Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rocky Mountain/Big Run

Big Run Valley
10.1 miles loop, 2250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, due to elevation gain and multiple river crossings that can be hazardous in high water
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

At Big Run Portal, where the rough, pine-topped sandstone bluffs of Rockytop towered over the swift, freezing water of Big Run and there was no sign of civilization in sight, I almost forgot that I was in Shenandoah National PArk. In reality, I was just a couple hundred meters from the point where Big Run entered the farmland of Shenandoah Valley. But the closest publicly accessible road from there was Skyline Drive, nearly five miles away. I had not seen a single other human being since leaving the parking area. Many hikers consider Shenandoah to be a civilized wilderness, or barely a wilderness at all. A visit to this most remote, most wild part of the park would convince nearly anyone otherwise.

This is a difficult hike. During winter and spring, it requires four difficult and deep stream (river, really) crossings. Anyone who knows the park well enough to want to hike this trail (anyone who's already done Riprap, Robertson, etc.) should find the hike manageable, but I don't recommend it to anyone who hasn't already hiked fairly extensively in the park or in the Blue Ridge.

I hiked this on a January day at the beginning of my final semester at UVA. I was less than a week removed from my time volunteering in the Big Bend of Texas; just a week before, I had hiked Emory Peak, the park's highest peak, in about six inches of snow. I had returned from rain and snow in the desert to rain in Charlottesville and snow in the Blue Ridge. Friday, Skyline Drive was closed; but Saturday, as the snow melted, the drive opened. I got a late start and didn't get from Charlottesville to Mile 77 of Skyline Drive until about 11 AM. Along the way, I passed by beautiful views of the snow-covered Blue Ridge at Turk Mountain Overlook. I also found occasional patches of snow still on the drive itself, making driving slower and a little tricky.

Winter view south to the Priest and Maintop from Turk Mountain Overlook
I parked at the Brown Mountain Overlook, where I looked across a saddle to the cliffs and outcrops of Rocky Mountain. To the left of Rocky Mountain was a wide, deep valley, bound on the other end by Rockytop. The peaks here had escaped most of the snow, so they remained clad in the typical brown attire of a Blue Ridge winter day. I started on the hike on the trail leading downhill from the overlook. This trail quickly cut to the north as it passed through the clearing underneath the overlook. For a short while, I could see views north towards Rocky Mount. I also realized that although this part of the park had escaped most of the snow, it hadn't escaped the cold: the ground was crunchy from the thick needle ice formations in the soil.

The beginning of the hike, at Brown Mountain Overlook
Needle ice!
The trail descended for about 0.7 miles from the overlook down to a saddle between the Blue Ridge crest and Rocky Mountain. Here, the trail split off, with the left fork leading downhill towards Rocky Mountain Run and the right fork heading up Rocky Mountain itself. I took the right, leaving the other trail as my return path. This trail made a gentle uphill along the north side of Rocky Mountain, occasionally cutting through areas of mountain laurel.

Brown Mountain Trail
The trail broke into its first major viewpoint about a mile and a half in. As the trail headed south along Rocky Mountain, it very suddenly emerged into a series of white Erwin sandstone outcrops. The principal summit of Rocky Mountain was directly ahead; to its left were the endless folded ridges of the Big Run Valley, with the summit of Trayfoot, Blackrock, Cedar, and Big Flat poking out. The line of outcrops continued even when the trail turned right, forming almost a prow-like protrusion over the Big Run Valley that invited scrambling.

View from Rocky Mountain
Over the next quarter mile, there were occasional views to the west as the trail passed through fairly low-lying vegetation. I was able to see the summit of Rockytop poking above my surroundings; I could also see the southern tip of Massanutten towering over Shenandoah Valley.

