Cascades & Barney’s Wall – 5/29/16 – 8 miles
Hiking (me) and biking (Jim) go together like peas and carrots. Jim signed up for the Mountains of Misery charity bike ride in Newport, VA, just up the road from Cascades National Recreation Trail in Jefferson National Forest. While I have hiked to the Cascades waterfall several times (most recently with our daughter Laura in 2014) this was a great opportunity to go further to check out the Upper Cascades and Barney’s Wall.
The best part: Home base in our favorite place on earth, Blacksburg, VA. We spent Friday roaming around the Virginia Tech campus…
… and sampling beers at Rising Silo, an indoor-outdoor brewery.
Saturday morning at crack-of-dawn-thirty I dropped Jim off at the ride start and headed to the Cascades in nearby Pembroke. Only two cars in the huge parking lot at 7:00 a.m. (It was slam full when I left.) The trail starts at the information board beside the bathroom building.
Within 5 minutes’ walk it splits into an upper and lower route on either side of Little Stony Creek. The best choice is crossing the footbridge to the trail on the lower side to get up close and personal with the creek. Returning via the upper trail gives a different perspective of the creek and makes a nice loop.
In recent years I have hiked many trails, and the Cascades hike stands out as one of the best of the best. Why? It’s a gentle uphill grade, easy to follow, alongside the shaded mountain creek that lives up to the stony part of its name yet is anything but little. So walk with me.
After one mile the trail crosses Little Stony Creek on another footbridge to rejoin the upper trail. The second mile is a little steeper and a bit more challenging. Yet it doesn’t seem difficult because I’m walking slowly, mesmerized by the soundtrack and seemingly endless flow of mini-cascades. This isn’t a hike for exercising the body but for engaging the senses and immersion in the flow. Zen anyone?
A teaser trickle
The destination for most visitors: 66-foot tall Cascades Waterfall. This early in the morning it’s just me and a single fisherman.
I hear voices approaching, signaling that it’s time for me to move on. The observation deck near the falls is closed, so I take the wooden stairs leading to the upper trail. In the large open area, a left turn onto that upper trail leads back to the parking lot. A right turn leads to the Conservancy Trail and Barney’s Wall; that’s where I am headed. A half-mile along this fire road, an unmarked trail to the right leads a short way down to Upper Cascade Falls. Here I meet a second early bird out enjoying the solitude (the owner of that second car in the parking lot.)
Unlike the reveal of the lower waterfall, looking across the large pool, the first glimpse of the Upper Cascades is right at the edge of the drop. The proximity to all that power is exhilerating.
It’s a very rough scramble down to the bottom of the falls and I’m amazed that people haven’t forged a more solid path – and then I realize that the forest service doesn’t really provide information about it and most visitors never venture here with no signage, no clear instructions in the parking area to encourage exploration. But what a reward for the effort:
Upper Cascade Falls
From here I retrace steps to the main Conservancy Trail. The next mile continues the ascent through open forest.
My multi-legged friend points the way
Up to this point the signage is great, but that’s the last of it. I walk the 1.5 miles, pass a nice campsite, and find myself on a cliff edge.
Looking out at New River Valley towards Blacksburg, VA
Am I on Barney’s Wall?
Or am I looking at Barney’s Wall?
I begin following a trail hugging the edge and seems to be heading towards that wall of rock. About halfway there, the trail peters out and I remember that I am alone out here. Still, I continue stubbornly fighting my way through the rhododendron until I have to admit defeat and turn back.
I need to get back to that rock ledge without falling off the mountain
Time to get back to Jim’s bike race. There will be a next time for hiking the Cascades because there is more to explore further up the Conservancy Trail extending to Butt Mountain and Lookoff Rock.
I haven’t seen anyone today other than the fisherman and the early morning hiker and the first two miles backtracking are solitary as well. At the trail intersection leading to the lower waterfall I stay on the upper trail and see that the multitudes have awakened, had coffee and doughnuts, and are swarming along the trail in all their flip-flop glory. And that’s as it should be. It’s a spectacular spring Saturday and I’m delighted to see families, college students and older adults hiking up to see what Little Stony Creek has on display.
And I’m also delighted to see that Jim is still in one piece and is enjoying the celebration and fellowship of the cycling community at the Mountain Island Lake finish line.
Gracious and generous God, thank you for giving us health and strength to enjoy the world that You have made. Amen.
“When I first open my eyes upon the morning meadows and look out upon the beautiful world, I thank God I am alive.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson