PEMBROKE, Va. — It is an impressive waterfall hidden deep in an Appalachian gorge.
The Cascades drop 66 feet on Little Stony Creek in the Cascades Recreation Area of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in southwestern Virginia.
There’s only one way to get to the photogenic falls: hike. It is an easy two-mile one-way hike along the gurgling stream that begins on Salt Pond Mountain and drains to the New River.
Hiking the Cascades National Recreation Trail was my way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act that greatly expanded the U.S. Forest Service. It was also a good way to celebrate the United Nations’ International Year of the Forest.
In 1911 President William Howard Taft signed the Weeks Act, allowing the government to spend federal funds for conservation for the first time. It was named after Republican Congressman John Weeks of Massachusetts, who led the fight.
The act initially provided $9 million to purchase 6 million acres in the eastern United States. In the last 100 years, it has led to the formation of 52 national forests in 26 Eastern states and the addition of 19.7 million acres of national forests and grasslands in 41 states and Puerto Rico.
“The Weeks Act is one of the most significant natural resource conservation achievements of the 20th century,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on the anniversary.
“This act reminds us of the importance of past conservation efforts that shape our ability to sustain our national forests today and to keep them healthy for the future. The Weeks Act has given us significant economic and environmental benefits, but it’s done more than that. The Weeks Act ensures that all Americans have access to some of the most beautiful places in our country.”
More than 800 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail wind through national forests created because of the Weeks Act.
The first new national forest was the Pisgah in North Carolina in 1916. The most recent were the Uwharrie in North Carolina and the Delta in Mississippi, both in 1961.
The smallest is the 50,000-acre Uwharrie. The largest is the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, that together cover nearly 1.8 million acres.
Today, the Forest Service oversees 155 national forests and 20 grasslands that total 193 million acres.
Most easily accessible from the Akron area are the 500,000-acre Allegheny in northwestern Pennsylvania, the 919,000-acre Monongahela in West Virginia and the 226,000-acre Wayne in southern Ohio.
The George Washington was established in 1918; the Jefferson, in 1936. Together they stretch into West Virginia and Kentucky, but most of the acreage is in western Virginia. They are separate entities managed as one unit by the forest service. They offer 2,000 miles of hiking trails.
Two of my favorite spots in the George Washington and Jefferson national forests are the Virginia Creeper Trail near Damascus, Va., and the Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness west of Staunton, Va.
The Virginia Creeper is a downhill bike ride of 34 miles along a former rail line in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Outfitters will transport you to the top and you can pedal from Whitetop Station through Damascus to Abington, where the trail ends.
The trail drops 1,500 feet with grades of up to 6 percent. It opened in 1978 along the old Virginia-Carolina Railroad bed. For information, call 276-783-5196. For bike operators, check out www.vacreepertrail.com.
The Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness is a wild tract with some of Virginia’s oldest and biggest trees. The hemlocks, white pines and hardwoods are up to 300 years old, 120 feet high and cover 1,800 acres.
The Draft, as it is called, offers some of the best wilderness hiking in the East. The 6,500-acre mountain valley is off U.S. 250, about 20 miles west of Staunton.
For information, contact the North River Ranger District, 866-904-0240 or 540-432-0187. The website for the Virginia Creeper and Ramsey’s Draft areas is www.fs.fed.us.
The trailhead leading to the Cascades in the Jefferson National Forest is off state Route 623 four miles north of Pembroke, Va., and 19.5 miles from Blacksburg, Va.
It is a popular trail and an easy hike along the mountain stream. It’s generally cooler, as air from the plateau above rushes down the stream gorge. The gorge, known for its spring wildflowers, is shaded by hemlocks and rhododendrons.
There are two trails: one that follows the bends and twists of the native trout stream and another that follows an old fire road.
A few small waterfalls tumble into Little Stony Creek as you hike upstream. The main sound is the splashing and gurgling of the creek. It never goes away.
The walls of the gorge close in and steepen as you climb. Near the falls, you are flanked by walls 1,000 to 1,500 feet high.
The Cascades plunge into a picturesque pool hemmed in by cliffs. After you reach the falls, you can turn around or keep hiking.
You can head for the Conservancy Trail, a 1.8-mile climb to the short Barney’s Wall Trail. That will provide dramatic views into the gorge and into the nearby New River Valley. That round-trip hike is 8 miles. The trail climbs from about 2,200 feet to about 2,900 feet in elevation.
The area in Giles County was heavily logged in the 1920s and 1930s. A bit of evidence is rusted logging equipment along the trail.
The recreation area includes 15 picnic tables, flush toilets and water fountains. There is no camping in the area and no rock climbing at the falls. Admission is $3 per vehicle.
For information, contact the Eastern Divide Ranger District, 540-552-4641, www.fs.fed.us.
Nearby is Mountain Lake. It is a federal wilderness area of 11,000 acres, a 25-acre lake and a private resort on 2,600 acres, familiar to fans of the movie “Dirty Dancing.”
Mountain Lake Conservancy & Hotel was one of two sites where the 1987 movie with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey was filmed. The setting in the coming-of-age love story was a Catskills resort in the 1960s.
Mountain Lake Hotel off state Route 700 sponsors “Dirty Dancing” weekends with screenings of the movie, trivia and dance contests and tours of the property’s cinematic spots.
Part of the movie was filmed in North Carolina, and Lake Lure also claims to be the home of “Dirty Dancing.” A cove on the lake, a golf course and a long-gone camp east of Asheville were settings in the movie.
Mountain Lake offers 18 trails for hikers and bicyclists on its 2,600 acres. For information, contact Mountain Lake Hotel, 540-626-7121, www.mtnlakehotel.com.
The biggest change since the movie was made is that water levels on Mountain Lake have dropped as part of a natural cycle.
Mountain Lake, at an elevation of 3,875 feet, is one of two natural lakes in Virginia. It consistently gets the lowest recorded temperatures in the state.
The nearby federal wilderness area straddles the Eastern Continental Divide and lies largely on a remote plateau at an elevation of 4,000 feet in Virginia and West Virginia. It is known for a mountain bog, scenic views from the War Spur Overlook, abundant wildlife and few people.
The wilderness offers 25 miles of trails, including the Appalachian Trail.