Natural Heritage

One of the best reasons to visit the Nelson Scenic Loop is to experience and learn about the trove of natural resources located along the way. Relatively unspoiled and undeveloped, the landscape visible along the route is bucolic, pastoral, and at times even wild. Dramatic topography and outcroppings of ancient geological formations characterize the Blue Ridge Mountains. Verdant rolling hills and narrow coves and river corridors edge the lower reaches of the mountains. Lush vegetation and a diversity of wildlife engage the casual visitor and scientist alike. We invite you to explore the natural heritage of the Loop; learn more about its wonders below.


The Nelson Scenic Loop spans what is known as the Blue Ridge physiographic province, one of five such regions in Virginia that are characterized by a combination of geology and topography. These five provinces include the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Allegheny.

The Piedmont that extends through Central Virginia is underlain by metamorphic rocks. Although the eastern section of the Nelson Scenic Loop shares many topographic characteristics with the Piedmont, its geology of coarse-grained igneous and metamorphic Grenville basement rocks is consistent with the Blue Ridge physiographic province. The Blue Ridge Mountains that lend their name to the province rise suddenly along the western margin of Nelson County. The Blue Ridge province, however, includes a strip of land that extends east to Charlottesville, Culpepper, and Warrenton based on its geology.


The Nelson Scenic Loop falls within the Blue Ridge physiographic province, which as far east as Charlottesville. The physiographic province encompasses the steeply sloped escarpment along Nelson’s western margin, underlain by very durable igneous and metamorphic rocks, including gneiss and granite. Molten black basalt that covered the basement rocks of granite and gneiss some 600 million years ago between Central Virginia and Pennsylvania was later metamorphosed into the greenstone evident along the Blue Ridge Parkway today. The Blue Ridge Mountains began forming more than 400 million years ago through uplifting of the North American tectonic plate. A subsequent collision of two tectonic plates led to an additional uplifting of the range approximately 320 million years ago, and the formation of the Blue Ridge as currently configured. The mountains have eroded by at least half of their original height, depositing large amounts of sediments to the east through glacial movement and the flow of stormwater. Streams generally form where there are fractures in the underlying bedrock or where the rock is faulted, carrying the eroded material downhill and toward the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The eroding of the Blue Ridge generally occurs incrementally, almost grain-by-grain, as a result of   physical and chemical weathering processes.  However, certain weather events can accelerate the weathering process. One of these occurred in 1969 with Hurricane Camille. Massive areas of earth were moved through the action of debris flows and landslides along the edge of the Blue Ridge escarpment within northwestern Nelson County. Everything from the bedrock upwards—including soil, water, rocks, and plant material—slid down the mountain slopes at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, destroying everything in their path.

bedrock geology of Virginia
Source: USGS – Tapestry and Time

Geologically, the Blue Ridge province is a large, eroded anticline overturned to the west. The rocks that form the Blue Ridge are the oldest in the state at 1.1 billion years. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway several rock types can be viewed, including granite and gneiss of the Precambrian Virginia Blue Ridge basement complex; sandstone and conglomerate of the Precambrian Swift Run formation; greenstone and sandstone of the Precambrian Catoctin formation; and sandstone and phyllite of the Cambrian Chilhowee group.[1] To explore further, follow the Nelson Scenic Loop along the Blue Ridge Parkway to milepost 8.8 where the National Park Service maintains an interpretive trail that provides educational information about the geology. Greenstone outcroppings, sometimes exposed due to roadbed construction, are of particular note along the trail. Some of these rock formations come from metamorphosed basalt flows, while others arise from volcanic ash falls.[2]

Another area of interest along the Blue Ridge Parkway occurs just south of the community of Love, where a road cut exhibits evidence of the Swift Run formation, a mixture of coarse and fine sandstone, phyllite, greenstone, and green epidote. Additionally, a mile before the intersection with State Route 56, the parking pull-off provides an excellent panorama of the mountains. To the west is the Shenandoah Valley with the Appalachian Mountains beyond. To the southeast, views extend along the Tye River valley, and the carved granite mountains associated with the Pedlar massif, across the Rockfish Valley fault, and the Lovingston massif beyond.[3] Three Ridges Mountain is visible to the west of the valley, while de Priest Mountain can be seen to the east.

The Blue Ridge Plateau is endowed with a variety of geologic resources of regional and national interest. Unusual landforms abound, as evidenced in some of the names of the ridges and mountains: Crabtree Falls, Devil’s Knob, Humpback Rocks, and Chimney Rock.

Prominent Ridges, Mountains, Knolls, and Overlooks

Black Rock Mountain (3,445 feet)

Black Rock Mountain is named for the granite outcrops prominent on the south side, that take on a black cast in certain light and at particularly times of the year.

