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White Oak Canyon

July 5, 2009

White Oak Canyon is one of Shenandoah’s most popular waterfall hikes.  The trail begins directly across Skyline Drive from Skyland Resort.

Upper Falls of White Oak Canyon

The upper falls of White Oak Canyon plunge 86 feet to a pool below.

Christine Says…

Adam and I set out early on Saturday morning to hike the White Oak Canyon trail.  Our primary goal was to avoid the holiday crowds, so we were quite pleased to arrive at 7:30 and find just one other car in the parking lot.

The park is always quiet and beautiful in the early morning.

The park is always quiet and beautiful in the early morning.

The morning was almost chilly – sunny, no humidity and a crisp breeze blowing.  It felt more like mid-May than the Fourth of July.  I don’t know about you, but I always associate the 4th with sultry, hazy, buggy weather.  Since I’m not a fan of typical Virginia summer weather, I thought the conditions were perfect for our hike.  The only thing I wasn’t thrilled about was the bright sun shining up above in the sky.  Sunny weather is great for hiking and enjoying the outdoors, but it complicates opportunities for waterfall and forest photography.  The strong overhead light makes it nearly impossible to properly expose images.  I was kind of bummed about that, but decided I was just going to enjoy the hike and not worry about getting good photos.

This rock formation sits at the junction of the Limberlost and the White Oak Canyon trail.

This rock formation sits at the junction of the Limberlost and the White Oak Canyon trail. Pictured below: the trail junction.

The trail makes its way down from the parking lot, crossing the Limberlost Trail twice.  After leaving the remains of the hemlock forest around Limberlost, the trail quickly descends into White Oak Canyon.  Ship-sized boulders start coming into view as you approach the stream.  The stream starts off as a trickle, but quickly picks up energy as little rivulets of run-off join the flow.  There are many small falls along the stream.  In places, the sheer canyon walls soar upward from the water.  The canyon is a rugged and wild place.

A pool along the White Oak Canyon stream.

A pool along the White Oak Canyon stream. Pictured below: the stream passes through a narrow, rocky slot.

As you approach the upper falls, the sound of running water becomes increasingly audible in the woods.  There are two footbridges to cross before you come to the viewpoint of the upper falls.  This view is beautiful, but with a little extra effort you can reach the base of the waterfall and have an even nicer view.  On warm days, the pool at the base of the falls is a popular swimming spot.

A footbridge across the stream.

A footbridge across the stream.

Luckily, the weather decided to throw a favor my way.  Just as we reached the falls, a large band of clouds passed over the area.  It literally went from crystal clear blue skies to thick overcast in the span of five minutes.  I was able to photograph several spots along the waterfall before the clouds blew out as quickly as they appeared.  I even got knee-deep in the water at one spot to get the composition I wanted.  It was so slimy and slippery, so I used my tripod as a crutch.  I saw lots of brook trout darting in the pool.  They’re so pretty and colorful.  They almost look like autumn leaves swimming in the water.

Cubs on the White Oak Canyon Trail.

Cubs on the White Oak Canyon Trail. Pictured below: another shot of one cub and a view of momma bear's back.

cub_2

On the hike back, I stopped to take a water break.  As I was sitting on a trail-side rock, I noticed a glossy, black shape moving quietly through the woods about 50 feet uphill from the trail.  I mouthed “BEAR!” to Adam.   A moment later, the sow and her two young cubs came into clear view.  We sat and watched the family for about ten minutes.  The momma bear moved parallel to the trail, turning over rocks looking for food.  The cubs bounced along behind her.  When they finally noticed us watching them, the cubs darted up a tree and watched us curiously.  Momma bear glanced up a few times, but mostly continued feeding along the way.  She soon ambled uphill and away from the trail.  With just a quick look over her shoulder, she called the cubs to her.  The cubs slid down the tree and scampered off into the woods with their mother.  Seeing the bears was the highlight of the hike.

