Walking along South River, you get the feeling something big is about to happen. Though the descending trail is easy enough to navigate, the river to your right is zigging and zagging through a jumble of boulders and downed trees, often splitting into three or more separate channels. There’s a certain pent-up energy, like an athlete getting primed for a big event. Any minute now … .

Then, about 1.2 miles into the hike you see it about 75 yards ahead: a stark horizon line. River and bank one minute, then nothing but sky and the valley down below. An exciting sight, the horizon line (unless you’re in a boat).

South River Falls reveals itself slowly. The trail clings to the steep mountainside to the north with rock and trees initially obscuring the drop. It’s another 100 yards or so before the full extent of the falls is clear: a massive drop cleaved in two a third of the way down. At 83 feet, South River Falls is the third highest waterfall in the park. And while there appears to be a nice pool at its base, abandon any thought of descending the steep, rocky face where all manner of trees and shrubs grab hold wherever possible. A small, rustic observation area is good enough for taking it in.

The return is up South River Fire Road, an old roadbed that’s a steady climb. After a little over a mile, go left on the Appalachian Trail, which in a half mile returns you to South River Falls Trail and the short return to your car.

Trails: South River Falls, South River Falls Road, Appalachian Trail

More info: www.nps.gov/shen

Maps: Online map available here; http://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/upload/lewis_mtn_area_2013.pdf “Trails Illustrated Shenandoah National Park,” 1:75,000, 50 foot interval.

Getting there: From Charlottesville, no north on US 29, then west on US 33 to Skyline Drive. At Skyline Drive, go north for a little over a mile to South River Picnic Area and the trailhead.


Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous (elevation gain and loss)

Distance: 3.3 miles

Time to hike: 1.5 to 3.5 hours

Address: Milepost 62.5, Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park.

GPS: 38.23009, -78.31070