Summer roadtrip series: Adventure goes awry in the St. Mary’s Wilderness

June 9, 2014 · 3 minute read

Last Monday, I wrote the first in what will be a weekly “Summer Roadtrip Series.” I wrote about a recent drive to a place called the Cascades, a gorgeous waterfall/hike combo 15 or so miles north of Blacksburg. This week I was all set to write up another trip out to the mountains, this time to Shenandoah National Park, but over the weekend I received an intriguing email.

When I saw the title — “The Return of Ahn Ominous?” — I got excited. You may remember back in the winter we published a hilarious account of an illegal camping trip in a far-off section of Pocahontas State Park by what I assume is a loyal reader. The writer called himself (herself?) Ahn Ominous, and while our team of lawyers tells me we do not officially condone gonzo camping or any other harmless but illicit outdoor activity, I have to admit, I was hoping Ahn would be back with another tale.


This is what passes for trail on the way to Saint Mary’s Falls, but the payoff is worth the pain.

And then I got the email. And, as luck would have it, the piece fits perfectly with our roadtrip series. It even includes a waterfall. Score! So, without further ado, here is the return of Ahn Ominous.

Surviving a hike through the Saint Mary’s Wilderness

By Ahn Ominous

“They should really take the ‘Saint’ out of the name.”

“What are you babbling about this time?” asks the Imaginary Me.

“Saint Mary’s Falls. The word ‘Saint’ shouldn’t be anywhere near that place,” I respond to myself. “Do you see this cut and bruise on my shin? Here, look at this bruise — it’s on my stomach, of all places!”

Then I drop trou’ (because the Imaginary Me has seen my butt enough times to keep either of us from being embarrassed). “I look like one of those baboons with the purple asses.”

“Wow,” says IM. “That wasn’t my first thought, but, yeah, I see what you’re saying. Were you mountain biking and bit it?”

I shake my head.

“Were you rock climbing?”

After a brief pause: “No, I was hiking,” I admit with a bit of reticence. IM’s face goes through phases of disbelief, confusion, and then … “Hiking? Bwahahahah! What are you, five? You fell on your ass twice?”

Ridiculous, I think. Even in conversations with an Imaginary Me, I get made fun of. But never mind that…


The Saint Mary’s River courses beneath some blooming rhododendrons.

Saint Mary’s Waterfall is located in the Saint Mary’s Wilderness portion of the George Washington National Forest near Steele’s Tavern. It’s just under a two-hour drive from Richmond. According to the 12-year-old guidebook my hiking companion brought along, it’s an easy 4.5-mile hike, starting from the parking area and meandering alongside the Saint Marys River. This, kids, is why you don’t follow 12-year-old guidebooks.

The “easy” hike turns into an all-out game of “Where’s the damn trail?” as various rock slides, bank collapses, overgrowth, and lack of signage hinder progress. Luckily, hiking with a good friend and walking past cliffsides of late-blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel make the expedition more bearable. We rockhop across the stream time and again looking for the trail only to wind up bushwhacking through impossible thickets and deciding to cross back over. It is brutal

When we reach the end of the trail — two hours after we started — we’re rewarded with the idyllic sight of a 10-foot waterfall with crystal-clear water cascading through a canyon speckled with wildflowers into an emerald-green pool. (I’m waxing poetic — sue me.) Although there’s no camping in this area, if you choose to indulge your inner scofflaw, you’ll be isolated in the company of some hammock-friendly trees, on high ground, within 30 yards of the falls themselves. It would also, hypothetically speaking, be a great place treat yourself and your hiking partner to ice cold beers.

But even with the flowers, the gorgeous waterfall, the beer-fueled camaraderie and the opportunities for illegal camping, this Mary ain’t no Saint. And if you find yourself muttering to an imaginary self on the hike back, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Saint Marys Falls is situated in a beautiful, and remote, canyon (not pictured).

Saint Mary’s Falls is situated in a beautiful, and remote, canyon (not pictured).