Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Cascades and Butt Mountain - Waterfalls and Views

What could be better than a hike with both an awesome waterfall and great views? I had intended to do just that by visiting both these spots, The Cascades and Butt Mountain, on the same hike. I changed my plans, however, when the day to do the hike arrived. We were several days into our coldest weather all winter, when temperatures had dropped to around 10° for the lows and the highs had stayed below freezing. It is always a treat to see the Cascades frozen, even partially so, and something +Leanne enjoys as much as I do. But combining the two destinations adds up to a bit more mileage than she cares for, not to mention the difficulty of the off-trail part of the hike below Barneys Wall I wanted to do. So I decided to leave Butt Mountain for another time. Turns out it was the next weekend, so I’m going to still include both hikes in a combined post, albeit as two different hikes.

I’ll start by saying that, in  my opinion, The Cascades is probably the finest waterfall in Virginia. Some may be higher, some may have more volume, some may be just as beautiful - but none that I am aware of combine all three so well, save possibly Falling Springs in Alleghany County. But that one loses points for being roadside, rather than at the end of a gorgeous creekside hike. That is how a visit to The Cascades begins. A short distance up an old jeep road that forms the usual return route, there is a bridge across Little Stony Creek that leads to the beginning of a scenic two mile footpath right along the water’s edge. There are large boulders, deep green pools, and small cascades all along this pristine trout inhabited stream, and the trail is often inches from it. There are also lots of wildflowers, though not in January. This section of Little Stony Creek is contained within the walls of a steep-sided gorge between Butt Mountain and Doe Mountain, but the headwaters of the stream originate higher up in a large 3,000-4,000 foot elevation basin bounded by those two mountains as well as  by Big, Potts, and Salt Pond Mountains, the latter is one of the highest peaks in Virginia at 4,361’ above sea level. Mountain Lake, one of only two natural lakes in Virginia, is also one of its sources. Having that large drainage area above the gorge is what allows creek to already have a respectable volume by the time it reaches waterfall topography.

About halfway to the main show, the trail crosses back to the north side of the steam again. After climbing some presumably CCC era rock stairs, a tributary stream spills off a cliff face, forming a sometimes impressive wet weather falls. Today it was mostly a flow of clear ice, and it was only around this point of the hike that we started to see significant amounts of ice in the stream. Lower down, somewhat disappointingly, it had been mostly open water with the only noticeable ice being around turbulent sections where the resulting mist had frozen on surrounding surfaces. Now things were looking more promising. Rather quickly now, the stream became mostly frozen over with only channels of open water.

Nearing the falls, the opposite side of the creek becomes cliffbound once again and a roar is heard ahead, then, suddenly, the falls themselves come into view. The 68’ high cataract leaps over the brink and freefalls about half that distance before crashing onto sloping rocks and fanning out into a cascade twice as wide for the remaining half of the drop. The water then merges into a huge, deep pool surrounded by high amphitheater walls. It is an idyllic setting, but also one you are unlikely to have to yourself unless you come early in the morning, preferably on  a weekday.

Today huge icicles hung from the cliff walls surrounding the plunge pool and from the edges of the falling water. The creek itself was still visible as it made the leap into the air, but the lower cascading half was no longer over rock. Now it was a solid mass of white ice, built up into a mound several feet higher than the underlying bedrock. It was quite a striking sight, in some ways just as awesome as in 2007(?) when there was so much ice that no flowing water was visible and you could walk halfway up the falls to the vertical columns of ice forming the upper half. The pool at the bottom was only partially frozen over as well but something about the combination of ice and liquid water added interest and balance to the scene. It did not disappoint.  

From here, another trail leads up stairs and to the return route on the jeep road. But you can go the other way on the jeep road and continue upstream another 4/10 of a mile to a junction. A right turn here drops back down to the creek just upstream of the 20’ high and less visited Upper Cascades. While certainly not as impressive as the main falls, they are still a pretty sight and considerably less well known. The other thing you can do at this junction is bear left and uphill on the Conservancy Trail for a mile or a little more to the top of the spectacular cliffs of Barneys Wall. The view out is limited by higher ridges but the view down into the gorge is very airy and exhilarating. This same trail also provides a hiking route to the spectacular views of Butt Mountain and Lookoff Rock. It continues up to a rough road that leads an additional 1.7 miles to Butt Mountain. It is driveable but the roughness keeps traffic very light, especially in Winter. This is the hike I had intended to do along with The Cascades but put off until the following weekend.