De Priest Mountain

De Priest Mountain is located in The de Priest Wilderness Area north along the Appalachian Trail from Three Ridges Wilderness Area. The Appalachian Trail provides access to the 4,063-foot summit of de Priest Mountain. The Appalachian Trail can be accessed either at Reid’s Gap or along the Tye River. (See also Trails.) The four-mile-long trail leading to the summit is well maintained with a constant gradual grade, plenty of switchbacks, and several stream crossings. The summit is covered with trees and there are not many opportunities for good views there, although there are others along the trail. For camping, there is the de Priest shelter located approximately 0.8 miles from the summit, and several camp sites near the summit.

Devil’s Knob (3,022 feet)

Devil’s Knob is one of the highest peaks in the area. It is located near the intersection of State Route 664 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is said that prior to construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, there was a very narrow pass between Laurel Spring Gap and Reid’s Gap that was difficult to squeeze through. It was known as the ‘Devil’s Gate’ for the risk the traveler took in passing through, and the broad, relatively level peak above was given the name Devil’s Knob for its relationship to the gap. The ‘Devil’s Gate’ no longer survives, obliterated by construction of the Parkway. Devil’s Knob was included in the earliest land grant associated with the mountainous portion of the region circa 1789 acquired by Rachel Ayres. Settlement of the high country followed that in the valley by at least 50 years.

Fork Mountain, Tye River Gap, and Fork Mountain Overlook

Fork Mountain is located between the north and south forks of the Tye River. Beyond Fork Mountain, the Tye River continues through the valley or gap between Three Ridges and de Priest Mountain. There is a pull-off associated with the Blue Ridge Parkway known as the Fork Mountain Overlook.

Horseshoe Mountain

Horseshoe Mountain reaches a height of 2,421 feet. The Horseshoe Mountain Lodge is located nearby.

Three Ridge Mountain

Three Ridges is located in the Three Ridges Wilderness area of the George Washington National Forest. Visitors can ascend Three Ridge Mountain along the Appalachian Trail. From either the trailhead at the Tye River, or the parking area along the Blue Ridge Parkway at Reid’s Gap, it is a relatively challenging 13-mile round trip hike. Along the route, the trail also extends across Chimney Rock and Bee Mountain. Views encompass de Priest Mountain to the south, as well as the ridgeline followed along the trail.

Three Ridges can also be hiked from along the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP). I believe the loop hike would be about the same distance from this direction also. More information to come on this route as the BRP was closed due to a recent winter storm when I was there.

There are shelters along the trail to either side of Three Ridges, including Harpers Creek Shelter to the south and Maupin Field Shelter to the north end. There are additional camping areas along the way and possible locations along the Tye River.

Spy Rock
A 1.3 mile moderately strenuous hike from the Montebello Fish Hatchery leads up to the Appalachian Trail and Spy Rock beyond, which offers one of the best viewpoints in the central Blue Ridge. The rock outcrop, at 3,980 feet elevation, provides a 360 degree panoramic view of numerous nearby mountain summits.[4]

Other Peaks within View of the Nelson Scenic Loop

Bolton Mountain (2,129 feet)

Bee Mountain (3,022 feet)

Bryant Mountain (1,460 feet)

Cat Rock Mountain (2,100 feet)

Chimney Rock (2,651 feet)

Crits Mountain (932 feet)

Long Drive Mountain (932 feet)

Mars Knob (1,457 feet)

Meadow Mountain (3,117 feet)

Piney Mountain

PJ’s Mound (2,221 feet)

Round Mountain (3,448 feet)

White Mountain (2,362 feet)

20-Minute Cliff Overlook

Another pull-off along the Blue Ridge Parkway is referred to as 20-Minute Overlook. The rock face below the overlook has historically been used by the people of nearby White Rock as a way of measuring time. During June and July, the sun will drop behind the mountains twenty minutes after light hits the rock.[5]

Bald Mountain Overlook

One of the pull-offs along the Blue Ridge Parkway affords views of Bald Mountain and Big Levels. Bald Mountain is so-named for an open meadow-like character on its summit. Balds are often associated with mountains within the Blue Ridge range. Although their ecological basis and origin remains a matter of speculation, many believe they are the result of grazing by large animals such as elk or bison, or that Native Americans purposefully set fire on a regular basis to some mountain top areas to establish sites of prospect, both for hunting and to remain aware of the approach of possible enemies, altering the vegetation community.

Near the overlook is a trail leading to Bald Mountain through the St. Mary’s Wilderness. The 2.2.-mile trail occurs near milepost 22 along the Parkway. It is also accessed from FSR 162, which is often gated and not accessible by car. The moderate hike is marked with blazes and signs. It is permissible to camp within the St. Mary’s Wilderness area.

