Most people think of Skyline Drive, or the mountains that overlook Shenandoah Valley when they imagine Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. But my favorite hike during a visit in early autumn was the Cedar Run, Whiteoak Circuit that starts at milepost 45.6 on the SD. It’s a brute of a hike, but well worth the effort exerted for the combinations of creeks and streams, waterfalls, deep forest and wildlife. This is one where you might want to consider your physical condition. No matter which direction you go, there is going to be a very long, steep climb. The hike occurred on September 24, 2010 beginning at 9:00AM and finishing at 3:00PM. My brother and I started at the trailhead at the Hawksbill Gap parking area and took the loop in a counter-clockwise direction, first down Cedar Run, the back up Whiteoak Canyon. It is also possible to start at the bottom and go up first. That trailhead is actually outside the national park boundary.
Hike Length: 8.2 miles Hike Duration: 6 hours
Hike Rating: Most difficult, very strenuous Blaze: Blue, yellow
Elevation Gain: 2450 feet Hike Configuration: Loop
Trail Condition: Very rocky, creek crossings Starting Point: Hawksbill Gap Parking
Trail Traffic: We saw only about 10 other hikers on this trail the entire duration, going in both directions. Some started from the top like us, others started at the bottom. There doesn’t seem to be a favored way to do this hike.
How to Get There: The Hawksbill Gap parking area is at mile 45.6 of the Skyline Drive. The trailhead is across the drive from the parking.
View Cedar Run and Whiteoak Canyon Trails, Shenandoah National Park in a larger map
You know when you see a bear in the woods within the first 20 minutes after you start that this isn’t going to be just any ol’ ordinary hike. Why yes, that is a full-size male black bear over there on the other side of the creek. After surveying the safety situation, we decided the creek between us was protection enough, so out came the cameras. The bear was perhaps 100 feet away, and not at all interested in messing with us, fortunately. My adrenaline was definitely rushing now. Right from the beginning, the blue blazed Cedar Run is a down hill hike, significantly down hill. The trail follows, and crosses many times, Cedar Run, a pretty good size creek. In early fall, however, the water is not much more than a trickle. There are a number of large boulder fields along the trail. Many of the boulders are in the creek bed and no doubt make for exciting cascades during spring runoff.
After a mile and a half we came upon a set of falls at Half Mile Cliff on Cedar Run known as The Slide. The park ranger told us before we started that The Slide is a popular destination during spring and early summer for doing just that, sliding. At this time, in late September, there were more leaves in The Slide than water. The scene was a beautiful one, with the creek spilling over the smooth rock and into a pool below, all surrounded by the changing colors of autumn.
Just after the falls, Cedar Run passes through a small gorge, and drops about 40-50 feet into another pool. This area is surrounded by large rocks and deciduous forest. We spent several minutes clambering on and around the rocks looking for better views of the little gorge. By this time we knew we had descended quite a way, which can only mean we had to climb all that way back up. So any opportunity for a break was helpful. Approximately half a mile further is another set of slide-type falls that continue the downward plunge of Cedar Run. Just past that, we crossed the run again and made a sharp left turn on the trail as we neared the bottom. We approached the junction with White Oak Canyon Trail a quarter mile away. There was a nice spot for lunch and another break. At this junction there is a short connector trail right, to the Whiteoak Canyon parking area outside the park boundary, for those who wish to do the hike from bottom to top. You get to it on the Berry Hollow Fire Road.
After getting nourished, it was time to begin the uphill portion of this hike. There are six distinct waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon, divided into the Lower Whiteoak Falls and the Upper Whiteoak Falls. Not long after starting the ascent, the trail crosses a foot bridge over Whiteoak Canyon Run. This is the only bridge crossing, everything else was hop, skip and jump. It was 1.3 miles to the first set of falls in the lower grouping. Along the way, we began hearing the rumble of thunder in the background.
The trail parallels the run on the right of the series of waterfalls. We took a few short side trails that went to the base of each falls. These were nice for those who want to cool off, or take a few pictures. It was another opportunity to take a break, because the next stretch of the hike was the most difficult. From the last of the Lower Falls, it was a little more than half a mile, seemingly straight up, to the first of the Upper Falls. The trail switches back several times to help some, but it was very, very steep. There was a concrete marker indicating a side trail to the base of the first of the Upper Falls. This side trail was no more than 100 yards in length. By this time my lungs and legs were burning.
The trail continued climbing steeply past each of the three falls in the upper series, and as luck would have it, those rumbles of thunder we heard an hour before got really close. It began dumping rain. There was nothing gradual about the rain. It went from nothing to buckets in a hurry. We scrambled to pull the rain gear out of our packs and to look for some semblance of shelter. We did find a large rock to get behind, away from the wind. I have a nice pair of Gore Tex lined hiking boots. I will tell you, though, the Gore Tex doesn’t do much good when it is raining so hard that it fills your boots from the top. I learned a lesson that day. Within a week after I had returned home, I ordered a pair of gaiters. When the rain finally subsided, we were only about a tenth of a mile from the main Upper Falls overlook. This was a stunning view that is in the photo at the top of this post.
There was a bit more climbing to do until we reached the junction with the Bridge Path Trail. At this point we had to cross a wide section of Whiteoak Run. It wasn’t a problem on this day, but there is a foot bridge 50 yards upstream for the seasonal times when the water is too swift. No worry anyway, the boots were still soaked from the rain. On the other side of the creek, the blaze changes to yellow as you are on the Fire Road and Horse Trail. The next mile and a half was a total slog on the fire road with wet boots and tired feet. The saving grace was the beautiful early fall coloring in the forest. The trail forks left at a marker to Big Meadows and is another three quarters of a mile back to the Hawksbill Gap parking area.
The Cedar Run/Whiteoak Circuit is an awesome hike, but definitely tiring. Be sure you have an ample supply of water and nourishment, and that you take plenty of breaks along the way. After we dried out some, we treated ourselves to a hot meal at the Skyland Restaurant, then went out for more adventure on Stony Man Mountain and the good fortune of a beautiful sunset from Spitler Knoll.