White Oak Canyon
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- Solitude – 0. 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.