Reid’s Gap

State Route 664 follows Pond Hollow to Laurel Ridge, where it joins the Blue Ridge Parkway. At the juncture of the two roads is Reid’s Gap, one of the earliest crossings used by eighteenth century settlers to reach the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Views from the gap extend to the Shenandoah Valley beyond to the west. The gap is named for one of the Rockfish Valley’s early settlers. At Reid’s Gap there is a parking area that can be used by hikers to access the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Laurel Ridge

Laurel ridge is named for the profusion of mountain laurel found growing on the upper slopes of the mountains in this area. All along the ridge there are wonderful views of the mountain landforms as well as toward the Shenandoah Valley.

Pond Hollow

As State Route 664 follows the South Rockfish River through the narrow gap between mountains up towards the Blue Ridge Parkway, the landform is locally known as Pond Hollow, possibly for a former pond that was located along the river as part of a mill complex known as Whistler’s Mill.

Water Resources

Tye River

The Tye River originates on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Nelson County. The Tye River flows south from Nelson County’s northern border, eventually emptying into the James River. The Tye River falls within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The Piney River and Tye River converge to form a portion of Nelson’s western border.  Sections of the Tye River contain wild trout populations, while others are stocked.  The Tye River is home to dozens of other species of fish and aquatic life, including American eels, small and largemouth bass, and native mussels. A dam was removed in 2007 to help facilitate fish migration and allow for increased access for anglers, paddlers, and boaters.

A three mile section of the Tye River is popular for kayakers and paddlers. The section that is most accessible occurs on the North Fork between Nash and the confluence of the North Fork. It is rated a Class V by the American Whitewater association. Water is highest in August, when the area receives the highest percentage its rainfall.

The Tye River was at the heart of the Camille flooding disaster of August 1969. Hurricane Camille, a category 5 storm that made landfall on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, stalled over Nelson County, encountering a second mass of moist air. The combined air masses shed 27 or more inches of rain between 10:30 p.m. and 4:00 a.m., which led to severe flash flooding while most area residents were sleeping. Water was channeled into the narrow mountain folds, wiping out entire communities and killing hundreds of people, some of whose bodies were never recovered. Livestock, roads, bridges, rail lines, and utility lines were also lost, curtailing communication with the area for several days. Two memorial parks, one at Massies Mill along the Tye River, and the other along State Route 151 along the South Rockfish River, honor those who lost their lives in the flooding. The Tye River is a scenic and popular recreational waterway in Virginia. The Blue Ridge Rail Trail currently being developed on an abandoned rail line will connect the two rivers near Massies Mill. (See also Trails.)

South Rockfish River

The South Rockfish River arises on the side slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains above the community of Beech Grove and below the Wintergreen Resort. The South Rockfish flows south through mountain hollows before spilling into the low-lying valley, and continuing north to its confluence with the North Rockfish River near the intersection of State Routes 6 and 151. The resulting Rockfish River thereafter flows southeastward, forming the boundary between Nelson and Albemarle Counties and emptying into the James River approximately eight miles southwest of the town of Scottsville, Virginia. The Rockfish River falls within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. A three-mile section of the upper segment of the South Rockfish River is classified as level 5 rapids and traveled by kayakers at high water. A portion of the river is a stocked trout stream. The entire river corridor extends for approximately forty miles.

A two-mile segment of the South Fork Rockfish River located along the Nelson Scenic Loop was restored in 2006 by the Virginia Department of Transportation and serve as a model for reclaiming degraded natural systems. Suffering from years of over-grazing and channel-straightening, the river was characterized by de-stabilized and unvegetated banks, and an eroded channel.

The project involved re-establishing meanders and lengthening the stream corridor, regarding the banks, planting vegetation with fibrous root systems, and creating a series of water-calming rock structures and pools. Livestock were restricted from accessing the river channel. The project required the cooperation of local property owners, and the establishment of conservation easements on their land. The project won a 2005 Scenic Award for Most Creative Scenic Improvement from Scenic Virginia.

Crabtree Falls

Crabtree Falls is located within the George Washington National Forest south of the summit of the Blue Ridge Mountains along State Route 56. Considered by many to be the highest falls east of the Mississippi River, Crabtree Falls drops more than 1,000 feet in elevation in little more than one-half mile. The falls can be experienced along a dramatic trail provided by the U.S. Forest Service. The trail leads to the falls from a parking area and wonderful arched bridge. Several scenic overlooks offer views of the falls and the surrounding terrain along the trail. (See also Trails.)

Plant Communities

Because the region features so many elevational changes and such a diversity of bedrock types and microclimates, the Blue Ridge plateau encompasses an enormous diversity of flora. Within the same drive, it is possible to experience a variety of seasonal conditions due to the elevational changes.

