Adventure Ready Activities
Apple Orchard Falls Trail
Apple Orchard Falls Trail—a National Recreation Trail
Written by Hope S. Philbrick, editor Foodie Travel USA.
Explore nature’s beauty on a trail packed with sights that are both photo-worthy and soul-stirring. Walk alongside a gurgling creek that skips over boulders and weaves through tree-covered mountains, surrounded by seasonal blooms and chirping birds, to a tumbling waterfall.
Whether your ideal hike means sticking to a plan or keeping your options open, a meandering stroll or a strenuous workout, head to Apple Orchard Falls Trail near Lexington, Virginia.
Designated as a National Recreation Trail, this extraordinary footpath is located near Apple Orchard Mountain, one of Virginia’s tallest peaks, and a mile from the famed Appalachian Trail. It offers three different trailheads for out-and-back routes plus two possible ways to add trails to make loops, so your hike can be as challenging as you wish.
Though you can choose a longer or shorter route, officially, “from top to bottom the Apple Orchard Falls Trail is 3.32 miles,” says David Whitmore, recreation program manager for the Glenwood and Pedlar Ranger Districts of George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. “It’s a popular hike because you can take a long, medium, or short route. The fact that you’re able to access it from three different trailheads is unique.” The trail is rated as moderate with some difficult stretches; expect some uphill climbs, rocky spots, and uneven terrain.
You can hike a 5.6-mile loop by following Apple Orchard Falls Trail to Cornelius Creek Spur to Cornelius Creek Trail. Trek 6.5 miles by looping Apple Orchard Falls Trail to Appalachian Trail to Cornelius Creek Trail.
You won’t see cyclists or horseback riders on Apple Orchard Falls Trail. “It is specifically for hiking because of some infrastructure on the trail, including wood bridges and a stone staircase,” says Whitmore. Leased dogs are permitted.
Approaching the 200-foot waterfall, the trail pauses at a wooden platform overlooking the cascade. It continues farther down to a serpentine boardwalk at the base of the falls. “It’s beautiful,” says Whitmore. “If you’re standing there when there’s good water flow you’ll get mist, which cools you off on a hot summer day.”
The trail is named for nearby Apple Orchard Mountain, which at 4,222 feet tall is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. “I don’t believe there were ever any apple orchards at the top of the mountain,” says Whitmore. “But trees at that high elevation are subject to a lot of environmental strain—rain, snow, ice—so they’re stunted and don’t reach normal heights for the species. Those trees can have the appearance of old apple trees in an orchard.”
Abundant wildflowers adorn the route each spring. Throughout the year you will see rhododendron, mountain fetterbush, trillium, bleeding heart, turtle head, showy orchids, and other plants. Bird watching is rewarding year-round as a range of species live in the area or migrate through, including cerulean warblers and scarlet tanagers. Other native wildlife includes wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and black bears. North Creek is home to a rare species of aquatic lichen, the waterfan.
An FAA radar facility is closed to the public yet visible at some points on the trail as well as when driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the trailhead. “It looks like a huge golf ball,” says Whitmore.
The trail follows North Creek. See its headwaters, the waterfall, plus various ripples, pools, and small waterfalls along the way. Near sundown make your way to the trailhead at Sunset Fields for spectacular views. “Sunset Fields is an apropos name,” says Whitmore. “The view is west and you’ll see the sunset and mountaintop from the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
The trail is maintained by the forest service and volunteers from the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club. Informational kiosks are positioned at the trailheads and blue blazes mark the way, but no formal programs or services are available. Come prepared with proper hiking gear including footwear, drinking water, and a backpack to facilitate carrying out whatever you bring. Leave no trace to help Apple Orchard Falls Trail retain its natural beauty.
The North Creek trailhead, located at the trail’s lowest elevation, is where to start if you want to hike the entire trail. To reach this trailhead from Interstate-81, take exit 168 (Arcadia). Follow State Route 614 (Jennings Creek Road) for about 3 miles to the intersection of North Creek Road. Turn left onto North Creek Road (Forest Service Road 59), continuing to follow it onto gravel when the pavement ends; the gravel road ends at the trailhead parking area.
The Sunset Fields trailhead, at the trail’s highest elevation, offers the shortest access to view the falls. Start here if you want to avoid driving your vehicle on a gravel road. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, park at the Sunset Fields Overlook (milepost 78), north of the Peaks of Otter. The trailhead is in the parking area.
The middle trailhead is the most difficult to find. From the Sunset Fields Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, take the gravel Forest Service Road 812 out of the Overlook and turn left at the intersection with another gravel road. Go approximately 2.5 miles and turn left at the next open gravel Forest Service Road. Go to the end of the road, about 2 miles, to reach the trailhead.
Apple Orchard Falls is just one of the many great reasons to visit Lexington, Virginia.