View from Rocky Mountain
The trail reentered the forest as it approached the summit of Rocky Mountain. Most of the hike was fairly flat as the trail stayed just below the main ridge of the peak. The trail continued this way over towards Brown Mountain; there were no views from the trail. However, at multiple points, when I could see white rocks and blue sky just beyond the forest at the top of the ridge, I would go off-trail and make my way over to the rocks. Sometimes, there was just more forest on the other side; but three times, these bushwhacking excursions led to huge outcrops or talus slopes with phenomenal views up the Big Run Valley. Henry Heatwole, author of the Guide to Skyline Drive, called this "one of the greatest views in the park." It's certainly up there. At one of these viewpoints, I stood just short of a tower of sandstone, perched over a broken talus of quartzite, looking up the watershed to Trayfoot Mountain and out west into Shenandoah Valley.

View of Rockytop from Rocky Mountain
Big Run Valley from Rocky Mountain
Shenandoah Valley
After passing through the incredible viewpoints on Rocky Mountain, I continued on the fairly flat terrain and arrived at more views on Brown Mountain. Brown Mountain is barely a separate mountain from Rocky Mountain; in fact, I consider it more of a northwest extension of the Rocky Mountain ridge rather than a truly independent peak. While hiking on Brown Mountain, I stopped at a northward view towards Brown Mountain, and made a short off-trail excursion to yet another Big Run Valley and Rockytop view. From Brown Mountain, Rockytop was an impressive spectacle of pines and cliffs. And the most impressive feature was undoubtedly at the foot of Rockytop, where sandstone bluffs closed in on Big Run as the stream made its way out of the hollow into Shenandoah Valley. At times, the trees also broke to the west, bringing limited views of Massanutten Mountain and the Valley.

View of Twomile Ridge and Rocky Mount
Massanutten from Brown Mountain
Rockytop from Brown Mountain
I also found multiple superb examples of Skolithos, or fossilized worm holes, in the sandstone on Brown Mountain. These rocks, over 500 million years old, hold just these faint reminders of life from the white sandy beaches of the Iapetus Ocean during the Cambrian Era.

After passing the summit of Brown Mountain, the trail began a steady descent. In the next mile and a half, the trail dropped a good part of 1500 feet. Along the way, I saw the King and Queen Rocks, two large outcrops on the northern ridge of Brown Mountain that tower over the edge of Shenandoah Valley.

King and Queen Rocks
The end of the descent was fairly steep and brought more views of Shenandoah Valley and Big Run Portal. As the trail approached the Portal, the scenery became progressively wilder. The cliffs on Rockytop, which had seemed so small when first viewed from Rocky Mountain, now appeared much larger and much more impresssive. At times, I felt like I had been transplanted somewhere much farther west, so different was the scenery. After passing through a final clearing near the bottom of the valley, the trail finally finished the descent and came to the Big Run Portal Trail.

Shenandoah Valley from halfway down (or halfway up) Brown Mountain
Big Run Portal
I took a short detour by turning right on the trail and visiting the Big Run Portal Trail's bridge over the stream, before returning to the junction and continuing the clockwise loop by heading upstream along Big Run. About a quarter of a mile past the junction, the trail came to the first stream crossing.

Big Run
Big Run at one of the crossings
I realized then the shortsightedness of my planning for this hike. After a week of rains, Big Run was flowing at a decently high level. This was not a major problem in itself- the water was not so high that it was dangerous to cross- but as soon as I began crossing, I was immediately reminded that much of the water in the run came from snowmelt upstream. It took me a very unpleasant minute to cross the river. After this crossing, I picked up my pace to get back faster: I wanted to get back to someplace warm, and the sun was only an hour and a half from setting (the result of my late departure that morning).

Unfortunately, that cold crossing was only the first of four cold crossings of Big Run. A little over a mile later, after finishing the fourth and final crossing and feeling more than a little cold, I reached the junction with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail. I made quick progress up the trail, which followed the left side of the run before making two easier stream crossings as it climbed higher up.

Rocky Mountain Run
After hurrying up the trail for two miles from the Big Run Portal trail, including a final steep stretch with two switchbacks, I arrived back at Rocky Mountain Saddle and the Brown Mountain Trail. I turned left and finished the hike by returning to my car and turning on the heat. I exited the park by the Swift Run Gap entrance; on my way out, I stopped at Bacon Hollow Overlook to marvel at the colors of dusk over the Blue Ridge.

