Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Cedar Run and White Oak Canyon Loop SNP

If it were a picture-perfect late spring day, which would you choose?  (a) Going into work, sitting in your little cube all day answering emails, trying to meet deadlines, and going to meetings, or (b) Taking a hike in the mountains along beautiful streams, seeing interesting wildlife, and getting your butt kicked on the steady, relentless, uphill hike out?  If (b) is not a no-brainer, then please review the choices again!

I had last Friday off, and I choose (b) - without hesitation!  I selected a hike that I had done about 18 years ago and not since, the Cedar Run - White Oak Canyon circuit hike in Shenandoah National Park.  It was an absolutely perfect day.  How perfect?  Well, the normal hazy conditions up in the Blue Ridge were not in evidence.  I took this photo from the Skyline Drive, because I knew I would not have many views on the hike, and you can see how clear it is - click the photo to see an enhanced view:
I remembered a couple of things from taking this hike back in the 1990's: the streams were beautiful, and the hike out is a bear!  And I remembered correctly.  I was very tired at the end, and came out with the realization that I need to work out more.  But I had a great day, hiking along cascade after cascade and seeing wildlife.  Before I even got to the trail head, I saw five deer and a pileated woodpecker flew across the road at practically windshield level.  But the best wildlife sighting of the entire day (and maybe for the entire year to come) was this on the Skyline Drive.  And the wildlife sightings continued on the hike - within the first mile, I got a great look at this creature.  And I had a baby snake - either a rattlesnake or a copperhead - strike at my foot before it squirmed under a rock before I could nab a photo.

You can tell that this is a tough hike by looking at the topographical map of the day, and at the elevation profile.  The track for the hike is the circular route on the left.  I hiked counter-clockwise (anti-clockwise as they say in Scotland).  The track to the upper right is from my Robertson Mountain hike last year, and Old Rag is also near by.  I descended on the Cedar Run Trail, climbed out on the White Oak Canyon Trail, and shortened my original plans by 1.5 miles by hiking back to the car on an old fire road.

Yeah, the elevation profile does not lie!  You will know that you have quads at the end of this hike.  And if you don't have quads, you will spend the night on the trail whimpering until you feel strong enough to finish hiking out.  In 8.8 miles of hiking, there were very few level sections.  Mile 4-5, where you connect from the Cedar Run Trail to the White Oak Canyon Trail, is fairly level.  And the last half mile is more or less level.  Total elevation loss and gain is about 3,300 feet, and from the low to the high point is a difference of about 2,200 feet.
The dominant colors on this hike are green (the forest) and blue (the water).  I was hiking along one stream or another for about five miles of the hike.  I loved the sounds the streams make as they dropped on their way to the Chesapeake Bay.  But I also liked the chance, when away from them, to listen to the calls of forest birds - wood thrush, Eastern wood peewee, and oven birds were much in evidence, along with many others.  This is near the start of the hike, quiet Appalachian woodlands before I reached the beginnings of Cedar Run.

It was very clear that a bear was grocery shopping here.  I didn't see any bears while hiking, but you might want to check out the wildlife sightings referenced earlier in this post!

I'd forgotten what a gorgeous stream Cedar Run is.  It does not have the dramatic falls that White Oak Canyon has.  But it has a seemingly infinite variety of small cascades.  Here are three examples: water flowing over a rock face,

a natural water slide into a refreshing pool,

and two small waterfalls, one above the other.  Because of all the water, I only carried a one liter bottle and used my filter twice to refill it.  This kept my day pack weight to 16 pounds, and I could easily have lightened that by leaving emergency gear, fleece, and rain jacket behind.  None of that was needed, but do you think I would have felt foolish (and cold) if I had sprained an ankle and ended up spending a night alone in the woods without any gear like that?

The Cedar Run Trail is mostly steep, rough, and rocky.  You can see a typical section here.  As tough as the hike up White Oak Canyon is, I think it would have been even tougher to hike out up this trail.  There are very few switchbacks.  It just picks it way up through the rocks.  My trekking poles were invaluable on the descent, saving wear and tear on my knees.  I swear by them!

After the rough and tumble descent, it felt really good to hike for nearly a mile along a quiet forest pathway.  I liked hearing all of the birds.  I saw a number of birds on the hike, but often could not hear them because of the stream.

Soon enough, I came to White Oak Run.  There is easy access to the lower part of this stream from another trail head, so I started seeing lots of people, including some fly fishermen.  It was near this spot that I had the little snake strike at me and vibrate his tail.  Because it was under a rock and quickly disappeared, I could not get a positive ID.  Initially I thought it was a rattlesnake, but now I am thinking copperhead.  Whichever, it was not worth losing a finger or hand to turn the rock over to find it and get a better view.

There were four major falls on the hike up the Canyon.  These next two photos are the two falls that make up Lower White Oak Falls.

After a lot of climbing, I had partial views over White Oak Canyon.

After this, with a lot more climbing, I came on the second big waterfall,

and above that, the water just rushed through chutes like this.

Next, after more climbing, was the third of the four large falls.

I thought I would throw in a close up of the trail track so you can see some of the many switchbacks!  What a work out!

Here is a section of one of the switchbacks, with some nice rock work by the Shenandoah National Park trail crews.  It was kind of like climbing a steep, seemingly endless set of stairs.

Finally, my efforts got me a partial view of the biggest falls of them all, the Upper White Oak Falls.  It is about 90 feet tall and in a very inaccessible part of the canyon.  Vegetation obscured the view somewhat, but it would have been dangerous to try for a clearer view.

It was at this point that I decided to save some time and distance by hiking out on the fire road.  It was still steadily uphill most of the way out, but not as steep and not nearly as uneven as the trails.

I had a great time, but was very tired, and very happy to reach my car!  I still had a 2.5 hour drive home, and that is not easy when you are tired.  This hike was another wake-up call that I need to improve my conditioning, which is decent, but not up to snuff for doing this kind of hike without feeling whipped at the end.  But it is a great hike if you are relatively fit - you can't beat the cascades and falls!


  1. Sounds like quite a adventurous hike but what beautiful surroundings to hike in. Fabulous photos!!!

  2. Yes, a very rugged hike for sure, but so beautiful! And it was such a gorgeous day! I found myself smiling a lot - gasping for oxygen at times, but smiling all the same.