|Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1|
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|
|An mature eastern hemlock near the trailhead- extremely rare!|
|Dying ferns in Whiteoak Canyon|
|Clearing where the hemlocks of Limberlost once stood|
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|
|Whiteoak Canyon was beyond spectacular|
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|
|A waterfall on the Robinson River just below the first falls|