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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Apple Orchard Mountain and Falls

Rising almost 3000 feet above Arnold Valley, Apple Orchard Mountain is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia (4226'), as well as being the most topographically prominent mountain in the state.

Atop the summit is an FAA radar dome and as a result the mountain recognizable from miles away. There is an Air Force road to the summit which is strictly off limits, and the only access is via the Appalachian Trail. The easiest approach is to park alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway and hike along the A.T. to the summit. It is 2 miles round trip, with 300' of elevation gain.

Apple Orchard Mountain got its name from the red oak trees growing atop the peak, which look like an apple orchard from the distance. There are also no shrubs atop the peak, and that adds to the orchard appearance.

From Sunset Field overlook, at milepost 78.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway you can access the Apple Orchard Falls trail. Here you will find a 200-foot-high waterfall that tumbles from the west side of Apple Orchard Mountain. The waterfall is accessible only by foot, and it's a strenuous hike via the Apple Orchard Falls Trail, a 1.4-mile hike one-way downhill. The trail starts at 3,500 feet elevation and loses 1,000 feet in elevation and crosses two old timber roads before reaching the falls.

There is a footbridge at the upper edge of the falls, but you have to continue to the bottom to fully appreciate Apple Orchard Falls. The stream, on the headwaters of North Creek, drops over several rocky steps and through several log jams before free-falling from an overhang. At the base, the water squeezes between giant boulders before flowing off into an isolated mountain valley.

The hiker may begin either at Sunset Field Overlook on the Parkway or at the end of FR 59, but the recommended hike begins at the end of FR 59 on Cornelius Creek Trail. This trail offers a gentler ascent than the Apple Orchard Falls Trail. The loop may be joined by using the Appalachian Trail (about 6 to 7 hrs) or Apple Orchard Spur, an old road (about 5 hrs.).

Images: courtesy of the National Forest Service

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