Dusk at Bacon Hollow Overlook

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Big Run Loop

Mountain Laurel
5.8 miles loop, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The Big Run watershed is the largest in Shenandoah National Park. By the time Big Run leaves the wide bowl bound by Brown Mountain, Rockytop, and Loft Mountain through Big Run Portal, it is minor river; as a sign on Skyline Drive states, an inch of rain in the Big Run watershed is roughly equal to 200 million gallons. The watershed also forms the most remote and wild country in the entire park. While most hikes into the Big Run watershed take a full day or more, the Big Run loop ventures into the edge of this country, following ridges on the watershed's southeastern edge before visiting the upper reaches of the stream. This hike is certainly best in spring, when wildflowers bloom everywhere along the trail. This is a hike for forests, flowers, and a stream; while there are two views on this hike, both of those views are from spots where the hike intersects a Skyline Drive overlook.

This was the last hike that I did in Shenandoah before moving out of Charlottesville. A week and a half after graduation, on a warm late May day, I drove out to the park to visit the overlooks a last time and explore some new stretches of trail I hadn't before. I stopped at every overlook along Skyline Drive between I-64 at Rockfish Gap and the Doyles River Trailhead, fondly remembering the experiences at those overlooks and on each of the ridges and hollows of the South District from the past two years. It took me nearly an hour and a half to travel the 24 or so miles from the entrance up to the trailhead at milepost 81.

Once at the trailhead, I followed the Doyles River Falls trail downhill just a few meters to reach the Appalachian Trail. I turned right to take the AT south. The first mile of trail wound through the forest, paralleling Skyline Drive. There were no views, but the spring forest had many other delights: many different wildflowers added color to the green. The trail was fairly flat, with only occasional elevation gain and loss.

The AT near the Doyles River Trailhead

More wildflowers!
A mile into the hike, I reached the Doyles River Overlook. This paved overlook is slightly set off from the main traffic of Skyline Drive, so it's a bit more quiet than the typical Shenandoah overlook. The AT followed the pavement across the overlook before reentering the woods. I stopped briefly at the overlook to take in the view of Big and Little Flat Mountains and Cedar Mountain on either side of the Doyles River watershed. One corner of Bucks Elbow Mountain peeked out from behind Cedar Mountain, and far off in the distance I could see Charlottesville.

Doyles River Overlook
The AT near Doyles River Overlook
Soon after passing the overlook, the trail intersected Skyline Drive. I crossed the drive and continued hiking until I reached a trail junction with the Big Run Trail, about a half mile past the overlook. I turned right here, continuing the clockwise circuit. The trail began a slight descent on Rockytop Ridge. I encountered a small snake on the trail and saw many beautifully blooming rhododendron. In just over half a mile the trail intersected the Rockytop Trail; I turned right to stay on the Big Run Loop Trail and began a mile and a half descent.

The descent had one partial view through the trees; mostly, it was just forest, with occasional pockets of wildflowers. Once it finished descending, the trail reached the bottom of Big Run's valley. Here, I turned right onto the Big Run Fire Road, which quickly brought me to a crossing of Big Run. Near its headwaters, Big Run may not seem to merit its name: here it was just a trickle, a gentle mountain creek. However, during a rainstorm, water flows in from every cranny of the wide valley, creating a small river in the lower valley. The water was fairly cool, a welcome respite from the warm May weather.

Big Run
After crossing the creek, the trail began climbing out of the valley. All along the previous sections of the hike, I had been keeping an anxious watch for mountain laurel in bloom. The huge bushes of blooming white flowers is one of my favorite sights in the Blue Ridge. I was disappointed again and again though; most of the mountain laurel was on the cusp of blooming, but most had not opened their white petals. However, as I climbed up the Big Run Fire Road, the most amazing sight unfolded before me: as I climbed further, more and more mountain laurel began to appear to the right of the trail, each bush progressively further in bloom.

