Nelson Scenic Loop – Natural History

The Nelson Scenic Loop generally spans the Blue Ridge physiographic province, one of Virginia’s five regions defined by a combination of geology and topography. Although the eastern section of the loop shares many topographic characteristics with the adjacent Piedmont, the geology of coarse grained igneous and metamorphic Grenville basement rocks is consistent throughout. The Blue Ridge province includes both the Blue Ridge Mountains and a strip of land to the east that extends to Charlottesville, Culpepper, and Warrenton. However, the landscape east of the Blue Ridge escarpment is more characteristic of the rolling terrain of the Piedmont.

Virginia’s five provinces include: the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Allegheny. While the eastern part of the state is relatively flat, west of Richmond, the ground begins to take on a rolling appearance. Along the western margin of Nelson County is the sudden rise of the Blue Ridge escarpment. Each of these areas is underlain by a distinct geology. To the east, the region is called the Coastal Plain. The geology is comprised primarily of unconsolidated materials deposited through erosional processes. The rolling terrain and highlands area that extends through Central Virginia is known as the Piedmont, underlain by metamorphic rocks. The junction or transition between the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont is known as the fall line, where harder rocks edge the unconsolidated deposits. Water courses extending over the hard rocks generally plunge toward the Coastal Plain, forming waterways. The transition marks the end to navigation by large ships. Historically, many towns, including Richmond and Petersburg, formed along the fall line to take advantage of shipping opportunities as well as the hydroelectric power of the falls. Several major transportation corridors, such as Interstate 95 and the Atlantic, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad line follow the fall line.

The Blue Ridge physiographic province encompasses the steeply sloped escarpment along Nelson’s western margin, underlain by very durable igneous and metamorphic rocks, including gneiss and granite. The mountains formed more than 400 million years ago through uplifting of the North American tectonic plate, and 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. West of the Blue Ridge is the Ridge and Valley province, recognizable primarily as the Shenandoah Valley. Finally, the far western margin of the state falls within the Allegheny Mountain province. In the vicinity of the Nelson Scenic Loop, the rocks associated with both the Blue Ridge and Piedmont physiographic provinces are underlain by crystalline rocks. Some geologists would include the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge as far east as Charlottesville in the same province given that the underlying geology is similar.




Geologically, the Blue Ridge province is a large, eroded anticline overturned to the west. The rocks that form the Blue Ridge are theoldest in the state at 1.1 billion years. In evidence along the Blue Ridge Parkway are several rock types, 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 the north of the Nelson Scenic Loop along the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile post 8.8, 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 are derived of metamorphosed basalt flows, while others arose from volcanic ash falls.[2]

Another area of interest along the Blue Ridge Parkway occurs just south 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 the Priest can be seen to the east.

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

DePriest Mountain

DePriest Mountain is located in The 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 DePriest. The Appalachian Trail can be accessed either at Reid’s Gap or along the Tye River. (See Trails section.) 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 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 the Priest. 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 DePriest 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 Trails section.)

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 section.)

Plant Communities

The highlands associated with the Nelson Scenic Loop fall 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. Within the George Washington National Forest, more than forty tree species have been identified, along with some 2,000 species of shrubs and herbaceous plants. While hardwood dominants are the most prevalent, there are also areas of coniferous stands. The drier and more exposed sites are typically characterized by oak-hickory forests, while the moist, protected stream valleys and coves are associated with mixed hardwoods and frequently 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 the wooly adelgid. Loss of the hemlocks, like the American chestnut 100 years ago to a fungus introduced from Asia, will have a tremendous impact on local forests. One of the other non-native pests of concern within the region is the gypsy moth caterpillar, which favors oak leaves for its diet.

Because much of the region has been logged and farmed since settlement by European-Americans, the existing forests can be viewed as post-agricultural landscape features that are in the process of undergoing secondary succession. Changes in fire management and the introduction of non-native species, some of which can disrupt native plant populations, have served to alter natural ecological processes to varying degrees.

One of the most spectacular components of the local flora is the display of wildflowers in the mountains during spring, summer, and fall.  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.

Another good time to visit the Nelson Scenic Loop is in the fall—particularly the month of October— to witness the exceptional display of  color as the leaves change to many shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple. Due to the higher elevations, trees consistent with those found in New England are more prevalent here, and the fall displays reminiscent of a more northern climate.

The elevational changes, diverse bedrock, and range of microclimates along the Blue Ridge Plateau contribute to the diversity of flora in the region. Along the Nelson Scenic Loop, it is possible to pass through a variety of seasonal conditions, and associated floral displays or fall color conditions, due to the changes in elevation. 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]

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 used 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 (Add Road). The property was donated to the Commonwealth of Virginia 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 Priest, Three Ridges, and St. Mary’s Wilderness Areas. These are described below.

The Priest Wilderness Area

The 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 the 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 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.

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.[13] 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. In all, 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 in the 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.[14]

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.[15]

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

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.[16]

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.[17]

Stop 6: Montebello Area

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.[18]

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

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.


[5] [5]