Hiking to see the pools and cascades of Cabin Creek Falls was by far the most fun and memorable hike of our day spent exploring Grayson Highlands State Park. We began our trip here by wandering over to 0.3 mile Split Rock Trail near the park office. Following that, we drove to the higher elevation area of the park in order to reach the 1.28 mile trail to Listening Rock. The views from Buzzard Rock are incredible and don’t even require you to break a sweat in order to enjoy.
Wanting to tackle something more strenuous, we headed over to Massie Gap to hike the highest peak in the park along the 1.33 mile Twin Pinnacle Trail. There we made the 400 foot climb to the summit of Haw Orchard Mountain, elevation 5,068 ft, and after a half mile hike, scrambled up the boulder filled cliff of Grayson Highlands highest peak at 5,089 ft, Little Pinnacle.
Map | Cabin Creek Trail
From the summit of Little Pinnacle we could see a pretty large storm starting to form and move in from the northwest. After rushing back to reach the parking lot at Massie Gap, it seemed like the storm had lost a little steam and was stuck hovering over Wilburn Ridge. Consulting my trail map, I figured we had a 50/50 shot of being able to complete one more trail before the rest of the day was lost to heavy rains. Located just in front of us, in a protected valley away from the storm, Cabin Creek Trail seemed like our best choice.
We crossed through the meadow leading up to Wilburn Ridge and found a shortcut tucked into a hedgerow along the Rhododendron Trail parking lot. Making our way under a natural tunnel of fading rhododendron blooms and pink blooming mountain laurel, we came out onto a section of the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. Beginning in the Chestnut Hollow Campground, this 68 mile horse trail climbs through the mountainous terrain of Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
The trailhead for Cabin Creek Trail lies just behind the rustic wood slat fence separating the horse trail from the hiking trail. A sheltered kiosk here provides information on some of the local fishing regulations, as Cabin Creek is a popular Brook Trout stream. With its preference for highly oxygenated streams, brook trout have become increasingly confined to the higher elevations of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Their unique, red marbled dorsal fin is hard to miss,, swimming in the deeper pools of most mountain streams here and in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The trail leads to a fork with the more direct upper path going straight and the lower creek path heading down a rocky slope. We chose to head counter clockwise, reaching the falls via the upper trail in order to follow the creek downhill to finish the 1.51 mile loop. Hiking the ridge above the creek is a breeze. The flat trail follows an old cattle fence separating the upper reaches of the highlands from the gorge surrounding Cabin Creek.
A strong gust of wind above our heads suddenly blows and topples lose tree branches onto the ground all around us. Ducking under one of the large red spruce nearby, we spot a small colony of yellow patches. Ironically, the small snails curled up under the wild mushrooms resemble us, hiding under the red spruce to avoid the falling limbs. In between the roaring wind gusts we can make out the sound of water splashing nearby. After walking another fifty yards, we reach the lower falls of Cabin Creek.
From here, the Falls Overlook lie just up the hill. All along the hike up, the creek forms several waist deep wading pools before crashing down through boulder strewn ravines. This is a popular spot to swim, with several groups of people crowding the creek, taking turns dunking themselves in the cool mountain stream. At this point the main trail all but disappears at what most people believe to be the falls. Little do they know that the top of the falls is another 50 foot climb up the hillside, completely out of sight.
We continued our climb up the large boulder field, following the edge of the creek. Take notice to watch each step, parts of this path disappear behind various boulders, forcing us to retrace our steps back uphill to find a clear route to the over o the falls. When we finally reach the upper falls we find it full of hikers bathing in the natural pool below it. The group was taking turns “baptizing” themselves in the water as a right of passage for finishing the hike. Finding our own little spot to sit, we took our boots off and dangled our feet into the cool water.. aaahhhhhh! Yeah, it felt good.
As if right on cue, a loud thunder clap and bright bolt of lighting struck just over us, startling everyone at the falls. Time to go! We packed up our gear and began a hasty retreat back to the lower trail. The moment we reached the trail, the sky opened up with a steady stream of hail. The dime sized balls of ice pelted us for a solid seven minutes, before receding into a heavy downpour as we ran down the trail following Cabin Creek. This stream has dozens of rapids and falls all along its entire length.
Even in the pouring rain, I kept stopping to photograph each new fall I came across. Some formed rapids through boulder filled ravines, while others simply flowed over pools, forming beautiful cascades that splashed onto the rocks below. During all of this, we began to realize that the lower trail was actually longer and more challenging than returning the way we came.
Under normal circumstances I would jump at the challenge, but running through this thunderstorm at the time I wished we would have taken the shorter way back. Climbing over large boulders wearing even the most rugged Vibram soles was difficult, and resulted in a few falls.
Upon reaching the trailhead we darted under the trail kiosk to escape rain. By that point the worst of the storm had already passed, but it was nice to not have water streaming down my face. Within ten minutes, the thunder began to taper off along with the rain. We took the opportunity to make a run for it the rest of the way back, past Massive Gap to the parking lot.
Part of going out into the wilderness involves stepping out into the unknown. For most of us who enjoy hiking and backpacking, that is part of the draw. You never know what you’ll encounter out on a trail, which is why its so important to pack accordingly. Wearing a comfortable, waterproof pair of boots and bringing along a backpack full of “just in case” gear such as a rain jacket, will take you a long way.
At the beginning of this hike, I asked a hiker on her way back about the falls, with her replying back, “Not worth it.” With that being said, this was by far our most memorable hike in Grayson Highlands, and unfortunately our last.
With so many incredible places to visit, I doubt I’ll return anytime soon, but the time spent hiking the Virginia Highlands have inspired me to venture deeper into this state to seek out more of its beauty. If you’ve never visited Grayson Highlands, do so NOW! Until next time, see y’all on the trails!