Monday, December 3, 2012

Upper Whiteoak Canyon

Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1
4.8 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevaiton gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The beauty of the plunging waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon make it one of the most famous and popular hikes in all Shenandoah. A visitor favorite since George Pollock started bringing guests from Skyland down to its waterfalls, Whiteoak Canyon is an incredibly scenic gorge on the Robinson River as it tumbles down Stony Man Mountain, with six waterfalls along its way. This post describes the hike down to the base of the first falls in Whiteoak Canyon from Skyline Drive and thus does not go down to the lower five falls in the canyon.

I decided to swing into the park on my way back to school from fall break; I initially thought that I would have to spend the day working out bureaucratic issues for a research project I was doing but after sorting out the situation early in the morning, I decided that I would have time for a hike on my way back to Charlottesville. When I entered the park at Swift Run Gap, I was driving in fog: clouds enveloped the very top of the mountains. I settled on doing Whiteoak Canyon after speaking with a ranger, who convinced me that despite the relatively dry fall, there would be water in the canyon.

Driving north, I weaved in and out of the fog; Lewis Mountain was coated with mist, but Hawksbill was not. I made many stops at overlooks to soak in the foliage, which was beginning to reach peak at the highest elevations. Most notable was a stop at Crescent Rock, where Hawksbill and Nakedtop were coated with glorious colors of maples and hickories.

Hawksbill and Nakedtop from Crescent Rock
I finally made my way to the trailhead, which was at mile 42 of Skyline Drive, on the east side of the road. The trail started at the north end of the fairly large parking area and immediately wound into the forest and began a gradual descent. Not far from the trailhead, I came to a rare spectacle: a large, mature eastern hemlock, not yet taken down by the hemlock wooly adelgid. The hemlock was, as many of the park hemlocks are, stately and magnificent. The area around Skyland once had old-growth forests of immense hemlocks, but most of these hemlocks were devastated by the wooly adelgid that hit the park in the 1990s.

An mature eastern hemlock near the trailhead- extremely rare!
Further down the trail, I passed through an area of dying ferns underneath the golden colors of the forest. In summer, this scene would undoubtedly have been one of a lush green fern forest floor underneath a rich canopy- in the fall, it was a spectacle moving toward the yellow and red end of the color spectrum. The ferns were browning and golding but had not yet withered, and so instead stood as a miniature forest of waving bronze fronds.

Dying ferns in Whiteoak Canyon
The trail here descended gently (the return was an equally gentle ascent) across the forested mountaintop underlay with Catoctin formation basalt. About a half mile in, the trail crossed the Limberlost Trail and the Old Rage Fire Road in quick succession and then entered a hemlock graveyard of sorts. Here were many spots where the canopy was clear: all around stood the withered, white, spiny skeletons of hemlocks, many with nontrivial trunk diameters. This was once a stand of great, old-growth hemlocks and was one of the greatest attractions of the park. In the past three decades, the arrival of the hemlock wooly adelgid killed each of the great hemlocks, one-by-one, until none of the old hemlocks remained. During my hike, a few young hemlocks could be spotted in the forest, but for the most part, this area was a sad reminder of the forest's past. A legend of Limberlost claims that the trees here were only untouched because of Addie Pollock, the wife of George Freeman Pollock, the owner of Skyland Resort. Pollock paid loggers who were about to remove the great trees $10 per hemlock to save the grove. What the loggers spared, however, the pests ravaged most of a century later.

Clearing where the hemlocks of Limberlost once stood
A little bit past the intersection with the Old Rag Fire Road and downhill, the trail came to another intersection with the Limbertlost Loop Trail. This junction had a remarkably interesting feature: two boulders of columnar basalt.

Columnar basalt can be found in a few spots in Shenandoah, but the two most accessible are perhaps at Compton Peak and in Whiteoak Canyon. The formations are only found in areas where the underlying rock is from the Catoctin Formation. The basalt of the Catoctin formation is around some 600 million years old and formed when the supercontinent Rodinia began rifting to form the Iapetus (or proto-Atlantic) Ocean. Rifting caused volcanic activity, creating lava flows in rift valleys that cooled to form basalt. Columnar basalt formed in rapidly cooling lava: during rapid cooling: basalt shrinks as it cools, so in the horizontal direction it begins to fracture and hexagonal columns begin to form. These columns were then exposed in Whiteoak Canyon. It was easy for me to see both the vertical column shapes and the hexagons in the horizontal direction on the boulders by the trail.

Incredible columnar basalt
Past the columnar basalt, the trail passed through more clearings and crossed a creek before beginning a more serious descent along the Robinson River. The next mile and a half consisted of a very beautiful descent along the west side of the river (here, more a stream) as it dropped through pools and small cascades down the slopes of Stony Man Mountain. At many spots, the trail would swing close to the river and I would see pools on the river filled with red maples leaves, in a forest of golden foliage.

Whiteoak Canyon was beyond spectacular
About two miles from the trailhead, the trail crossed the Robinson River by bridge and then began following the east bank of the river. Not long afterward, it passed a junction with the Whiteoak Canyon Fire Road. Here, I could already hear the falling water of the first of the Whiteoak Canyon Falls. Just a little bit futher down the trail, I came to a large rock viewpoint with a view of a rocky gorge with an 80-some-foot tall cascade on the Robinson River. Although the water level was a little low, the scene was still incredibly gorgeous. The falls are the second tallest in the park, after the Big Falls on Overall Run. It was 2.2 miles from the parking lot to this viewpoint.

While at the viewpoint, I met a newlywed couple on their honeymoon in Shenandoah Valley and chatted with them briefly. Otherwise, I didn't have to share the viewpoint with anyone else (although I did run into about 12-15 other people going up or down the trail)- quite surprising, considering this hike is one of Shenandoah's most popular and I was hiking during peak foliage season.

I decided to continue a little further down the trail to the base of the falls. The next stretch of trail was a very steep, staircase descent down into the canyon. At the base of the cliffs that formed the viewpoint, a concrete column marked the spur to the base of the falls. During my hike, a fallen tree blocked part of the path, which was not clearly marked and died out before actually reaching the pool at the base of the falls. However, it was pretty clear how to get to the base of the falls, so I made my way over carefully and sat on a rock near the pool at the base, admiring the Robinson River's drop down the greenstone ledges.
The base of Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1
Most hikers would probably turn back here and return to the parking area. I ended up going slightly further down the trail to another pretty cascade on the river a little ways off of the trail before returning (adding an additional 0.2 miles round trip and 80 feet elevation gain). Some hikers continue further down Whiteoak Canyon, entering the lower canyon with its 5 waterfalls, which are probably more easily accessed from the park boundary in Berry Hollow than from Skyline Drive.

A waterfall on the Robinson River just below the first falls

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