South River Falls – A Hike to Shenandoah National Park’s Third-Tallest Waterfall

“I want to see a bear today.” With this thought in the back of our minds, Caroline and I entered Shenandoah National Park a little while ago.

We had planned a long day hike, but we’d gotten a late start and, additionally, wanted to get some bear spray—just in case, you know. So, we ended up deciding to do a shorter afternoon hike. After consulting our super-helpful Hiking Shenandoah National Park book, we picked the South River Falls hike.

The trailhead lies a few minutes north of the Swift Run Gap Entrance Station, on the right side of Skyline Drive at mile 62.8. At the South River Picnic Area, the trail begins to the right of the toilets and drinking fountain.

South River Falls Trail in Shenandoah National Park
South River Falls Trail in Shenandoah National Park

South River Falls Hike

An information board at the trailhead provides two hike suggestions. Both are loop hikes, but neither seem to actually continue down to the waterfall’s base. Instead, they turn back at an overlook. Honestly, if you’re going to do one of the waterfall hikes in the park, which is easily one of the highlights of a visit to Shenandoah National Park, it seems silly not to go down to the falls as close as you can. We decided to follow the hike proposed in our hiking guide, which, I now totally agree, is by far the best option.

The Trail

The South River Falls hike starts off smoothly, gradually descending for a short while before hitting a series of switchbacks. The trail is well-kept and wide, but it is pretty rocky at times. Therefore, you’re advised to wear sturdy hiking shoes. Hiking poles may come in useful as well, especially later on. Near the waterfall, the trail is often wet and slippery.

After completing the switchbacks, you’ll find yourself in a hollow flanked by steep cliffs and dotted with tall trees. Many small streams bubble their way through this hollow, all eventually merging to create the South River.

Woods in Shenandoah National Park
Woods in Shenandoah National Park

This seems like “bear country”, a place where black bears would be at home. We were on alert, keeping our eyes peeled for moving black shapes. We’ve seen plenty of bears before in Shenandoah National Park, on hikes and while driving Skyline Drive, so we’re always both excited and a tiny bit nervous when heading into the woods on a hike. Unfortunately, we did not see a black bear this time.

The South River Falls Overlook lies 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) from the trailhead. You’ll know when you reach it. It lies on the right side after a section along a cliff on your left and is built with cement walls. I do have to say, though, that the views from the overlook are disappointing. I don’t know why the information board at the picnic area would suggest turning back there. We continued down the trail to the bottom of the falls, an extra 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). I strongly recommend you do the same.

South River Falls hike in Shenandoah National Park
South River Falls hike in Shenandoah National Park

The Waterfall

South River Falls is the third-tallest waterfall in Shenandoah National Park, falling 83 feet (25 meters) from a rocky ledge. It essentially consists of two waterfalls, one above the other, plunging into a pool at its base. The plunge pool is a great place to cool down  on a hot summer afternoon, a wonderful place to rest before retracing your steps to the trailhead.

The waterfall was a bit calmer than I had expect, but it was also clear that it could be downright spectacular at times. Spring and late fall are probably the best times to do this South River Falls hike.

South River Falls, Shenandoah National Park
South River Falls, Shenandoah National Park

South River Falls Trail Details

Distance: 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) one way

Hike duration: 45 minutes down, 60 minutes up

Outing duration: 2 hours

Trailhead location: South River Picnic Area, mile 62.8 on Skyline Drive

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