Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail
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Site MED09: Cascades
Elevation: 2147 ft. A 4-mile loop trail along Little Stony Creek rewards the adventurous hiker with spectacular views of a 66-foot waterfall. The scenic cascade of cool pristine waters plummets from a narrow gorge within the same plateau that holds Mountain Lake, the only natural lake in the mountains of Virginia. Before embarking on the journey to the falls, spend a few minutes by the wildflower garden near the restrooms and parking lot. Blooming purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, and several species of asters attract a large amount of butterflies in the spring and summer. Spicebush swallowtail are abundant, but other swallowtails, such as pipevine, and eastern tiger, may also be spied foraging for nectar. Other butterflies, including American copper, wild-indigo duskywing, common checkered-skipper, and question mark, flit among dancing wildflowers as well. This is also a splendid locale for finding both Diana and Aphrodite fritillaries. The Cascades Trail begins at the parking lot, and ascends for two miles along the limestone-bedded creek to the waterfall. In these high mountaintops, the unpolluted waters of Little Stony Creek are home to native brook trout. Limestone rocks line and foot the creek bottom, occasionally forming small cataracts that whisper soft murmurs of tumbling water. On the ascent towards the Cascades Waterfall, keep an eye out for nesting neotropical migrants. Louisiana waterthrush may be hopping along the streambed, pumping its tail as it forages in slower waters. The surrounding forest at these lower elevations is primarily composed of poplar, buckeye, magnolia, and elm trees. Look for typical eastern hardwood breeders such as ovenbird, wood thrush, hooded and Kentucky warblers, red-eyed vireo, and eastern wood-pewee. Just before reaching the first mile marker (at a bridge-crossing), the trail will traverse maturing second-growth forests. Creek edges fall beneath the understory of dense rhododendron thickets, canopied by oak, hickory, beech, and boxelder. The moist forest floor lends itself to the soft carpeting of verdant ferns, and moss-covered rocks and logs blanket the embankment in an emerald sea. Enjoy the vibrant colors of mushrooms, and the brilliance of Indian pipe and blooming Galax. Listen for northern parula, black-throated green warbler, and scarlet tanager. The rushing waters are patrolled by eastern phoebe and hunted by belted kingfisher. Turning over a few logs is likely to produce northern dusky, red-backed, and northern slimy salamanders. The little red eft undoubtedly wanders about the damp forest floor. The last stretch of the trail ascends abruptly. The hardwoods on the southeastern edge of the trail are gradually replaced by steep limestone cliffs. From tiny rock crevices spill spring-fed waters clinging softly against creek-walls. These seepages enliven the cliffs and create a peaceful ambience of glistening wet rock laced with lush moss and lichen. Serenades of veery and melodies of distant warblers blend in harmony with the roar of falling water. The descending return hike meanders through similar habitat, but with the addition of a few open areas and small clearings. Dark-eyed junco is abundant, and in the open areas, look for American goldfinch and indigo bunting. Eastern towhee may be calling from lower shrubby woodland edges. The trail is a moderate hike, in some places, steep and narrow. The 2-mile trek to the Cascades may seem longer than two miles because it is not a linear path, but rather, meanders alongside Little Stony Creek. Still, the scenery along the trail and the climatic views of the Cascades Waterfall are likely to enchant any nature enthusiast.
From Glen Alton, return to Rt. 635, turn right, and travel west for 13.5 miles to US 460 East. Turn left onto US 460 East and go 2.3 miles to Rt. T623/Cascade Drive. Turn left, heading north on Rt. T623 for 3.4 miles to the Cascades Recreation Area. To return to the interstate, return to US 460 East. Follow US 460 East for approximately 26 miles to I-81. Travel south to begin the Lower New River Loop or north to begin the Star City and Roanoke Valley Loops.