As we continued our return trip, we passed dozens of hikers.  When we got back up to the Limberlost, there was even a church group hiking with 40+ members, lawn chairs, musical instruments.  I’m so glad we hiked the trail early and were able to enjoy the solitude.  You really can’t beat having a gorgeous waterfall and a great bear sighting all to yourselves!

Adam Says…

The White Oak Canyon trail is a great hike if you’re into streams and waterfalls.  This hike and Dark Hollow Falls are probably the two most popular trails in all of Shenandoah National Park.  Since this trail is so close to Skyland, it appeals to a lot of people.  There is a reason why the parking lot for this trail is so large.  This was the first time that we had hiked this trail from Skyline Drive.  Typically, we have visited the lower section of falls and approached the hike from State Road 600 near Syria, VA and Graves Mountain.  Going from the lower falls to the upper falls is quite steep, so if you want an easier day hike, I would recommend doing either the hike to the upper falls or the hike to the lower falls (instead of the full 8.2 mile loop).

Upper Falls of White Oak Canyon

Upper Falls of White Oak Canyon

Taking off from the parking lot on Skyline Drive, the trail is very well-traveled and smooth until you start seeing the water to your side.  At .3 miles, you will cross the Limberlost Trail which you could add to your trip if you desire.  The trail then presents more rocky conditions and you do have to watch your feet.  As you hike along the water, you will see several spots to pause and admire the rushing water.  At 2.2 miles, you will reach the top of the Upper Falls.  There is a horse trail that cuts the trail perpendicularly and you will notice the hitch posts for horses on the trail.  The water looks very peaceful here, but it soon rushes down into a deep chasm.

Scenery near the top of the first falls.

Scenery near the top of the first falls.

The viewpoint at 2.4 miles has some great views of the falls from above and the canyon cutting through the forest below.  You will also see some dead hemlocks standing along the gorge.  I can just imagine how magnificent this would have looked with the hemlocks still there.  From the viewpoint, continue on the trail for another .3 miles.  This is a sharp descent, but it will lead to the view from the base of the falls.  You will come to a cement post which lets you know you are .2 miles from the next set of falls.  This is also the marker that states you’ve reached the base of the falls.  I think the park has abandoned an official trail to the pool at the bottom of the Upper Falls, but if you make your way along the rocks heading north from the cement marker, you will shortly come to a “No Camping” sign.  Continue a little further and you will be able to see the impressive falls from the base, which includes the pool where the waterfall plunges.  This is definitely worth taking the time to view.

The pool at the base of the falls is a perfect swimming hole.

The pool at the base of the falls is a perfect swimming hole.

We headed back from this point, since the other falls are not quite as impressive.  This made for about a 5.4 mile hike.  I have a feeling that a lot of people continue to do the whole hike without planning ahead.  There is even a sign at the base of the Upper Falls warning hikers not to overestimate their hiking skills.  Once you pass the upper falls, the continuation of the hike down is quite steep.  The phrase in hiking, “What goes down, must come up” definitely applies here.  The hike back up would be a steady uphill climb that would likely exhaust people who haven’t planned appropriately.

We both enjoyed seeing the momma bear and two cubs frolicking near the trail.  We were able to show/warn two other hikers about the bears presence.   I could tell they really enjoyed the viewing, too.  The bear wisely moved away from the trail, probably sensing that many more hikers were headed in her direction.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – Anywhere from 4.6 to 8.2 miles (we hiked about 5.4 miles)
  • Elevation Change – Around 1200 feet. (2450 if you do the entire 8.2 miles)
  • Difficulty 3.  The route we hiked was moderate.
  • Trail Conditions 4.  The trail is well-traveled and well-maintained.
  • Views –0. No views – the entire hike is down in the woods.
  • Waterfalls/streams 4. One of the park’s nicest waterfall hikes.  If you do the shorter out-and-back, you’ll see one large waterfall and many smaller ones.  If you hike the full loop, there are six waterfalls.
  • Wildlife 4. We saw a bear with her cubs, lots of chipmunks and a rabbit.
  • Ease to Navigate 4.  The trail is easy to follow and marked with blue blazes.
  • Solitude0. Unless you hike this trail very early in the morning, expect to see substantial crowds. It’s one of the most popular hikes in the park.

