Family Hike: Whiteoak Canyon Falls at Shenandoah National Park

April 21, 2014 at 3:00 pm 2 comments

For my 39th Birthday Hike, we made a special family trip out to Shenandoah National Park. We decided to hike the Whiteoak Canyon Falls Trail. We learned about it from Bob Canton’s Northern Virginia Day Hike page. We noticed he ranked Whiteoak Canyon Falls a 5– the same rating he gave Old Rag. We knew Old Rag is spectacular, even when you are hiking in Vibrams, so that was instantly an excellent endorsement for Whiteoak Canyon!

Trail Overview
Spring is a good time* to see waterfalls because there is usually a lot of ammunition. Whiteoak Canyon Falls Trail sports multiple waterfalls, including the second largest falls in Shenandoah National Park. From the parking lot next to Sky Land, the trail to the Upper Falls is pretty wide. You are hiking downhill, but it’s not especially steep. The trail does get rockier as you get closer to the falls, but my toddler saw that as a perk. 🙂

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Ryan and Sagan Hike Through Mountain Laurel
A Glimpse of the Wide Trail

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Ryan Helps Sagan Climb
Sagan Enjoys the Rocks

The trail to the Upper Falls skirts along the creek, so you get plenty of water views.

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Creek Above Upper Falls From Bridge
Creek Near the Upper Falls

And the Upper Falls themselves are gorgeous. There is a well marked viewing area.

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Upper Falls
The Upper Falls

Once you pass the Upper Falls, the trail gets rockier and steeper. You are still heading downhill to get to the Lower Falls, but if you’re doing a round trip like we were doing, you’re gonna have to hike back up. As luck would have it, Sagan was pretty tired at that point, so he moved to the Ergo Baby where he stayed most of the rest of the hike.

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Stairs Up From Lower Falls with Sagan and Ryan
A Sampling of the More Rockier Trail

We actually thought the Lower Falls were a little more scenic than the Upper Falls. We found a nice flat rock to sit and have some lunch. On the menu– Avocado, Cashews, Red Peppers and for little Dyson– pureed carrots.

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Lower Falls (Landscape) (By Ryan Somma)
Lower Falls (Photo by Ryan Somma)

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Snack Break! Cashews, Red Peppers, Avocados, Pureed Carrots 3 (By Ryan Somma)
Lunch Break! (Photo by Ryan Somma)

Our favorite part of the hike was not either waterfall. On the trail between the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls, we passed a rock wall that was almost a waterfall in of itself. All the spring’s thaw above was raining down the rock. The afternoon sun was positioned perfectly to give us our own little personal rainbow… or as Sagan called it, a “Rainbow Dash” (We watch My Little Pony – Friendship is Magic at home).

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Waterfall from Rocks (By Ryan Somma)

*Spring is good time, but it is not the best time to see waterfalls. The best time would be the coldest, most frigid part of winter… when you can see Frozen Waterfalls. : )

If you are ever feeling small and helpless and need to see how even the little creatures of this Earth can have an impact, hike this trail and see the “accomplishments” of the tiny Woolly Adelgid. By just feeding themselves on the sap of the hemlock trees, they have dramatically changed the landscape. In short– they’re killing the hemlocks. In large numbers. Really large numbers.

Part of the trail to the upper falls winds through what was once a vibrant hemlock forest. Although I had seen ailing hemlocks here and there on my hikes, I had not witnessed so much tree carnage in one spot. And it’s amazing to me how different this section of the forest felt. The deciduous trees hadn’t yet woken up for the spring. I would have thought naked hemlock trees would just blend in with slumbering oaks and maples, but they didn’t. Their skeletal trunks and the snags of broken branches announced their presence. I was reminded of a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

But this section of forest was eerily silent. No birds to say what there is to say after a massacre. Even our two year old chatterbox, stopped talking and just stared from his Baby Ergo, as if something instinctual, something deep in his brain adopted from our tree-dwelling ancestors told him, “This forest is different.”

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Sagan and Ryan Walk Through Hemlock Graveyard
Sagan and Ryan Walk Through a Hemlock Graveyard

On a more lively subject, the trail was crossed by a small herd of deer on our way back to the car. It made for an excellent end to our journey.

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Ryan and Sagan Watch Deer Cross Trail
Deer Crossing

Sappy Closing on Birthday Hikes
When I started celebrating my birthday with a hike nine years ago, I hiked alone. Well, with my dogs. I took selfies before I knew they were selfies. : ) I would have great days and I would cherish my annual birthday hike, but then in 2009, suddenly I had a boyfriend to hike with me and that was quite nice. Birthday Hike 2010, that boyfriend and I practiced our first wedding dance surrounded by Long-Leaf Pines. Birthday Hike 2011, I hiked with our first son squirming in my belly. Birthday Hike 2012, that son took his first assisted steps on the Appalachian Trail. Birthday Hike 2013, I was pregnant with my second son while I watched my first one run around the boardwalk in front of Maryland’s largest cascading falls (denying me a nice photo-op). And this year, that second son hiked with us.

Birthday Hike Evolution
Evolution of Birthday Hikes

I used to hike alone on my birthday. Now I hike with my family. Birthday hikes just keep getting better and better! : )

Shenandoah National Park - Whiteoak Canyon Trail - Vicky, Dyson, Sagan All Smiling
Me and My Little Boys. Best Birthday Hike Yet! (Photo by Ryan Somma)

More photos of our Whiteoak Canyon Falls hike can be found on my Flickr site.

Whiteoak Canyon Falls (Round Trip to from Skyline Drive to Lower Falls)
Skyline Drive Mile Marker 42.6

Length: 7.3 miles

Elevation Gain:1100 Feet

Trail Map

Entry filed under: Hiking.

Tire Tunnel Compare – 2013 and 2014 Family Hike – Meadowlark Botanic Gardens

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Aaron  |  April 22, 2014 at 8:04 am

    Nice summary; Can’t wait to have a toddler to take hiking. 🙂

    • 2. tgaw  |  April 22, 2014 at 3:37 pm

      Toddlers are so much fun. They find joy in all the little things– pinecones, leaves, sticks, bugs. Bugs are particularly fun!


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