Flip through any calendar or coffee table book of Shenandoah National Park, and you will likely find a photo of one of the park’s most iconic features: a 70-foot cascading waterfall, spilling like silver ribbons over moss-covered boulders to misty pools in the forest below. The scene? Dark Hollow Falls, which is reached by one of the most popular trails in the Shenandoah and attracts thousands of visitors a year.
Shenandoah National Park embraces about 200,000 acres of protected land, all of it rich in natural beauty, so what makes the Dark Hollow Falls Trail the most popular? According to visitor Nabila Sheikh of Fairfax, it’s a combination of things. “My family goes often in the summer,” she says. “The trail there is not too difficult or too long, and there is a beautiful waterfall at the end. A few parts are steep, but overall it’s a nice hike that can be done with young kids, too, and there’s lots of parking at the trail head.”
Sheikh confirms what many of us already know about the trail to Dark Hollow Falls – it offers a quick reward in exchange for a relatively brief sprint of hard work. Although plenty of beginners tackle the Dark Hollow Falls Trail, sometimes unprepared with inadequate footwear or supplies, the short 1.4-mile loop is actually classified as moderate on the park’s trail maps. Even so, it’s a check-off box for just about anyone who visits Shenandoah National Park, and on any given day you’ll find crowds of hikers ranging from grandpas to toddlers sharing the steep, rocky trail in search of the ultimate Shenandoah experience. The round-trip loop takes about an hour and a half for most hikers to complete, including time spent to admire the falls.
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Location also contributes to this trail’s enormous popularity. Just a hop off of Skyline Drive, the trailhead is at mile 50.7, just north of Big Meadows and the Byrd Visitor Center. The parking lot holds about two dozen cars, but it fills quickly. Some hikers capable of longer distances can choose to bypass some of the crowds for part of the hike by approaching from, and combining with, other nearby trails, such as the Rose River Loop.
With an elevation change of 440 feet from the trailhead to the falls, it’s important to know that the hike down Dark Hollow Trail is less strenuous than the return hike up, so plan accordingly. The trail is rocky from erosion, and often it is very slippery. You may see inexperienced tourists wearing sandals, but sturdy boots really are the best choice for steady footing on this hike. Former park employee Danielle Bruce says trail rescues for injuries and heart attacks do occur. Visitors should be aware that cell service is limited in some areas of the park.
For those who seek solitude, Dark Hollow Falls may disappoint, but there are other bonuses, like the opportunity to wade your tired feet in cool, glassy pools beneath the falls, or catching sight of wild critters, such as chipmunks, deer, and possibly even a bobcat or black bear. Note that the park does not allow pets on this trail.
Cap off the hike with a stop by Byrd Visitor Center to browse the gift shop, talk with a ranger, or tour the history exhibits. Hungry? Your best bet is breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the classic Spottswood Dining Room, the cozy New Market Taproom, or from the breathtaking views of the outdoor terrace at Big Meadows Lodge (closed during winter). Or, order a boxed or backpack lunch to go, to eat while on the trail by ordering at the Lodge’s front desk.
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