Mountain laurel in bloom
I took my time enjoying the mountain laurels. It was perhaps the last time in a long time that I'd see their white and pink flowers in the Virginia Blue Ridge. At the end of that week, I moved out of Charlottesville; a few months later, I moved out of my home state of 22 years for the first time.

When I finally tore myself from the mountain laurel, I continued the ascent from the valley. At one point, the trail flattened out on a small ridge. I turned a corner onto the ridge and found a bear with two cubs just fifty feet away from me down the trail. She looked at me curiously for nearly a half minute crashing loudly into the forest with her cubs.

Mamma and cubs on the trail
A final uphill push brought me back to Skyline Drive at Big Run Overlook, about 2.2 miles from Big Run. I looked down the valley to Rockytop, Brown Mountain, and Massanutten, recalling my fond memories from this landscape. I had a difficult time convincing myself to return to my car and return to Charlottesville.

Big Run Overlook
The beauty of this hike was in the little things: the wildflowers of spring, mushrooms, the coolness of a mountain stream, bears, cicada chirps, and the ever-continuing recovery of the Shenandoah forests. In many ways, this hike exemplifies the Shenandoah idea: a park where visitors find joy in the details, in the changes between seasons, in the sighting of rare or familiar wildlife, rather than a park of sublime features that induce jaws to drop. I'm glad that this was my last hike during my time at UVA.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Austin Mountain/Madison Run

Trayfoot and Blackrock
10.5 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Austin Mountain lies in a forgotten corner of the South District of Shenandoah National Park; this hike is an opportunity to catch some rarely-seen views while hiking along a remote ridgeline. I will suggest this hike as a 9.5 mile loop at most times, but with the option of extending it to 10.5 miles without much more elevation gain during days that Skyline Drive is closed due to snow and ice. Doing a loop on the Austin Mountain Trail and the Madison Run Fire Road is rewarding, but when Skyline Drive is closed, it may be interesting to continue up Madison Run Fire Road to Brown's Gap and then a little further to a view on Skyline Drive.

This is not a particularly popular hike; although it has some good views, it is fairly long and lacks the rewards of similar-difficulty trails such as Riprap or Rocky Mountain-Big Run, and the return down the Madison Run Fire Road is a little on the side of boring. However, it's still quite a good hike: the Austin Mountain Trail will usually give a bit of solitude and the fact that the trail starts at the Madison Run entrance means that this hike is accessible even when Skyline Drive is closed. I found this hike to be particularly rewarding when I came on a frosty February day, though some of that delight might be more attributable to the remarkable weather conditions that day rather than the trail itself.

I hiked Austin Mountain on a February day, right after a mild snow. In Charlottesville, it had just rained, but Skyline Drive was closed; so I decided to drive to the other side of the mountains and do this hike, which I had been saving for a snowy day. I took I-64 west out of Charlottesville and got off at exit 99, then took US 250 west to the bottom of the mountain and the intersection with US 340 in Waynesboro. I turned right onto US 340 north and followed it through Dooms and Crimora to Grottoes, where I turned right onto Route 663 at a poorly marked junction where there was a 7-11 on the left of the road. I followed 663 to near its end, a wide gravel parking area just a few hundred feet short of the park boundary. I parked along the road and then followed the gravel road into the park.

The first section of the hike followed the Madison Run Fire Road, running to the left side of the namesake stream. Madison Run is named for John Madison, an uncle of President James Madison, who owned a tract of land in the Shenandoah Valley. The former road passed by a junction with the trail to Furnace Mountain right after entering the park and reached the junction with the Austin Mountain Trail after following the stream about three-quarters of a mile from the park boundary.

Madison Run
I turned left onto the Austin Mountain Trail and immediately began ascending. The climb was fairly steep and the trail very quickly made its way up the south slopes of the mountain. After making a long switchback, the trail started entering rockier and rockier terrian, with occasional mini-talus slopes and less dense tree cover along the trail. Here I found the first views of the hike: I could Furnace Mountain right across the hollow, Trayfoot Mountain higher to the left of Furnace, and a bit of Shenandoah Valley stretching to the right. Both peaks were lightly dusted with snow, a particularly beautiful sight.

