One of Virginia’s most secret treasures is Saint Mary’s Wilderness. Much of the geology and terrain remind me of places we visited out West last Fall. This is by far the prettiest cascades and scenery of any place I’ve hiked. At one point it did become the hike from hell but that was only due to circumstances which I will explain. Even with the error of margin, it was a most enjoyable hike, and I hope to go back again and possibly camp out.
In all fairness to me, I was told by Dirt Man this was going to be a very simple one and a half mile hike and I did NOT need to wear my hiking boots. I opted to wear my Keen sandals which actually proved to wear well, no blisters, bruises, or cuts. I did pack my Keen water shoes as we were going to swim at the falls. I was not prepared for a rocky shale-sliding trail which at times veered along the cliff edges…I had to slide down a slope at one point and had no idea how I was going to get back up it upon our return. We also had to cross the creek three times. The good thing was the rocks were not the slippery river rocks that I am used to encountering. To me the river walking/rock climbing was the most enjoyable part.
We were surprised to find people there on a weekday…maybe it isn’t such a secret after all! We met up with a couple of hikers here and there and a fisherman. We even came upon a church youth group at one set of falls that had a natural sliding rock leading into a large swimming hole. I did not get pics of this area since we didn’t want to interrupt the group. We planned to take pics on the way back, but due to a need to reroute, we did not come back that way.
The shale walls, outcrops, and embankments are geologically intriguing and an absolute visual treat. I can only imagine how these were formed.
This is the most visually stunning cascades after the sliding rock. It is the largest in width and height. There is an undercut to the side with a deep emerald swimming pool. Nature has shaped the walls into hanging baskets of foliage. The rock itself seems to be a red or rose quartz…beneath the running water it appears pink…amazing view. There were three teenage girls and a man swimming here. They were jumping from the cliff into the pool. Note: I did NOT do this!
The height of the dam area above the falls is a good ten feet. We turned around and couldn’t find Wylie. We looked up and there she was on top of the falls. Now this is where things quickly fell apart. I figured if she got up there she could certainly find a way down. Dirt Man insisted that she’d never be able to come back down the ledge and there is no way we coould get her down without him or her getting hurt. He then said that there was another trail just shortly over…we’d only have to go upstream three tenths of a mile and cut over. This doesn’t seem like much of a big deal. Right? Right. That is if that had been the way things went down, but it wasn’t!
This is Dirt Man and Wylie posing after swimming, and while we were all still happy!
We continued upstream and chanced upon more beautiful falls.
We climbed falls, scaled boulders, waded through the water, and maneuvered around cliffs, not to mention we dodged a few water snakes as well. Still, all was good. Dirt Man was sporting a handheld GPS unit which directed us farther upstream before we could venture through the woods towards a trail near the mines. The area was once mined for maganese and iron ore.
The rock type varied throughout stretches of the creek. There would be areas of smaller looser rock and then you’d come upon boulders and then cliffs and shale. It was ever changing which I found interesting.
We searched for signs of the trail along the banks as we waded the creek to no avail.
This part of the creek is beautiful with the small cascades and the cliff embankments.
This set of falls has two caves in the stone embankment. Residue of campfire resides in each one. Looks like someone needed to seek shelter. However, not sure I would have chosen right on the creek as it is in a mountain gorge and prone to flash flooding.
This is the last set of decent size falls before the bear cave.
This is the bear cave, and right past this is where things turned ugly.
We had probably walked (and I use this term loosely!) a good mile and a half since the point where Dirt Man said the trail was only three quarters of a mile upstream when we thought we heard thunder. Suddenly everything turned dark. We looked up to see a black thunderhead directly above us. Thunder tore through the gorge. We scuffled upstream as quickly as we could. Dirt Man told me to keep walking upstream while he searched the woods for a trail. Not only was I ticked off but I was scared. I saw the fear in his eyes…I knew we were in a dangerous position. He was only out of sight for minutes, but it seemed like a really long time so I called out to him. He answered which calmed me a little but didn’t dissolve my fear or ease my anger. We ended up scrambling through the woods, literally thrashing our way through laurel thickets until we came upon a small run. Once we hit that we found the old mine trail which led back (via different route) to where we started.
Still we were in deep woods with a few miles to go (and not far from a bear cave!) with a storm overhead. I prayed the whole way. Dirt Man tried to make polite conversation, but I don’t talk when I am mad. It was hot but we put on our rain jackets anyway just to protect our gear. Apparently, God heard me because the thunderhead bypassed us with only a couple of sprinkles. There was just as much beautiful scenery on the return trail, however I did not take a single picture…I was undone at that point!
Though my feet were killing me due to hot spots, I did not blister. And even though I was annoyed at Dirt Man and I complained quite a bit, I trusted Dirt Man with my life. So our one and a half mile simple hike ventured into a six mile hike that verged on the dangerous side (only because of the impending storm and possiblity of repercussions of being caught in it.). Again, the one thing I should count on when hiking with him is that the distance will most likely be at least twice as long as he says and it is usually more challenging as well.