of wooden stairs, graded and graveled pathways, and railed overlooks.
As an additional attraction for visitors to the area, a magnificent 104-foot arched bridge was shipped from New York to Nelson County in 1978 in one piece. This bridge, which cost $62,000, came to Virginia on a telescoping trailer that traveled the hairpin turns of VA 56.
Two cranes helped unload it at the edge of the falls’ upper parking lot, and it was maneuvered into place where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Tye River. It instantly became—and remains—one of the most photogenic points in all of Nelson County.
Getting To Crabtree Falls—and Staying Safe
Crabtree Falls: From Waynesboro or Staunton, the most straightforward way to Crabtree Falls is via the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is accessible by either Interstate 64 East or U.S. 250 East. Travel the Parkway to milepost 27 and then exit onto VA 56 going east. Follow the signs to Crabtree Falls (a little over six miles). The falls are open year round from dawn to dusk, and there is a $3 per vehicle per day parking fee.
The Arched Bridge: Visitors can easily gain access to the arched bridge by car. After leaving the falls parking lot, travel east on Va. 56 for 4.7 miles. On the righthand side of the road is a parking area and an AT (Appalachian Trail) sign. Cross the road and follow white rectangular blazes to the bridge—a distance of less than 300 feet.
Even though the Forest Service has made Crabtree Falls as safe as possible, as many as 29 hikers over the years are known to have had fatal accidents when they ventured off the trail to climb on the wet and slippery falls. Signs along the way warn visitors to stay on the trail.
Additionally, pets must be leashed at all times, no horses or bicycles are allowed, and alcoholic beverages are prohibited. Hikers should also bring their own drinking water since there are no food or beverage concessions on the property.
So wear your best hiking shoes or boots, pack in a camera and a few power bars, and enjoy one of the most breathtakingly scenic waterfalls in the United States.
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