As a person who enjoys photographing waterfalls in West Virginia’s Gauley River National Recreation Area and the New River Gorge National Park and Reserve, I am often asked by others how to get to these mountain gems. Waterfalls seem to draw us in with their musical rushes and cascades, giving us a sense of calm and peacefulness, and a road trip to these beauties is an ideal way to spend the summer.
Though I had photographed several waterfalls in these areas and had done my share of scrambling down hills to get to them, my partner, photographer David Johnston, guided me to several new ones in the Gauley and New River areas.
With the assistance of a most helpful book, "West Virginia Waterfalls: The New River Gorge," by authors Randall Sanger and Ed Rehbein, we’ve spent summer weekends crossing the mountains on new waterfall ventures. No trail was too rugged or steep for us, and we sometimes traversed the pathways during varied and questionable weather conditions. However, this piece is mostly written for waterfall hikers who prefer trails that are easier to follow, though, for the more adventurous, I’ll also discuss a couple of the more moderately challenging waterfalls.
Join me in a cross-county waterfall excursion from Nicholas County through Fayette County.
While some waterfalls are more apparent, meandering pathways through the woods may take one to more secluded falls. On this journey we’ll visit Nicholas County waterfalls at Pirate’s Cove and Peter’s Creek, and I’ll take you on a trip to Fayette County to see Cathedral Falls, Dunloup Creek Falls, Mill Creek Falls, and Propps Ridge Falls.
Nicholas County holds many dazzling and graceful waterfalls, and Pirate’s Cove and Peter’s Creek are among my favorites. Pirate’s Cove is unique in that it can be enjoyed from different vantage points during various seasons. During the summer, kayakers paddle on Summersville Lake beginning at Salmon Run, glide under Hughes Bridge, and in a nearby cove a refreshing waterfall plummets from a cliff for a cooling paddle through it. Summersville Lake and the waterfall may also be viewed from the top by parking in the gravel lot near Hughes Bridge and walking the trail until you come to a cliff. However, jumping into Summersville Lake from this point is illegal. During the lake’s winter pool, a short hike along boulder-strewn grounds will take you to the waterfall, where it splashes on fallen limbs to create crystalized statues. For this winter pool adventure, on Route 19, near Hughes Bridge, pull into Whippoorwill Road for parking. From there a slight trail will lead you to the rocky area of the Cove.
Getting to Peter’s Creek falls is more of an adventure, rather than a destination to a waterfall, with the Koontz Tunnel and Peters Junction Trestle providing a picturesque exploratory venture. The road to Peter’s Creek can be somewhat rocky and steep in places, so a vehicle with higher clearance would be advised. The experience begins on Route 60 as you head toward Ansted, driving several miles to Saturday Road.
After driving 6.4 miles on Saturday Road, take a sharp turn to the left on the paved Lucas Road and drive for one mile, then take a sharp turn to the left and continue on a gravel road. When you come to a junction, go toward the road that veers downward and follows Laurel Creek. After approximately two miles you will notice a wooden structure on the left. A little further will lead you to the Gauley River and a railroad grade where parking is available.
Enjoy your walk through the haunting Koontz Tunnel, which is 0.6 mile long. At the end of the tunnel you will take a breathtaking stroll across Peter’s Junction Trestle, breathing in the Gauley River below. At the end of the trestle, walk 2/3 of a mile beside the railroad line and begin watching for the falls cascading 20 feet into the rocky creek.
In Fayette County, Mill Creek Falls shows off multiple stair steps for water to flow down. Boulders in the creek and mossy rocks also create an aesthetic view, providing several compositions for taking photos.
For waterfall access, drive on Route 60 to Ansted. When in town, turn right onto Page Street, which becomes Rich Creek Road. Drive briefly on this road before making a right onto Hawks Nest Road. This road will take you under Route 60 onto a paved road but will turn to gravel at the fork. Turn left at this fork, then turn right at the next fork, cross a small bridge, and drive for 0.7 mile to a wide area on the left. The waterfall is 0.1 mile down the road. A short trail over the bank will bring you to the waterfall.
Cathedral Falls is easy to locate by driving along Route 60 from Ansted toward Gauley Bridge. The waterfall is beside the road, stretching and bending as water from Cane Creek drops a spectacular 60 feet over a rocky ledge and into a cathedral of imposing walls all around. A short trail leads you to the fall. Some parking is located at the fall.
Propps Ridge Falls, located on Glade Creek, can be viewed from an old railroad trestle, creating an image of a bygone era. This 10-foot fall is on private property, so from the trestle is the only way to see it. From U.S. 19, north of the New River Gorge Bridge, drive on U.S. 60 East for 4.4 miles, then turn left on CR 41/4 (Egypt Road). Drive 0.3 mile then bear left onto Propps Ridge Road. Follow that road for approximately 4.1 miles to where it crosses Glade Creek. Parking is on the right and you will see the trestle on the left.
Wolf Creek Falls is a dramatic fall with boulders nudging each other to fashion showers and chutes over the rocks, and is well worth a scramble over the embankment. Starting from Canyon Rim Visitor Center, take a right out of the parking lot, then a hard right and follow Fayette Station Road into the Gorge, crossing Fayette Station Bridge to Kaymoor Trailhead, where there is some parking available. Walk down the road until you see the fall through a bramble of rhododendron bushes. To get to the fall, you will have to traverse down the bank by holding on to bushes and trees.
Minden Falls is the type of wide vertical fall that I enjoy capturing with my camera, with many steps for the lyrical water to meander down. It surprised me when photographing it, as it felt secluded but was only a stone’s throw from the town of Oak Hill. To locate this beauty, from W.Va. 16 in Oak Hill, bear left on Minden Road (CR 17) and drive approximately 0.3 mile. After you drive under the W.Va. 16 overpass, it is located on the left. There is a widened area beside the road for parking. You will have to take a short walk upstream, on slippery rocks, before you behold this lovely gem.
Dunloup Falls is a stunning 20-foot fall with many freshets and cascades downstream from the main fall, and is surrounded by lush trees and moss-covered cliffs. This waterfall keeps a near-steady flow, even during drier weather. It can be viewed from the roadside, or a short jaunt down the bank will take you to the water’s edge.
However, be mindful of water spray creating slick rocks near the water. To get to Dunloup, take the Glen Jean/Thurmond exit off of U.S. 19. Turn left and drive 0.5 mile then take a right on Glen Jean Lane, then take an immediate left onto McKell Avenue, then another immediate left onto Thurmond Road (CR 25). Drive for approximately 4 miles, then watch for a pull-off by Dunloup Falls on the right side of the road.
There are many more waterfalls in the Gauley and Gorge areas to explore, but these will get your summer started. The best time to scout waterfalls is during the spring and early summer, after a rainfall. Some waterfalls have sparse flow and require moderate rain to see their character created by a delicate dance between water and rock. However, too much rain can hide special qualities. Watch the weather, and the following dry day take your family or friends and allow the water to captivate you. While visiting, please remember to follow the Leave No Trace Principles, and have an enjoyable and safe summer. You can find information about Leave No Trace at https://lnt.org/.