The Whiteoak Canyon – Cedar Run Loop is an amazing hike in Shenandoah National Park and a great day trip for any Washingtonian looking for a weekend adventure.
Shenandoah National Park is the closest national park to our home, and yet we have not devoted the time to explore it as thoroughly as we could. The park is best known for Skyline Drive, the 105 mile road which runs along the park’s mountainous ridge and provides beautiful vistas. In the past, we have driven lengths of Skyline Drive, stopping for small hikes or to camp in one of the park’s campgrounds.
However, our favorite park hike, Old Rag, isn’t accessed from Skyline Drive but sits almost outside of the park. Therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Whiteoak Canyon – Cedar Run Loop, also accessed from the park outskirts, provides an amazing day-long trek which follows streams and passes more waterfalls than you can count. The trail is just under 9 miles long and has an elevation gain (and descent) of 2200 feet.
Sunday, October 2, 2016
We set out early in the morning with sandwiches for lunch and rain gear in our backpacks. The drive to the park took almost two hours. Although the Whiteoak Canyon – Cedar Run loop can be accessed from Skyline Drive (mile 42.60), we decided to drive to the parking area near Syria, VA and hike from the bottom up. There is a ranger booth in the parking area and the cost to enter the park is $20 (lasts for 7 days). The ranger also gave us a trail map and recommended that we hike the loop starting with the Cedar Run Trail and coming down the Whiteoak Canyon Trail.
We had only gone steps when we reached the first river crossing. Rain over the previous few days had driven up the water levels, but the first crossing was on a nice bridge.
The hike followed the Cedar Run creek for 2.5 miles. The trail is steep which meant it was slow going, but it also meant that the creek formed waterfalls throughout the length of the trail. In several locations there are river crossings. None of the remaining crossings along Cedar Run were bridged, and the high water level made two crossings very difficult. At one crossing, hikers traveling in the other direction decided to turn back instead of working their way across the high water. Luckily, we were able to successfully traverse the creek using partially submerged rocks and fallen trees without getting wet.
At the top of Cedar Run, the trail trail begins to flatten and the rocks give way to earth. Skyline drive is close enough you can hear it, but we bypassed Skyline Drive by taking a horse trail to the Whiteoak Fire Road. The fire road is approximately 1.6 miles. The horse trail and fire road provide a nice break from the rocky steep trail, but they also don’t offer much as far as views go.
At the end of the fire road is Upper Whiteoak Falls. You can ford the river, or a short detour will take you to a footbridge. There are three viewpoints at Upper Whiteoak Falls. The second viewpoint was the perfect lunch spot for us and a number of other hikers.
Pressed for time, we made the 2 mile descent on the Whiteoak Canyon Trail as smoothly as we could. The falls we passed on the Whiteoak Canyon Trail were much larger than those along Cedar Run. Once again there were several river crossings. One crossing had a large back-up of people. Most hikers were opting to take off their shoes and wade into cold, knee high water to cross. Others took their chance balancing on stones with 1 inch of water rushing over them. We saw a dog brave the current by driving onto the first rock to follow his owners.
We ended our almost 9-mile hike 7 hours after starting. The rigorous elevation change, damp conditions, and photograph opportunities slowed us down a bit. Overall it was a strenuous hike with some technical river crosses that we enjoyed. The chance to walk along beautiful waterfalls for miles was also an enjoyable change from most of our hikes. You can bet we’ll be back to hike the Whiteoak Canyon – Cedar Run loop again!