Some of the habitats along the Blue Ridge Parkway are regionally or even globally rare. Some high elevation rock outcroppings, for example, “contain a fragile group of alpine species that were pushed southward during glacial times and eventually were left stranded on the southern mountains. The main threat to this fragile plant community is trampling by unaware park visitors.”[6]

The highlands associated with the Nelson Scenic Loop fall within the Appalachian Hardwood Forest, a component of the broader Eastern Deciduous Forest Province of the eastern United States. The Appalachians are world-renown for the diversity of plant and animal life. Part of the Nelson Scenic Loop passes through the George Washington National Forest. More than forty tree species have been identified within this area alone, along with some 2,000 species of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Hardwoods predominate, which contributes to the spectacular fall color in the mountains. In drier and more exposed sites, oak-hickory forests are prevalent, while the moist, protected stream valleys and coves feature mixed hardwoods and conifers, including the Canadian hemlock. This important tree, which shades and cools the mountain streams and renders them habitable for trout and other species, is currently threatened by a non-native pest—the wooly adelgid. Loss of the hemlocks, like the American chestnut 100 years ago to a fungus introduced from Asia, is predicated to have a tremendous impact on local forests. Another pest that has impacted local forests is the gypsy moth caterpillar, which favors a diet of oak leaves.

Because much of the region has been logged and farmed since settlement by European-Americans, the existing forests are relatively young post-agricultural landscape features that are in the process of undergoing secondary succession. Fire suppression and non-native species have altered natural ecological processes, and the forests of the area are in the process of being studied to enhance their health and well-being.

One of the most spectacular components of the local flora that draws thousands of visitors to the area each year is the display of mountain wildflowers during the spring, summer, and fall growing season.  The best place to observe wildflowers is along the roadside, particularly the Blue Ridge Parkway, in open fields, or in some forested areas. Some of the favorites to look for are turk’s cap lily, pink lady’s slipper, evening primrose, bee balm, spotted touch-me-nots, fire pink, wild geranium, Dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, goldenrod, trillium, common blue violet, bachelor’s button, wild columbine, chicory, mountain mint, spiderwort, crown and wood vetch, black-eyed Susan, and common mullein.

The fall is a particularly good time to visit the Nelson Scenic Loop—particularly the month of October—when the leaves change to many shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple, while fall blooming perennials like goldenrods and asters are also at their peak. At higher elevations, fall displays are consistent with those found in New England.

Wildflowers and Wildlife near Crabtree Falls, by Bev Hovencamp

Just south of Big Spy Mountain Overlook you can exit the parkway on Rte 56 east and descend through cascading ripples of late summer color to Crabtree Falls. The wild flowers along the steep northern bank of Rte 56 seem to pour out of the forest and down the sunny side of the mountain in an imitation of the falls ahead.  There are several varieties of bright yellow sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), purple bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), and tall purple Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum). White Wood Asters (Aster divaricatus), their smaller relative the upland white aster (A. ptarmicoides), and delicate Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) add frothy white accents to the waves of yellow and purple. Hordes of butterflies are attracted to this bounty of nectar.  Close to the edge of the pavement chicory (Cichorium intybus) opens its sky blue eyes to greet the morning and closes them at night. Although chicory, like the majority of other wild flowers along the route, is not a native plant, it was so useful to early colonists that its proliferation is often tolerated. All parts of chicory have been used for animal forage or food at one time or another. The Egyptians used it for medicinal purposes 5,000 years ago and it’ roots are still dried and used for coffee. Chicory coffee is admittedly an acquired taste, as it is very bitter compared to the coffee most of us drink.

Along the Crabtree Falls trail, look over the small footbridge which spans the Tye River. Adjacent to the bottom of the trail, you can spot jewelweed, both pale and spotted (Impatiens pallid, I. capensis), green headed coneflower and Joe Pye weed. Juice from the crushed stems of Jewelweed is said to have properties which relieve the itch of poison ivy or stinging nettle. The flight of tiger and spicebush swallowtail butterflies seems slow and meandering when the aviary dare devils arrive. Ruby-throated hummingbirds zoom among the jewel weed as they sip nectar from the hanging blooms. The flower’s shape is particularly suited to their long questing tongues.

Ferns and mosses grow in cracks and hollows of the huge weathered boulders exposed by the falls. Adjacent to the cascading water, they sparkle with drops of moisture in the slanting rays of sunlight which penetrate the forest canopy. Do not be tempted to take a closer look; the rocks are covered with clear algae, invisible to the casual observer, which is as slippery as black ice. Heed the warning signs along the rail—many have lost their lives here.

