Saturday, June 23, 2012

St Mary's Falls

St. Mary's Wilderness in Virginia's George Washington National Forest would not have qualified as a wilderness area when then Wilderness Act first passed in 1964.  Very few eastern areas could.  But a subsequent law about 10 years later permitted areas to be added to if they were being allowed to let mankind's evidence of disruption be overtaken by natural processes.  There is plenty of evidence of human activity here, especially where mining was done 50-60 years ago, but it is fading.  The trails are not marked, although there are a couple of weathered wooden signs.  There appears to be some trail maintenance, but plenty of fallen trees to clamber over as well.

I had Friday off from work, and decided to hike here for the day.  I had not been in St. Mary's Wilderness in well over 10 years, but had hiked to the falls twice before with other people, and one time, I had done the circuit hike - without taking the side trip to the falls.  I decided to hike to St. Mary's Falls yesterday, which is a moderately steep out and back hike of nearly 10 miles.  In my mind it was seven miles, but truth on the ground overruled my faulty memory.  I think I can sum this hike up in three words: solitude, streams, and mushrooms.  Solitude - except at the falls, I didn't see a single person out or back.  Streams - I probably made 10 stream crossings each way, was entertained by their pleasant gurgling for well more than half the trip, and was never thirsty.  Mushrooms - I saw many colorful mushrooms, several quite unusual, during my trip.  It was a fun day, and sure beat working, although once again, I was reminded that I am not totally in shape for hiking in the mountains.  I need to work on that.

I didn't see any spectacular wildlife, but did see many aquatic salamanders when I would turn over stones in the streams.  Most of them were too quick to get a photo of.  As with my hike through the forests to get to Bear Church Rock two weeks ago, birdsong was a near constant companion.  And I did see a large bird of prey, but could not get a good look through the thick forest canopy before he flew off for good.

There are two ways to the falls - the short, level easy way from the other side of the Blue Ridge, and the way I went.  The other people I saw at the falls, including a group of young men camping illegally by the river, had clearly some in the short and easy way.  One of the men told me they had beheaded a copperhead the night before.  That is possible, but it is more likely they beheaded a harmless water snake.

Here are some maps to orient yourself. My hike started and ended near the bottom of the map, where the Blue Ridge Parkway passes by.

 This map shows where I took a few of the photos:
 The elevation profile for the hike clearly shows the mirror image of an "out and back" hike, losing and gaining about 2,500 feet in elevation, according to my Topo North America software from DeLorme.
 On the drive in, I snapped this photo of the St. Mary's Wilderness from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
My Forest Gnome was happy to be hiking in the mountains again.  My hiking staff was of great value, especially on the downhills and many stream crossings.  It just helps give one a little more balance as one steps from often wobbly stone to stone.

Pleasant streams and little falls were visible and audible for much of my hike this day.

Most of the many aquatic salamanders that I saw were too quick to snap a photo of, but I did capture this little guy's image:

Some of the trail was quite rocky - lots of great "ankle turners" here:

I remember this shallow cave from my hike with five or six others many years ago.  In a cold and drenching rain, we huddled in here to eat our lunches on the hike out.  Today was warm and dry.

There is a long and tenuous crossing of the St. Mary's river here.  I am halfway across, hopping rock to rock, at the point in this photo.  Years ago, I remember seeing a queen snake here - the only one I have ever seen.
This section of the river is so beautiful.  The water is flowing through a cleft in the rock and comes shooting out into this gorgeous deep green pool.  It would be a great spot for a swim.
Finally, I reached the beautiful St. Mary's Falls.  I would have loved to take a cooling swim, but it had taken me longer than expected to get here, and I knew I still had a long and mostly uphill hike back out.  So I ate my PB and J sandwich, apple, and Hershey's bar while enjoying the scenery.  It is such a pretty and secluded spot, although there were a half dozen people here, some camping illegally.

From here, it was 4.9 miles back out, covering the exact same ground.  All the way in and back, I saw many beautiful mushrooms, some of which are pictured below.  There were tiny mushrooms the size of a button:

 And mushrooms as big as dinner plates:
 There were yellow ones:

 And red ones,
 Including these spectacular bracket fungi:

 This peach colored one was shaped kind of like an ice cream cone or drinking cup:

 When I left my little red car this morning, it was the only one in the parking lot.  It was still the only one when I returned.  I had been the only person hiking this trail all day.  My clothing was soaked from sweat from the effort of hiking out, so I changed into clean and dry clothing and headed for home.


  1. Beautiful! Love the photos, especially the variety of mushrooms!

  2. Thanks Anne. Aren't they cool? It was a wonderful hike and a great day off from work!

  3. That was a great hike. I would have enjoyed hiking along with you.
    Liked the forest Gnome. : )
    Thanks for your comment about the strange looking caterpillar. I never would have guessed that. Kind of creepy isn't it!?

  4. Hi there. Would have been glad to have had you along. A friend of mine made me the gnome staff. I like it a lot. Yeah, that is kind of creepy for the poor caterpillar, but nature's way.