Directions to trailhead:

Follow Skyline Drive to the Skyland Resort area.  The parking lot for White Oak Canyon is on the east side of the drive between mile markers 42 and 43.  It’s almost directly across the drive from the south entrance to Skyland.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Alan Thompson permalink
    September 26, 2014 1:43 pm

    Does anyone know if there is camping available near the parking area? Thanks, Alan

    • September 26, 2014 6:07 pm

      White Oak Canyon isn’t a very camping friendly area. I don’t remember there being anything near the parking area.

  2. Rich McDonald permalink
    July 12, 2014 2:22 pm

    We did this hike today but could not find the pool at the base of the upper falls. Either we did not go far enough (although we did head down some very steep and narrow section) or did not get off the trail properly. Could you describe how you got to the pool in your picture above? Love your blog by the way as it is very helpful!

    • July 12, 2014 11:07 pm

      Thanks for the visit, Rich! It’s been a long time since we hiked that upper section, so I’m not sure where to redirect you. I guess that’s a good reason for us to get back out and recheck trail conditions sometime soon! :-)

  3. Kristie permalink
    January 22, 2013 7:36 pm

    The way I like to do this hike is from the bottom up–there’s a lower parking lot outside of the park (it’s a bit backroadsy to get there, but between google maps and helpful signs, it’s not too hard to find)–and after a rain storm/snow melt. The lower falls are actually really pretty if there’s been a lot of water and, this way, the hard part comes first.

    (PS: I love this website!)

    • January 23, 2013 11:04 am

      Hi Kristie! We like to hike White Oak from the bottom, too. It’s been years since we’ve done so though (before we even started this website). Maybe we should do that soon. :-) Thanks for the visit.

  4. July 12, 2012 1:14 pm

    We hiked up July 8th and it was awesome! Nice and shady hiking, but water felt great. Lots of places to stop and snap pictures. Only bad part is it is all down hill to the falls and up hill home. I wore water shoes without socks, big mistake! I got lots of blisters! I thought the short hike would be fine with my water shoes, not so. Best to wear hiking shoes and change to water shoes when at the falls. Save energy for return trip as it is up hill. Great hike!

  5. Vicky Blankenship permalink
    September 21, 2010 10:01 pm

    I enjoyed reading your hiking experience at Whiteoak Canyon Falls. My husband and I are planning to take this hike soon. This will be our second hiking experience, the first was hiking Old Rag. I do believe that we will take your advice and only hike the 5.4 miles. As new hikers, I do think the complete 8.2 miles would be too much. Loved your pictures and reading about your hike.

    • September 23, 2010 7:58 pm

      Thanks for visiting, Vicky! I hope when you go, there will be some water running in the streams and waterfalls. We’ve had such a dry summer. If you managed Old Rag, I think the 5.4 mile option on White Oak will be a piece of cake for you.

  6. Alec Harper permalink
    April 20, 2010 1:16 pm

    Fantastic reports, awesome pics! Did this hike up then onto Hawksbill … for an epic day. Love the way you were able to capture the movement of the water and, of course, the bear cubs!!

    A++

    • April 20, 2010 1:33 pm

      Thanks for the visit, Alec! That does sound like an epic day of hiking. You covered everything from waterfalls to panoramic views.

  7. craigproulx permalink
    July 6, 2009 8:24 am

    I had to check out that waterfall! That is pretty high! I bet that water is cold!

    • July 11, 2009 8:49 am

      Surprisingly, the water was very pleasantly cool! If it hadn’t been so slippery, I may have waded around even more.

Trackbacks

  1. National Take a Hike Day: 20 Great American Hikes | Best in Travel News
  2. White Oak Canyon | on the cRoad again

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