Trayfoot and Furnace from a talus slope on Austin
As I hiked further, the trail climbed more and the views improved, with many occasional views across the hollow to Furnace and Trayfoot. About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, I finally reached the snow line on Austin Mountain. While the snow on the mountains opposite the hollow mainly coated the ground, on this side of the hollow, on Austin Mountain, the snow had stayed on the branches. I'm not exactly sure why- perhaps it was due to wind- but this created the most incredible winter fairy-tale landscape I've ever hiked through. Every tree was coated in a fresh layer of snow, every bush had turned into an interlaced network of white fibrils.

Forest coated in snow
This incredible scene only got progressively more wonderous as I hiked onward. Soon, the trees were thinning out at more frequent intervals and I had many more views across the hollow. As the trail began to reach the eastern side of Austin Mountain, new views opened up of the entirety of Dundo Hollow and the peaks surrounding Madison Run's headwaters. The Blue Ridge crest was capped in snow, framed by sugar-coated trees near the trail. Even on a non-snowy day, these views would be quite impressive. The view was dominated by Trayfoot Mountain's pyramidal peak.

Rockytop Ridge from Austin Mountain
Trayfoot Mountain
Then, suddenly, as the trail emerged from the protective south face of Austin Mountain onto the top of the ridge connecting the mountain with Rockytop Ridge, the snow on the trees disappeared. The snow on the ground remained- but here, the branches were bare and brown. A faint wind blowing from the north suggested a culprit for the change in scenery here. The next mile and a half of the hike consisted of a ridge hike that alternated between following the top of the ridge and swinging to the ridge's south side- and thus between bare and snow-encrusted forest- while making a gradually steepening ascent up to Rockytop Ridge. At one point during this ascent, I looked back at Austin Mountain and could see perfectly the divide of the snowed-over trees and the bare trees.

Austin Mountain, coated in snow
At the end of the climb, I reached the Rockytop Trail, at the top of the ridge and about 4 miles from the trailhead. From here, I took the Rockytop Trail to the right and after a fairly flat third of a mile I arrived at a junction with the Big Run Trail. Here, I turned right to take the yellow-blazed Big Run Spur, which descended at a decent clip and soon brought me to the Madison Run Fire Road, about 4.7 miles from the trailhead. This section of trail was fairly nondescript; there were no views and very much forest.

From here, it's possible to turn right on Madison Run Fire Road and descend back to the parking area. I chose to extend my hike by following the fire road an additional three-quarters of a mile uphill to Browns Gap. The wide road made a few large bends while climbing steadily before it brought me to the parking area at Browns Gap, just off of Skyline Drive. Stonewall Jackson made a similar uphill trip on the same road in 1862 when he crossed Browns Gap on the road along Madison Run after his Valley Campaign.

Browns Gap in the snow
From the parking area, I turned right and walked along Skyline Drive for about a fifth of a mile to reach a section of the drive with an open view. I sat on the rock wall on the side of the drive and enjoyed the view of snowy Dundo Hollow as I ate lunch.

View from Skyline Drive just south of Browns Gap
After my lunch, I returned to Browns Gap and then headed back to the trailhead on the Madison Run Fire Road. It was roughly five miles from the gap back to the start point. This distance went fairly fast, though; the road made for a relatively gentle ascent and allowed me to go at a good pace. Along the way, I ran into a few runners making their way up to the gap, the only other humans I saw on the hike that day. I believe the fire road is frequented more on nicer days.

There were a few views of the surrounding mountains on the fire road, but for the most part the road was uneventful. At first the fire road was halfway up the side of Rockytop Ridge, but as it descended it got closer and closer to its namesake stream, until finally, not far from its junction with the Austin Mountain Trail, the fire road and the stream reunited. About an hour and a half after leaving Browns Gap, I arrived back at my car and returned to Charlottesville after an enjoyable winter trip.

