Ratings : Power - Beauty - Ease of Access -
The waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon are one of the main reasons that the area which is now Shenandoah National Park became popular. In fact, they were so popular that the first owner of the nearby resort Skyland built a lodge at the top of Whiteoak Falls #1 along with a maintained road to reach the lodge. Remnants of the lodge can still be seen in the stone staircase from the Whiteoak Falls #1 overlook past Whiteoak Falls #2.
Today Whiteoak Canyon and Skyland are both a part of Shenandoah National Park, one of the great repositories of waterfalls on the East Coast. With at least 18 waterfalls accessed easily from the Skyline Drive and another 40 or so in the backcountry of the Park, a waterfall lover could spend a lot of time exploring. Because of the popularity of the falls, the Park has also put out its own publication called Hikes to Waterfalls in Shenandoah National Park (available in Park camp stores).
The hike into Whiteoak Canyon is a fairly nice hike but it is considerably longer than many waterfall hikes. The round-trip distance from the trailhead to the first falls is 4.6 miles! After the first falls, it is also rather steep. Although it's always a good idea, you should make sure to bring water for this hike, especially in summer. Don't expect to be alone on this hike either. The trail is one of the most-hiked trails in the park and there are sometimes people swimming in Whiteoak #6 in the summer.
From the trailhead, the path begins to descend into the canyon, passing first through the Limberlost, a stand of virgin hemlock trees which are considerably larger than most of the trees in the park. Past the Limberlost, the trail continues down at a fairly easy to moderate slope, eventually meeting and crossing over Whiteoak Run on a bridge. The trail follows the stream down until it crosses again right before the top of the wide sliding cascades which begins Whiteoak Falls #1. It's pretty easy to follow this slide down for 30 to 50 feet, although caution is urged on the open rocks since they may be slippery. At the end of the slide, the falls drop off into one of the most beautiful and most photgraphed cascades in the Park. This 50 foot cascade fans out as it falls into the beginning of the canyon and can be viewed easily from a flat rocky outcropping which serves as an overlook. After the overlook, the trail descends steeply on a stone staircase. As the trail once again meets Whiteoak Run, hikers have the option of following the trail down to the next falls or turning right off the trail and walking up fairly easily to an incredible view of the cascade from the bottom. This is definitely the most photogenic of the falls in the canyon so waste your film here!
The trail follows Whiteoak Run for a while, passing several interesting cascades and occasionally switching back on its way down to Whiteoak #2. On the right, you may recognize a twenty foot cascade which isn't recognized as a "waterfall" by the Park. However, it is so interesting that it has been included in the Guide. This falls begins as a slide with a easy grade downwards. Gradually increasing, it finally slopes down in a semi-circular motion and plunges in two or more wide streams into the side of a very tall and wide boulder a few feet above the water's surface. The water is then forced to flow almost backwards underneath the falls and then around either side of the boulder. You may also notice here the tea-colored water of Whiteoak Run which comes from the tannin in the needles of the hemlock trees which are very common in the canyon.
After a steep switchback, the trail passes by Whiteoak Falls #2. This falls is a fairly steep slide over a textured rock surface which is fairly typical of Virginia waterfalls. It's a little difficult to get close to because of all the boulders and logs in-between the trail and the falls, but it's not something you will miss as you walk along the trail.
The trail continues along Whiteoak Run, eventually meeting Whiteoak Falls #3 which will also not be missed. These falls are especially interesting because one can see them directly from the front from the trail even though the trail parallels the stream because the falls descend perpendicular to the rest of the stream (and the canyon). Before reaching the falls, the stream takes a 90 degree turn left and the falls crash down into a pool below in several wide cascades through a narrow gorge with high rock cliffs on either side. At the bottom of the falls, the stream turns immediately back 90 degrees to the right and continues down the canyon. Below the falls is a tranquil grotto that can't be reached easily from the falls viewpoint. Instead, continue down the trail and follow the unmarked trails that lead off from the right of the trail back towards the falls.
After Whiteoak Falls #3, the canyon descends drastically but instead of following it down, the trail stays high above the stream along the rim of the canyon. Unfortunately, this means that Whiteoak Falls #4 and #5 can only be seen from the trail from a great distance if at all. However, they are actually not too difficult to reach although perhaps better left until after visiting Whiteoak Falls #6.
The trail eventually descends steeply on several switchbacks down to meet the stream again at Whiteoak Falls #6, which is another sliding falls similar to Whiteoak #2. This particular waterfall is probably the least attractive of the six major falls on the stream, but it still is pretty beautiful. The slide on this falls breaks into two parallel slides which fall into a deep pool. Below the falls are several other cascades, all with deep pools at the bottom. Because of the plethora of pools, this falls is one of the local swimming holes which means that you can expect no peace and quiet on a nice day. Discouraging but there are still five other falls which are rather peaceful. Incidentally, there is actually a parking area about a mile or so downstream of Whiteoak #6 at the bottom of the mountain, which explains why there are so many kids at a waterfall which takes a couple hours to reach.
After you've had your fill of kids and splashing, you can either hike back up or you can go off the main trail to find Whiteoak #4 and #5. On the right side of the falls leading off from the trail will be a steep worn trail. Take this up the hill and along the edge of the stream upstream. Soon you will be able to see the falls which cascade down in two major cascades down the side of a rock cliff. The bottom cascade is larger and consists of a very steep staircase-type waterfall. The stream falls into a dark deep pool large enough for swimming and is relatively open and free of trees, owing to a large bare sloping rock cliff to the right of the pool at the bottom of the falls.
The only route to the top of Whiteoak #5 is by crossing the stream and hiking up the left side of the falls, at which point you will find yourself at the bottom of Whiteoak Falls #4. It looks somewhat similar to Whiteoak #5 except that it turns left after the first cascade instead of right. From here, you can make your way along the stream until you reach Whiteoak #3 or go back down to Whiteoak #6 and hike back up the steep trail to the trailhead. A third option is to get back to the trail by bushwhacking straight up the hillside below Whiteoak #5 since you will eventually reach the trail.
The hike back up is long and steep but definitely worth it once you get back. I also suggest that after your hike, your first order of business should be to go the snack bar at Big Meadows (mile 52) and get an ice cream cone.
If you are ambitious, the Whiteoak Canyon hike can be made into a loop by meeting up with the Cedar Run trail a mile or so below Whiteoak #6. The Cedar Run trail passes by at least one more waterfall on the way up but is just as steep and as lengthy as the Whiteoak Canyon hike.
Total distances : Trailhead to #1 - 2.3 mi., #1 to #2 - .5 mi., #2 to #3 - .2 mi., #3 to #6 - .7 mi., #6 to #4 - .2 mi., #5 to #4 - .1 mi. Total elevation change from trailhead to Whiteoak #6 - 2100 feet but worth almost every one!
Other Nearby Waterfalls : Dark Hollow Falls #1-3, Lewis Falls, Cedar Run Falls
Whiteoak #5 from the front in moderate water
Whiteoak #6 from the front in moderate water
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