For many people, hiking in Virginia means exploring the wonderful section of the Appalachian Trail that runs through Shenandoah National Park. What they may not realize is that there are rugged, waterfall filled gorges to explore if you are willing to work for it. My favorite for a fairly strenuous day hike is the Whiteoak Canyon – Cedar Run Loop.
The entire loop is between 8 and 9 miles with a healthy vertical of nearly 2,500 feet that will get your heart pumping. It follows two impressive gorges with 9 waterfalls ranging from 35 feet to just shy of 90 feet. The trail can be steep but is generally in decent shape. However, on a rainy day it can be tricky and you are likely to end up on your rear-end a few times. Spring is the best time for good water flow but a few days after a good rain works too.
There are many different starting points for this hike, but my favorite is to start at the parking area near mile post 43. From there, it’s a short walk to the Whiteoak Canyon Trail (WOCT) and the true beginning of our hike. Continue on the WOCT until you see the White Oak Fire Road and horse trail on your right. Our route continues down the WOCT. Just below this junction the waterfalls begin and the pitch steepens a bit. You need to use spur trails to see some of the falls but they are obvious. The falls are all scenic and worth a look. After the three upper falls you will come to a less steep section and then the three lower falls. From there continue down the gorge and take the Cedar Run Link trail to the Cedar Run trail. There is a trail to the Whiteoak Canyon parking area at the bottom. Don’t be confused, this goes to a lower parking area, not the trailhead on the ridge.
From there it’s consistently uphill past two major falls. The Cedar Run trail isn’t as steep as the WOCT so the walking is tiring, but manageable. When you reach the Hawksbill Gap parking area, take the Appalachian Trail north to complete the loop. After the steep climb, the AT is a cake walk through scenic woods and it gives you a chance to loosen up before returning to your car.
An alternate route back to the parking area is to walk along the road for a short distance to the Crescent Rock Overlook and take the Crescent Rock Trail. A few years ago I was using this alternate route I saw my first and only eastern diamondback rattlesnake. The grass was pretty high on either side of the trail so the path was quite narrow. About 5 feet ahead of me I saw what looked like a thick branch across the trail. As I prepared to step over, it moved. Needless too say, I jumped back about 10 feet in one leap and watched. Sure enough, it was a large rattlesnake with obvious markings. After giving it plenty of time to be on its way, I continued down the trail but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were snakes lurking at every step. I have had close encounters with bears, bison, scorpions and many other critters that could cause some serious hurt without any hint of fear, but for some reason this one messed with my head. I was never so relieved to get out of high grass in my life!
The Whiteoak Canyon – Cedar Run loop provides a great outdoor adventure that is easily accessible. It is much more rugged than you might expect in this part of the country. I recommend it highly.