View from the Fire Road

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Whiteoak Canyon and Cedar Run

Whiteoak Canyon Falls #6
7.8 miles loop, 2450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous
Access: Per person Shenandoah National Park entrance fee (bring cash), or purchase a Shenandoah National Park annual pass beforehand for small groups

The Whiteoak Canyon and Cedar Run loop is a challenging but extremely popular Shenandoah hike. It visits two of the most scenic stream canyons in the park, both filled with plunging waterfalls and greenstone cliffs. Although the Upper Whiteoak Canyon also visits Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1, these two hikes otherwise overlap very little. This hike can be done starting either at Hawksbill Gap on Skyline Drive or from the Whiteoak Canyon parking off of County Road 600 in Berry Hollow. This description will detail the hike from Berry Hollow, as this was the direction I hiked it and is also the direction I recommend you hike it as it places the uphill first and the downhill later, rather than the other way around.

There are at least six waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon and at least three waterfalls in Cedar Run Canyon; there are also an overabundance of small cascades, falls on side streams, and areas where water simply drips down from rocks. The canyon has many faces in different seasons: in the spring, when the streams are overflowing, there is water dripping down everywhere; in the summer and fall, the canyon is drier but more colorful. Winter is perhaps one of the most interesting seasons to visit. My first visit to Whiteoak Canyon was in a frigid January, when the waterfalls were instead frozen curtains and the cliffs on either side of the canyon formed a cathedral of ice. The two canyons are perched on the southeast slopes of Stony Man and Hawksbill, the two highest peaks in Shenandoah National Park, providing the Robinson River and Cedar Run the requisite elevation difference to create so many waterfalls.

The hike is fairly challenging, as it climbs from the foot of the mountains to a point just short of Skyline Drive near the highest peaks in the park. It requires a few crossings of Cedar Run, some of which may be a little challenging when the water is high.

I did this loop with my family over my winter break, though in this post I'll include some photos from an earlier winter trip to Whiteoak Canyon. We headed out from Fredericksburg early in the morning, taking Route 3 west to US 29 at Culpeper and then taking US 29 south to Madison, where we then switched to Route 231 north. We followed Route 231 to Banco; just past Banco, we turned left onto Country Road 670 and followed that to Syria, where we turned right onto Country Road 643, following the signs for Whiteoak Canyon. A little further on, we took County Road 600 north all the way up to the Whiteoak Canyon Trailhead, which was to the left of the road. We parked in the small parking area and had no company when we set out. There was a little snow on the ground from a storm that lightly dusted the area the previous night.

The hike starts on fairly flat ground. About a tenth of a mile in, after crossing a bridge, the trail splits, with the left turn heading to Cedar Run and the right to Whiteoak Canyon. We turned right to head up Whiteoak Canyon first. The trail then crossed another bridge to reach the right bank of the Robinson River.

Snow along the Robinson River
The next mile and a half of the trail had minimal elevation gain as the trail followed the Robinson River into lower Whiteoak Canyon. We passed the junction with the Cedar Run Link Trail and crossed over the unfortunately named Negro Run (which has waterfalls in its canyon, as well) before coming to the foot of Whiteoak Canyon Falls #6, which is the lowest falls in the canyon and the first encountered on this hike.

Whiteoak Canyon Falls #6, entirely frozen over
During my first visit to this waterfall, it was completely frozen over, with the pool at its base a chunk of solid ice. On my second winter visit, it was not quite as cold, so the waterfall was flowing, but there was a dusting of snow on the ground to add color to monotonous winter brown.

As soon as the trail passed Whiteoak Canyon Falls #6, it began a steeper ascent. The trail switchbacked up the side of the mountain, first allowing a partial view down into the canyon of Negro Run and one of its waterfalls, then climbing back along the side of Whiteoak Canyon. At one point, the trail, following the side of the mountain, reached an outcrop and a lone pine tree perched high over the canyon, with a view into the mountains beyond the canyon as well.

Pine in Whiteoak Canyon
The trail continued high above the canyon, with occasional views down into the canyon to some of the other waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon.

