Investigating Shenandoah

A few weeks ago I decided to go explore an area of Shenandoah National Park I had never been to before, Whiteoak Canyon and Cedar Run.  I decided to take two existing trails and create my own loop that would allow me to get back to my car without having to do any backtracking.  A map of the area I hiked is here.  I drove into the park and parked at the Hawksbill Gap lot.  Parking there would allow me to hike down the Whiteoak Canyon trail, cut over to Cedar Run, and then head up Cedar Run trail back to Hawksbill Gap.

It was a little chilly but a clear day.  I started out from the trailhead at 10:35 AM (I’m listing times and mileage so you have an idea how long it took me to do each section in case you want to try this out).  I was taking a section of the Appalachian Trail to begin that would follow the road back towards the Whiteoak Canyon trail.  One day I’d love to hike the whole AT, but for now I take the one mile chunks I can.

The trail started to the right of the main trail (which goes up to Hawksbill summit).  This section of the AT was pretty rocky and it was slightly uphill, but it gave you a nice view of Hawksbill Summit and the valley down below.  After about a mile there was a steep ascent to the Cresent Rock Overlook that got the blood flowing.  Unfortunately the overlook was closed for construction, which meant I had to climb over some orange fencing to get across the overlook.  A bunch of the overlooks were closed for construction with signs saying “Your stimulus dollars at work.”  Hopefully, there’s enough money to actually refinish the overlooks.

A quick cross of the road and I was on the Cresent Rock Trail at 10:57.  Next up was a 1.1 mile relatively flat trail.  This section is pretty easy and makes it way through the woods without much in the way of views.  The trail was pretty well covered in fallen leaves which made for a nice walk.  I didn’t see anyone on this section at all (or on the AT).

The Cresent Rock Trail ends at the Limberlost Trail.  I made it to the junction at 11:20.  Limberlost is a short loop that is a crushed gravel path with lots of benches if you’re tired.  I only needed to go on part of the loop (.4 miles) before I would hit the main attraction, Whiteoak Canyon Trail.  Turning right onto Limberlost I was at the Whiteoak trail intersection by 11:28.  Not much to see on Limberlost, though for the first time, a small stream trickled to my right.

That stream got gradually bigger as I began to descend the Whiteoak Canyon Trail, which I would descend for 3.6 miles.  The sun was now out and the sun was sparkling on the clear water.  I ran into the first people I’d seen since beginning, coming up the trail.  The trail soon crossed over the stream and it soon joined forces with another stream to create a bigger waterway that was now on my left.  This relatively calm stream would create some spectacular waterfalls further downtrail.  I scrambled off-trail at one point to check out a pool that had been created by a large fallen tree.  I was able to get down right on top of the tree and took a few pictures of the pool at eye-level.

Continuing my descent, I came to the first fall of the Upper Falls.  It was now 12:12 and I’d traveled 1.4 miles down.  There was a large group hanging out at the falls, so I continued on to an overlook located a little bit further down the trail.  I took the picture at the top of this post there.  It was an impressive waterfall, I couldn’t even capture the whole thing in that picture.  I took a short break for a snack and to take off my long-sleeve layer as the sun was warming up the valley.  After chatting with some backpackers coming up the trail, I set off again.  The trail descended pretty steeply now and I was running across more people going up, and a lot of them were resting.  I don’t blame them, this was a tough climb and I was happy to be going down.  I soon came to the second fall and third falls of the Upper Falls (around 12:50 to the second fall).  These falls were also larger than I expected and quite captivating.  As I descended, I also got a better perspective of the valley I was in, as the ridges on each side of you became more pronounced.

I made it to the lower falls at 1:30.  These were every bit as interesting as the Upper Falls.  I decided to eat lunch on some rocks by the falls and took some pictures, including the one above of a lone leaf still hanging on, with the falls in the background.  I also decided to take a picture of myself using my tripod and timer.  After setting up the shot, I’d planned on depressing the shutter and then gracefully jump down onto one rock and nimbly spring to another one that would put me next to a small fall.  The flaw in my plan was that I failed to notice the first rock was completely covered in slippery moss, which I totally slipped on and caught myself before falling in.  Water and me just don’t mix when it comes to hiking.

After that little adventure, I planted myself on a rock and enjoyed the waterfalls for a little bit longer.   Then I decided to start making the trek home.  At 2 pm, I hit the Cedar Run link.  You’ll know you are there when you see  a series of large stones on your right crossing the stream.  No real danger of falling here, but you do have to hop from rock to rock.  It reminded me of playing Pitfall as a child, hopping on the alligator heads.  The link is .9 miles and was a gradual ascent.  The path was covered in leaves and fingers of the afternoon sun came through the treetops.  The shot to your left was taken on the link.  At 2:17, the link ended and I was left to cover the 2.7 miles of the Cedar Run Trail.

Pretty soon I came to the first fall along Cedar Run.  It was a nice fall with a deep pool at its base.  Crossing it was a bit tricky, as the “trail” that had been established required you to cross some rocks right at the edge of the pool, as it dropped off at a smaller fall.  Generally, you want to do water crossings at a spot where you have an escape point or time to get out of danger.  A fall here would be bad, but there was enough dry rocks to make it not too hairy.  After that, it was pretty much up the entire way and really steep at some points.  There were some nice smaller falls along the way but I was concentrating so much on the climb that I probably didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have.  I ran into a few people coming down, but no one else was heading up.  While it was steep, I don’t think it was any steeper than the Whiteoak Canyon trail would have been if I’d flipped the loop, and it was shorter.

I was definitely getting that “come on, where’s the trailhead” feeling when I finally heard the sound of cars in the distance and I emerged at 3:58 to the parking lot I had departed from roughly 5.5 hours ago.   All in all, the loop was about 10 miles long.  Definitely not for beginners, but anyone in moderately good shape can do this loop.  And if you aren’t too tired, you could cross the road again and take the 1.7 mile round-trip to the top of Hawksbill Summit and watch the sun set.  Having just done a sunset hike a few weeks ago, I decided to pass this time.  Tired but satisfied, I got one last treat as a full moon was out while it was still light, the cherry on top of the beautiful scenery of the surrounding mountains.

Happy hiking!


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