WHERE: Shenandoah National Park.
WHY: Wet and wild waterfalls, along with wildflowers, deer and, perchance, an owl or black bear.
HOW FAR: About 70 miles, or roughly 90 minutes, from downtown Washington.
"Wow." That's all I could utter when I spotted the torrent of water plunging over Dark Hollow Falls. I wasn't sure the closest waterfall to Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive would be so enchanting. One couple had just told me it wasn't worth the steep 1.4-mile-round-trip trek, but another raved about the 70-foot cascade.
Even if the bubbly waters had barely trickled over the ages-old boulders, it still would have been worth the jaunt. From the start of the hike to the falls, the Hogcamp Branch creek was beside me, whispering its little whooshing melody. Roughly halfway down, it swelled into a wading pool where sweaty hikers dipped their toes alongside the brook trout.
Wildflowers and ferns paraded alongside the winding path. About a third of the trail was flanked by pink and white mountain laurel, which typically blooms around mid-June. In less than a half-hour, I reached the final hairpin turn. The white waters gushed and roared over three huge ledges. After a bit of a scramble on the boulders alongside the falls, I plopped myself on a rock by a shallow wading pool at the bottom.
Wading pools and swimming holes, along with lush greenery, are common at all nine major trail-accessible falls along Skyline Drive. (You can't visit every stop on this trip in one day, but we give you the lay of the land, so you can determine what works for you.) The falls are at their best during spring and after a whopper of a storm, but most flow all year. The park's $2 booklet "Hikes to Waterfalls" by Joanne Amberson has all the details you need to find them.
"The dominant question in the park is, 'Where do I see a waterfall?' " says Amberson, a 75-year-old park volunteer. "It comes even before, 'Where is the bathroom?' "
The closest falls to the northern entrance of the park is Overall Run Falls. The steep, 6.4-mile hike is rocky and somewhat difficult -- but the payoff is worth it. National Park Service Ranger Melissa Rudacille, who has hiked many of the park's 500-plus miles of trails, says Overall Run Falls is her pick for the best (except during mid-summer droughts) because "it's the tallest and it has a gorgeous view."
While Amberson says all nine falls she reviews are beautiful and have different personalities, her favorite is South River Falls. She adores its wide canyon and peaceful setting along the more remote southern half of the 105-mile mountaintop drive.
Of course, there are more reasons than waterfalls to visit Shenandoah: President Hoover's rustic White House getaway, Rapidan Camp, for example. The Iowan and his wife, Lou (president of the Girl Scouts), built 13 cabins in the fishing camp. Ten of them are long gone, but you can still tour Hoover's newly renovated Brown House with its massive stone fireplaces. Another is used as exhibit space, and the third is closed to the public. You can hike to the camp or take advantage of a van ride through the National Park Service (call for reservations; 540-999-3283).
And Shenandoah is also known for critters. I spied a big barred owl, a ruffed grouse, a wild turkey, gobs of deer, a wayward beaver and possible signs of a black bear. All I could say was: "Wow."
Barbara J. Saffir
Road Trip maps are available online at www.washingtonpost.com/roadtrip, as are mile markers along Skyline Drive, addresses and hours of operation (be sure to check before you go). Have an idea for a trip? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.