As it turned out, there were a few days of heavy rain after this hike and many of the local streams and rivers flooded in spectacular fashion. When I decided to return here the following weekend, I found that the Cascades trailhead and the trail itself were closed to public access. I started trying to think of some other hikes nearby I could do. Among others, Rice Field came to  mind, as did exploring a couple of new trails in the Mill Creek area of Pearis Mountain. But looking at the map, I saw that there was a road that approached Butt Mountain from the south and climbed up to around 2,500’. It ended on private property, but only a short distance from the National Forest boundary. I figured it couldn’t hurt to go take a look, and maybe knock on a door or two to ask permission to access the public land from road’s end. Luck was on my side. After I explained what I wanted to do and why, I was granted permission to cross the property and continue my hike to the top of the mountain. As it turned out, the lady of the house was a hiker herself and had hiked up the mountain from here before. She have me some good info on the route, and afterwards even went so far as to tell me that they had bought the property so they could spend more time in the mountains. She even told me that they wouldn’t have any problem with an occasional hiker stopping by in the future to ask permission if I showed the route I used in this post.

Some of the large boulders at 3,900'
 The hike wasn’t even a bushwhack like I had been expecting. There was an old woods road that led all the way up to the broad plateau at 4,000’. There wasn’t anything particularly exciting about this route, but it was steep enough to be fun and a bit of a challenge, and certainly more pleasant than walking two miles along the road on top. It’s not that that route is particularly bad, just that walking on an open road where a vehicle may drive by lacks appeal. There were also some impressively large boulders around 3,900’ but I didn’t see any real views here. Of course, I didn’t explore far off the trail either. Once on the plateau, I turned left onto a lesser trail that led me over a small top that is labeled as Lookoff Rock on some maps, notably the Trails Illustrated Blacksburg/New River Valley topo. There is not any sort of a rock or view here, nor anywhere close by, and I believe that it is labeled such in error. The actual Lookoff Rock is almost certainly the flat-topped cliffline on the summit of Butt Mountain, which this trail continues about one-half mile farther to.

Lookoff Rock, with Pearis and East River Mountains in the distance.

Butt Mountain cliffs
The 4,200’ summit is the highest point on a sizable plateau-like area, similar to many mountains in the Catskills. There is a dilapidated old firetower still standing here, but the bottom two flights of stairs have been removed and climbing it would be an iffy endeavor. It’s not a big loss though. The nature of the topography is such that even if it was safe to climb as in years past, the views in every direction but west are somewhat underwhelming. The vista to the west and southwest however is quite spectacular and the tower is not necessary for that. The hundred yard long cliffline here allows wide open views in those directions. Much of Virginia’s New River Valley is in sight and the angle on Pearis Mountain is especially nice. These cliffs are made up of layers of sandstone blocks and there is a really neat talus cave in one area. It has an opening at the base of the cliffs but there is also a 15’ pit-like entrance right on the clifftop. Don’t fall into it! While the visibility was quite good when I first got here, I actually watched some of the mountains to the west disappear in the approaching snowstorm and decided to head on down in case it got serious. It never did, but I had gotten my hiking and peakbagging fix once again and explored a new trail in the process.

Trails to the Cascades and Butt Mountain. To view a larger map click here.

This map shows the National Forest boundary on the south slopes of Butt Mountain. The trail enters public lands first at around 3,000', then leaves it again before re-entering near the edge of the plateau. Permission is required to cross the private property at the lower part of this route. To view a larger map click here.

Hike Stats:
Cascades - 4 miles round trip, 700' cumulative elevation gain
Upper Cascades - add 1 mile round trip, add 200' cumulative elevation gain
Butt Mountain from Cascades TH - 10.8 miles round trip, 2,040' cumulative elevation gain
Butt Mountain from south - 5.8 miles round trip, 1,760' cumulative elevation gain

Pictures from Cascades hike
Pictures from Butt Mountain hike

Pictures from other hikes to the Cascades and Butt Mountain:
January 2011 - The Cascades 
June 2010 - The Cascades
January 2010 - The Cascades  
June 2009 - The Cascades 
April 2009 - Butt Mountain
February 2008 - The Cascades and Barneys Wall
June 2007 - The Cascades

Resources and Contacts:
Jefferson National Forest Cascades page - Note - There is a $3 parking fee for the Cascades Day Use Area
Happy Trails Cascades article
gpx and kml files, topo maps

View Larger Map
Trailhead coordinates:


Google map for trailhead

Scan QR code to navigate to trailheads with Google Maps on your smartphone

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