One of the lower Whiteoak falls- #4 or #5
Eventually, the trail returned to the side of the Robinson River, close to Whiteoak Canyon Falls #3. Falls #3 is not directly on the trail itself, but I did take a side trip to visit it during my first hike here, when I followed the frozen-over river to the falls and the surrounding walls of icicles. When I hiked this with my family, we skipped the trip to the bottom of the falls but did see the falls from above on the trail.

Ice in Whiteoak Canyon
A cathedral of ice of sorts, by Whiteoak Canyon Falls #3
Just past Whiteoak Canyon Falls #3, we arrived at Whiteoak Canyon Falls #2, one of the more impressive cascades where the Robinson River dropped directly down a rock face.

Whiteoak Canyon Falls #2
The last stretch between Whiteoak Canyon Falls #2 and Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1 took a while; the previous falls all occurred in quick succession, but this time there was about 0.4 miles of hiking between the two. After a steady ascent to the forest at the base of the first falls, the trail climbed up a rock staircase to reach a viewpoint across the canyon and high above Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1. This waterfall, the second highest in the park at 86 feet, cascaded down multiple steps before finally dropping into a pool. We stopped at the view outcrop to eat lunch; at this point, we were 2.5 miles in and about 1400 feet up. It is only a little over a mile hiking between the top of the first falls and the bottom of the sixth falls.

Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1
From this viewpoint, it was a short distance to the point where the trail reached a crossing of the Robinson River just upstream of the falls. Whiteoak Fire Road was just across the river, but we chose to go a little further upstream, about a tenth of a mile, to a point where a footbridge crossed the river. We crossed here and then followed a path along the other side of the river back downstream to the Whiteoak Fire Road. The next mile and a half of the hike was a steady uphill on the fire road, which was covered in an inch of fresh snow. We occasionally happened on animal tracks; from what we could see, there were obviously deer and perhaps a fox that had been running through the snow some time before. As we climbed further, we entered a foggy forest and continued in these conditions until the trail almost reached Skyline Drive. Here, we reached a junction with a horse trail, and took a left onto that horse trail to continue traversing the side of the mountain. After crossing the top of the ridge that separates Whiteoak and Cedar Run canyons, the horse trail descended for half a mile to intersect with the Cedar Run Trail just below Hawksbill Gap.

Whiteoak Canyon Fire Road
From this point, everything was (literally) downhill. We turned left onto the Cedar Run Trail and began a steady descent that became progressively steeper as we descended into the canyon. At first, we weren't near much water; but as we descended, small trickles around us combined to create a larger trickle; and more larger trickles flowed in, eventually creating the upper reaches of Cedar Run. The trail became steeper and steeper, passing by greenstone cliffs as it followed the tumbling stream downhill.

Cedar Run Trail
Soon, we made our first crossing of Cedar Run, just below a small and very pretty cascade.

Cedar Run
After this crossing, the trail became very rough. It was extremely rocky and wet: a bad combination. Our descent was very slow, but steadily we made our way further along the trail, which would alternate between following the stream and swinging away when the stream entered remarkably rocky terrain. We passed the Slide, an inclined waterfall of sorts, and a miniature canyon with a small plunging fall just downhill of the Slide. After about two miles of descent, we entered the lower part of the canyon, where there were many waterfalls but few close to the trail. The trail tended to stay high above the watercourse on the canyon walls, but from time to time we spotted falls of twenty or more feet through the trees. Cedar Run is an extraordinarily scenic stream, but it is harder to enjoy than Whiteoak Canyon as many of the prettiest cascades are a little removed from the trail.

One of the lower falls on Cedar Run

More falls on Cedar Run
As the trail entered the bottom of the canyon, it crossed Cedar Run once more, this time just downstream of the last waterfall. This crossing was quite tricky- while it was possible to rock-hop, there wasn't much stable footing, so two of the four of us ended up a little cold and wet. That was okay though; after the crossing, the trail entered flatter ground, passing the junction with the Cedar Run Link Trail as it entered the last half mile of the hike. After a ten minute, fairly flat walk through the woods, we arrived at the junction with the Whiteoak Canyon Trail and turned right to return to the parking area.