Many varieties of ferns line the cool, shady path and spill out from rock crevices along the trail. White Wood Aster appears here as a much smaller plant since it grows deprived of sunlight.  The dainty yellow flowers of panicled hawkweed (Hieracium paniculatum) look something like miniature dandelion flowers, a foot or 2 off the ground. Arrowwood viburnums (Viburnum recognitum) surround many of the areas overlooking the falls. Although viburnums are not in flower during late summer, the subtle pale green flower clusters ripen into purplish-black berries. Virginia dayflower (Commelina virginica) sports its electric blue flowers from a heart shaped pouch or spathe. If this plant looks familiar to you, it’s probably because it’s a member of the Tradescantia family, often used in hanging baskets.

Wildflowers and Wildlife near Reid’s Gap, by Bev Hovencamp

Located at the intersection of Route 664 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, Reid’s Gap offers a chance to see how flora and fauna interact for the benefit of both. The wildflower meadow directly south-east of the intersection changes with the seasons offering a chance to observe many species of birds and butterflies. Mid to late summer will find the white lacy blooms of virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) twining through bright yellow sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus), Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), common milkweed (Ascepias syriaca), red clover (Trifolium pretense), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and purple turtlehead (Chelone oblique). Native grapevines (Vitis spp.) can be seen climbing up taller plants.

Bees and many varieties of butterflies forage through the blossoms, pollinating as they go, while the seeds of sunflowers and thistles attract flocks of goldfinches. The birds spread seeds through their droppings, giving the plants a chance to produce future generations. Adult monarch butterflies lay their eggs only on the foliage of the common milkweed plant, allowing the colorful white, yellow and black stripped caterpillars to begin feeding immediately after hatching. The green, black and yellow, parsley caterpillar feeds on Queens Anne’s lace becoming the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly. Either of these distinctive caterpillars may be visible during the late summer months if you look carefully at their host plants. Although they are often considered an undesirable tree, the red candles of sumac (Rhus typhina) adjoining the meadow provide winter food for grouse, turkey, robins and bluebirds, all birds that spend their lives along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A common raven, considered to be one of the most intelligent birds, seems to have taken up residence in the vicinity. You can hear its rusty croaks from a distance and it will sometimes fly very close to humans.

As you travel south along the Parkway you’ll find the tall, white racemes of black snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa) nodding in the shade of the diverse hardwood forest. This plant is also known as black cohosh and has been used extensively in homeopathic medicine. It provides food for the larva of the spring azure and pipevine swallowtail butterflies.

For more information, see Frances D. Watson, “Vascular Flora of Three Ridges Mountain,” William & Mary College Master’s Thesis, 1981.

National and State Forests, Parks, and Designated Wilderness Areas

George Washington National Forest

Prior to European settlement, the landscape of Nelson County, Virginia, included forests of different ages interspersed with expansive open woodlands with grassy understories, and occasional dense cane thickets, barren areas, and swamps. Forests were constantly changing as a result of receding of the glaciers to the north, beaver activity, large grazing animals like the eastern woodland bison, uncontrolled lightning fires, and widespread Native American use of fire and crop cultivation.[7]

Today, most of the forests on the George Washington National Forest are about the same age—70 to 100 years old. This is because much of the forest was logged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Logging practices at the time were aimed at maximizing financial return, and those harvesting the trees did not necessarily consider the effects that logging such large areas would have on wildlife, soil, and downstream water quality.[8]

The George Washington National Forest contains or influences habitat that supports thousands of mammals, birds, fish, and mussel species. The U.S. Forest Service administers the forest land, but works closely with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address recovery efforts for federally listed species and avoid negative consequences from our management activities. Two of the tools that are being integrated into management practices are the use of prescribed fire and selective timber harvest. The reintroduction of fire is based on the realization that decades of fire suppression has taken a toll on the composition of native forests and formerly open grassy habitats. Some species are dependent on fire to survive. These, such as the Table Mountain pine and the savannah sparrow, have been slowly disappearing from the southern Appalachians. Timber harvesting has been employed where it is too dangerous to use fire, to help offset the costs of wildlife management, and to help meet Americans’ insatiable demand for wood products. Control of invasive alien plant and animal species is also a goal of the U.S. Forest Service aimed at protecting the important vegetation communities of areas like the George Washington National Forest.

Approximately 175 species of birds breed, winter, or migrate through the George Washington National Forest. Some of those that can be observed while traveling the Nelson Scenic Loop might include the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, blue jay, ruby-throated hummingbird, and even the peregrine falcon.

