Travel to the Cascades of southwest Virginia

The Cascades drop 66 feet on Little Stony Creek in the Cascades Recreation Area of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in southwest Virginia. The area is near Pembroke, Virginia. (Bob Downing/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT / April 18, 2011)

PEMBROKE, Va. — It is an impressive waterfall hidden deep in an Appalachian gorge.

The Cascades drop 66 feet on Little Stony Creek in the Cascades Recreation Area of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in southwestern Virginia.

There's only one way to get to the photogenic falls: hike. It is an easy two-mile one-way hike along the gurgling stream that begins on Salt Pond Mountain and drains to the New River.

Hiking the Cascades National Recreation Trail was my way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act that greatly expanded the U.S. Forest Service. It was also a good way to celebrate the United Nations' International Year of the Forest.

In 1911 President William Howard Taft signed the Weeks Act, allowing the government to spend federal funds for conservation for the first time. It was named after Republican Congressman John Weeks of Massachusetts, who led the fight.

The act initially provided $9 million to purchase 6 million acres in the eastern United States. In the last 100 years, it has led to the formation of 52 national forests in 26 Eastern states and the addition of 19.7 million acres of national forests and grasslands in 41 states and Puerto Rico.

"The Weeks Act is one of the most significant natural resource conservation achievements of the 20th century," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on the anniversary.

"This act reminds us of the importance of past conservation efforts that shape our ability to sustain our national forests today and to keep them healthy for the future. The Weeks Act has given us significant economic and environmental benefits, but it's done more than that. The Weeks Act ensures that all Americans have access to some of the most beautiful places in our country."

More than 800 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail wind through national forests created because of the Weeks Act.

The first new national forest was the Pisgah in North Carolina in 1916. The most recent were the Uwharrie in North Carolina and the Delta in Mississippi, both in 1961.

The smallest is the 50,000-acre Uwharrie. The largest is the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, that together cover nearly 1.8 million acres.

Today, the Forest Service oversees 155 national forests and 20 grasslands that total 193 million acres.

Most easily accessible from the Akron area are the 500,000-acre Allegheny in northwestern Pennsylvania, the 919,000-acre Monongahela in West Virginia and the 226,000-acre Wayne in southern Ohio.

The George Washington was established in 1918; the Jefferson, in 1936. Together they stretch into West Virginia and Kentucky, but most of the acreage is in western Virginia. They are separate entities managed as one unit by the forest service. They offer 2,000 miles of hiking trails.

Two of my favorite spots in the George Washington and Jefferson national forests are the Virginia Creeper Trail near Damascus, Va., and the Ramsey's Draft Wilderness west of Staunton, Va.

The Virginia Creeper is a downhill bike ride of 34 miles along a former rail line in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Outfitters will transport you to the top and you can pedal from Whitetop Station through Damascus to Abington, where the trail ends.

The trail drops 1,500 feet with grades of up to 6 percent. It opened in 1978 along the old Virginia-Carolina Railroad bed. For information, call 276-783-5196. For bike operators, check out

The Ramsey's Draft Wilderness is a wild tract with some of Virginia's oldest and biggest trees. The hemlocks, white pines and hardwoods are up to 300 years old, 120 feet high and cover 1,800 acres.

The Draft, as it is called, offers some of the best wilderness hiking in the East. The 6,500-acre mountain valley is off U.S. 250, about 20 miles west of Staunton.