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.


  1. Great blog! We're going to be leading a winter hiking trip to Whiteoak coming up soon, would you mind if we used the image of #6 frozen over? Please respond directly to us at, and thanks...keep up the good work!

  2. Hi Chuhern,

    I'm writing a newspaper story about hiking Whiteoak Canyon Trail in winter and wonder if you would like to share your experiences and some of your pictures with our readers.

    I've hiked the trail with my wife and son numerous times, mostly recently after a light snow in late November. But I don't have any images of the light ice we've encountered in the past and have never seen the kind of icing shown in your pictures.

    Here's my contact info.

    Mark St. John Erickson
    Newport News (Va.) Daily Press
    757-247-4783 o. 757-298-5833 c.
    Find my stories on
    Hampton Roads history at

  3. Why is Negro Run "unfortunately named"?? Who cares what the name of the stream is?? There are at least 2 "Blacks Run" that I'm aware of. There is a Whites Run. There is also a Mulatto Run in Madison County. Who gives a crap what the name of the freakin stream is??