Editor's note: For most, unless you live in the neighborhood, it's too late in the season to check this hike off your to-do list. But the following story just might plant the seed for next summer, or the summer beyond that, and the story will be parked in our Shenandoah National Park Essential Guide for future reference.
Fall might not be everyone's preferred season for hiking, but in Shenandoah National Park it can be one of the best seasons. Not only are crowds down to a small trickle, but the naked forests can make it easier to spot remnants of old homesteads.
Of course, if a waterfall is your desired payoff, a fall hike is not the best of time to see a real gusher. But sometimes, as they say, it's not the destination but the journey that matters, and the relatively short hike down to Lewis Falls is a nice morning's or afternoon's activity.
From Big Meadows Lodge the loop hike is just over 3 miles and can be accomplished in a few hours, at most. If you start from the lodge, the first two-tenths of a mile actually is the Black Rocks Trail, which leads to a nice overlook of the Shenandoah Valley and Massanutten Mountain on the western side of the park.
This, less-than-five-minute hike, travels uphill from the far end of the lodging area to the outcrop. From there a short spur takes you down to the Appalachian Trail, which you follow south for about a mile to the Lewis Falls Trail. Pay attention as you hike the AT and you'll notice several areas where crews long ago used rock retaining walls to support the path against the slope of the hillsides.
If it's fall when you make this hike, the leaf-covered landscape is busy with squirrels darting here and there to stock their winter larders. And there really are a lot of squirrels, not just a handful here and there. They're busy rooting through the duff for acorns, taking short breaks to first dart away from you, and then peer out from behind a tree trunk or branch to see what you are.
And the trees! Though quite a bit of Shenandoah once was cleared for farms and through logging, today it's thick with trees. There are sugar maples, eastern hemlocks, white ash, beech, and several varieties of oak, just to name some of the trees that stand here. At the height of the fall foliage season, these trees are flocked with leaves red, rust, gold, orange...and even some still green.
The day I hiked this loop I also encountered a couple of Downy woodpeckers, flitting about the understory and whacking their beaks on dead trunks hoping for insects. Deer were nowhere to be seen; ditto with black bears. Key to reaching the falls is paying attention to the trail, as the branch off the AT down to the trail is not particularly well-marked. When you get to a short expanse of gravel, this is where you need to turn 90 degrees to your right. Do that and down below about 50 yards you'll see a small concrete post declaring the start of the Lewis Falls Trail.
(Now, to extend this hike and gain a little slice of the park's human history, continue on south down the AT for another half-mile or so and you'll come to a small cemetery on Tanner's Ridge that marks the final resting place of family members who can trace their roots to this landscape before it was turned into a national park. One of the most recent burials was in August 2012.)
The trail down to the 81-foot-falls negotiates a somewhat steep trail with a rocky and gravely bed that switchbacks down to the falls. In mid-October, this can be a very colorful hike. Later into November the trees have lost their foilage, giving you a better view of the landscape and its ripples.
The trail comes out across from an outcrop with a nice view down to the valley. There is a short side trail that wraps around the flanks of the mountain to a better, downstream, view back up towards the falls.
Lewis Falls itself during the fall months (and into winter before snows could make the trail a bit tricky) is more than a trickle, but less than a torrent. Rather, it slips over the rock cliffside and pitches itself down. Not a killer payoff, but sublime in its surrounding settings.
While many of the trees are losing their leaves, if not already bear at this time of year, there are some pines and maybe some cedars that offer some greenery to the surrounding mountainsides. The outcrop makes a wonderful place for a break and picnic.
From the falls you can either backtrack the way you came down to the lodge, or head up the other side of the mountain. This stretch of trail, taking a steady uphill tact, runs just over a mile to the Big Meadows amphitheater across from the picnic area.
Whichever direction you go, you'll have a climb. That said, going counter-clockwise on the loop might be somewhat better off in terms of climbing.
If You Go
Lewis Falls Trail
Trailhead Parking: Big Meadows Lodge
Difficulty: Moderate climbs on the return.
Payoff: View of an 81-foot waterfall, nice walk through hardwood forests.
Cautions: Fallen leaves, dry or wet, can make for slick footing.