Lesesne State Forest

During the early twentieth century, a fungus imported with non-native chestnut trees into the United States began to affect American chestnuts in great numbers. Within the Nelson County area, the blight effectively killed nearly all of the chestnut trees within the naturally-occurring forests during the 1910s. A spur route from the Nelson Scenic Loop provides visitors access to the Lesesne State Forest, dedicated to the preservation of the American chestnut, as well as wildlife management programs. Open to the public during daylight hours for hiking, horseback riding, hunting, and educational programming, the park encompasses 422 acres along Cub Creek Road (State Route 680). The property was donated to the Commonwealth of Virginia by Mrs. Ann Dupont Valk in 1969 as a wildlife sanctuary and as a resource for conducting research on the American chestnut, with a goal of reintroducing this important tree to American forests.[9] The property was initially planted in 10,000 trees to be used in researching resistance to the blight. American trees are being bred with resistant Asian species to develop hybrids that are not susceptible to the blight. Trees on the property range from ¼ to 15/16ths American chestnut genetic material. Several pure American chestnut trees survive on the property. Two of these are relatively large. They have been inoculated with a hypovirulent blight strain.[10]

Wilderness Areas

The Federal Government designated wilderness areas. These area are managed to perpetuate and, where needed, to restore wilderness character within legal constraints. Preserving the wilderness resource is the overriding value; economy, convenience, commercial value, and comfort are not standards of management.

The Wilderness Area designation conveys several important restrictions on the use and activities associated with Federal lands. These include

  • There will be no roads established through the area (with rare exceptions)
  • There will be no timber harvests associated with the area (with rare exceptions)
  • There will be no motorized vehicles traversing the area (except in the case of emergency or required administrative purposes).
  • There will be no mechanized transport including mountain bikes.
  • The area will be managed for primitive and unconfined recreation, with outstanding opportunities for solitude.
  • The area will be managed for the free play of natural processes.
  • Naturally occurring fire is allowed, as much as possible, to play its natural role.[11]

Three wilderness areas fall within the region encompassed by the Nelson Scenic Loop: The de Priest, Three Ridges, and St. Mary’s Wilderness Areas. These are described below.

The De Priest Wilderness Area

The de Priest Wilderness is located in the George Washington National Forest, east of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Designated in 2000, the wilderness area has grown to encompass nearly 6,000 acres. Elevations range from 1,000 feet above mean sea level at the Tye River, to 4,000 feet along the summit of de Priest Mountain. The terrain is generally very steep and rugged, consisting of undulating ridges and deep, V-shaped hollows. Large rock outcrops are common. The scenery is spectacular; visitors can traverse the wilderness area along a rugged five-mile section of the Appalachian Trail.[12]

St. Mary’s Wilderness Area

St. Mary’s Wilderness Area falls within the George Washington National Forest along the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Designated in 1984, the wilderness area encompasses nearly 10,000 acres. Elevations within the wilderness area range from 1,700 to nearly 3,400 feet above mean sea level. The area contains the drainages of Cellar Hollow, Spy Run, and the upper part of the Saint Mary’s River. Native trout can be found in the St. Mary’s River. The gorge associated with the river is a spectacular narrow corridor filled with flowering shrubs such as rhododendron and mountain laurel. Several trail systems that continue for seventeen miles extend through the St. Mary’s Wilderness Area. Some have been affected or lost to flood events.

Three Ridges Wilderness Area

Designated by Congress in 2000, the Three Ridges Wilderness Area is located within the George Washington National Forest east of the Blue Ridge Parkway between the Tye River and Wintergreen Resort. State Route 56 separates the Three Ridges Wilderness Area from the de Priest Wilderness. The area is encompasses more than 4,700 acres of rugged and undulating highland terrain ranging from 1,000 to a high point of 3,790 feet above mean sea level atop Three Ridges Mountain. Access to the wilderness area occurs via ten miles of the Appalachian Trail and the three-mile-long Mau-Har Trail, which taken together form a highly-rated loop. There are two shelters located along the trails within the wilderness area, including the Maupin Field Shelter, and Harpers’ Creek Shelter. Camping is permitted. Five abandoned homesites are present within the wilderness area.

Wintergreen Nature Foundation

In summer 2009, Wintergreen Resort donated 1,442 of its original 11,000 acre parcel to the Wintergreen Nature Foundation to be protected as wilderness under the restrictive covenants of a conservation easement[13]. The acreage will augment the already protected 4,500 acres of undeveloped lands within the administrative purview of the Wintergreen Nature Foundation. The lands are primarily associated with Crawford Knob, a distinctive landform that rises some 3,000 feet above mean sea level in elevation

Camille Memorial Park

Associated with the Rockfish Valley Foundation trails and Spruce Creek Park along State Route 151 west of Nellysford, Camille Memorial Park includes a historical marker depicting the local impacts of Hurricane Camille in 1969, as well as a parking area and shelter that houses information about the adjacent trail system along the South Rockfish River.

Tye River Memorial Park

The Tye River Memorial Park is located in Massies Mill along State Route 56. It features a stone memorial memorializing the loss of life during Hurricane Camille. Sculptors Robert Bricker and Steve Bliley designed the cast bronze relief panels depicting five family members of different ages, including two men and two women, with one child standing before rushing water, and inscriptions set into a chiseled sandstone and river stone base. The sandstone for the base came from Highland County, while the river rock came from Augusta County.[14] Completed in 1995, the memorial stands approximately 6 feet high, 4-1/2 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. The inscription reads:

Hurricane Camille

struck central Virginia in August

1969, and many Nelson County people

lost their lives and homes.

Communities situated on riverbanks

such as Massie’s Mill on the Tye

river were hardest hit. This park is/dedicated to their memory.

“In a touch of Nature, the whole world is Kin.”

John Muir, Sierra Club founder signed Robert Bricken.


The large expanses of undeveloped mountain terrain, including national and state forest, and federally-designated wilderness areas provide a haven for wildlife, as do the hedgerows, woodlots, grasslands, and water resources of the eastern lowlands of the Nelson Scenic Loop area. Within the George Washington National Forest, for example, there are approximately fifty-five mammal species and seventy species of reptiles and amphibians alone. Visitors are most likely to see white-tailed deer, raccoons, fox, an occasional black bear, turtles, and snakes, including the poisonous copperhead and timber rattler. A rich diversity of birds throughout the year also graces the region.

Throughout its diversity of habitat the Blue Ridge Parkway provides nesting habitat for northern and southern birds alike. Dozens of other species pass through the parkway on their spring and fall migrations. More than 250 bird species have been observed along the Blue Ridge Parkway. As with plants and other animals, the mountaintops provided refuge for many birds as the glaciers retreated back north. Typically nesting in boreal forests rather than in the southern U.S. these species can be found along the Blue Ridge Parkway’s higher elevations where the plants and habitats are more to their liking. About 20 percent of the Parkway’s breeding birds, including veery, red-breasted nuthatch, black-throated green warbler, golden-crowned kinglet and Canada warbler, are more typically found up north. Some of these, such as northern saw-whet owls, are disjunct populations and may be totally different species than their northern relatives.[15]

Other birding opportunities include the Rockfish Valley Trail along State Route 151 in the South Rockfish Valley. Appropriate for both novices and experts, the trail passes through several habitat areas used by year-round residents and migrating species. Novice birders can expect to see 20 or more species during a two hour walk, and experts may see 40 to 50 species or more, especially during spring and autumn migration. At this time, there are four sections of the trail that are open for birding. To date, 174 species have been observed along the trail, which is included in the Thomas Jefferson Loop portion of a state-wide birding trail network.

Currently, scientists are witnessing a dramatic decline in amphibian populations. National Park Service biologists affiliated with the Blue Ridge Parkway are working with local researchers and other land managers to determine ways to help the amphibian populations. Cattle are being fenced out of wetlands on parkway agricultural leases. Trees cut under the hazard tree program are left lying in the woods to provide habitat rather than being hauled away. Parkway biologists are looking at disturbed wetland sites to determine if any can be restored and the return of beavers to the Southern Appalachians will provide additional amphibian sites.[16]

As noted above, native brook trout, as well as stocked rainbow and brown trout are present within the Tye and South Rockfish Rivers along the Loop. A man-made lake near Tyro provides opportunities for fishing in a more controlled environment. Troutlets (also known as troutlings or fry) used for stocking the area’s local streams are raised at the Montebello Fish Hatchery, also located along the Loop.


Thomas Jefferson Loop

The Thomas Jefferson Loop is a component of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. It is primarily a driving tour that extends between Charlottesville and Crozet in Albemarle County and several communities in Nelson County, including the Tye River along the State Route 56 segment of the Nelson Scenic Loop. The Thomas Jefferson Loop links several local hiking trails that offer unique wildlife and birding opportunities. The trails occur in association with six designated stops. Three of the stops occur along the Nelson Scenic Loop: the Montebello Area along State Route 56, Royal Oaks near Love, Virginia, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Spruce Creek Park along State Route 151.

Notable features of these four stops include:

Stop 5: Spruce Creek Park/Camille Memorial Park, Thomas Jefferson Loop

Four miles of trails follow the South Rockfish River and Reid’s Creek on a farm surrounding the confluence. More than 170 birds have been identified within view of the trail and the wide range of habitats that occur along its length. Currently open for hiking only, the trails are surfaced with combinations of mown grass and hard-packed earth, and have a relatively level grade throughout. At an elevation of 734 feet above mean sea level, the trails along the South Rockfish River valley are surrounded by spectacular mountain views. Parking is located at Spruce Creek Park, and on the southwest side of the State Route 151 bridge over the river at Camille Memorial Park. The trails are open from sunrise to sunset.

Look for swallowtail and monarch butterflies as they continue their ageless migration north and south. Along the creek, watch and listen for Acadian flycatchers singing and indigo buntings, and at certain times of the year, white-eyed vireo. As you move out along the trail to the woods, listen for eastern wood-peewee, red and white-breasted nuthatches, and a host of woodpeckers. During winter months, yellow-bellied sapsuckers may be numerous here. Along sections of the South Fork of the Rockfish River, watch for herons fishing the cool mountain waters. Don’t be surprised if you see an eagle or osprey also flying by overhead during the late summer and early fall. If you are here in the early morning or about dusk keep your eyes open for deer, black bear, or an elusive bobcat passing through. All three have been seen on a regular basis in the area. During the spring months, listen in the wetter areas of the forest for the sounds of gray tree frogs, American toads, spring peepers and a host of other resident amphibians. Within the more open grassy areas, watch for northern harrier and loggerhead shrike hunting the fields. Eastern bluebird, eastern meadowlark and a variety of other grassland birds also occur here.[17]

While in the region, travel to the Wintergreen Resort and pay a visit to the Wintergreen Nature Foundation’s extensive offerings. Begin your visit at the Trillium House, a nature/visitor’s center. The site is also part of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. Approximately 6000 acres of this land remains as open, undeveloped forest with over 30 miles of hiking trails and scenic vistas. High elevations are conducive to attracting nesting neotropical migrants such as the scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak and black-throated blue warbler. The woodlands are alive with bird song in the spring and early summer, with an occasional call of veery echoing through the forest. In winter, look for red crossbill, black-capped chickadee, and red-breasted nuthatch. Black bear and bobcat can sometimes be seen late in the evenings or early in the mornings. Blue Ridge two-lined and northern dusky salamanders may be found beneath rocks and logs in moist woodland floors or along the creeks.[18]

Stop 6: Montebello Area, Thomas Jefferson Loop

At an elevation of 2,752 feet above mean sea level, the Montebello area features relatively level plateaus in close proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountain escarpment.  The Montebello area is a great place to view a wide variety of wildlife. For example, butterflies and hummingbirds frequent the area around the recycling center, you can see trout in the raceways at the hatchery, and a variety of warblers, including some high altitude ones can be found on the trail to Spy Rock.

The area is also rich in salamander diversity. If you pick up rocks and logs to look for salamanders, remember to place them back gently and enjoy the view without handling them. Bear may be seen anytime, especially in the spring and summer.

Birds regularly observed within this area include a variety of woodpeckers and flycatchers, and wood or hermit thrushes depending on the season. The hike to Spy Rock is a great place to see a host of warblers such as, black-throated green, yellow, and chestnut sided warblers. This is also a good place to see rarer warblers like cerulean and golden-winged.

Nearby in Montebello, across from the store is a public fishing lake where a great blue heron is often seen fishing without paying the fee. An osprey or a bald eagle is not out of the question here either.[19]

Nearby Crabtree Falls, at an elevation of 1,593 feet above mean sea level is an awe-inspiring scenic area whose natural beauty is sure to impress any visitor. The naturalist will enjoy hearing the cries of resident red-shouldered hawks or the evening serenades of great horned and barred owls. In the summer, Louisiana waterthrush can be found hopping along rock beds that line the water. Yellow-billed cuckoo and American redstart also breed here. The dazzling ebony jewelwing, black-winged damselfly with an electrifying metallic blue-green body line the edges of the water, and can also be found along woodlands edges or along the moist ravine banks.

Stop 7: Royal Oaks at Love, Thomas Jefferson Loop

Royal Oaks, situated at an elevation of 2,727 feet above mean sea level, falls within the community of Love, Virginia, along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Royal Oaks is a resort that features cabins and a country store, and a walking trail through a grove of hardwood forest filled with birds associated with the Blue Ridge. Visitors can search for eastern wood-pewee, white-breasted nuthatch, red-eyed vireo, wood thrush, black-and-white, hooded and worm-eating warblers, scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, and eastern towhee. The open area around the cabins can provide views of migrating raptors—sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, red-tailed, and broad-winged hawks, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles. The wildflowers in the area attract a variety of butterflies including pipevine, black and spicebush swallowtails, great spangled fritillary, red-spotted purple and eastern tailed blue. Other wildlife to look for around the property includes white-tailed deer, red fox, bobcat, and the occasional black bear. Timber rattlesnakes are also reportedly common in the area.

Additional sources:

[1] Keith Frye, Roadside Geology (Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1986), 117.

[2] Ibid, 118.

[3] Ibid, 119.










[13] A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement not to develop part of a property, but to leave it “natural” permanently or for a specified long period of time. The property still belongs to the landowner, but restrictions are placed both on the current landowner and on subsequent landowners.







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