If you can read a topographical map, this will give you a better appreciation for this trail.
Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
In the 1930's, the Sierra Club came up with a way to rate the difficulty of hiking trails, which they named the Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS. It breaks down trails into 5 main categories. Class 1 is walking with a low chance of injury, hiking boots a good idea. Class 2 is described as simple scrambling, with occasional use of the hands. Potential danger is low and hiking boots highly recommended. Class 3 means scrambling with increased exposure. Handholds are necessary and Falls could easily be fatal. Class 4 rates out as a trail with simple climbing with exposure. A rope is often used. Natural protection can be easily found. Falls may well be fatal. Classes 5 and 6 are termed "technical", meaning the use of ropes and pitons. I mention this because all of the hikes that I've described in this blog have been Class 3 and below, mostly Class 2's to be honest. Most of the AT hikes I've done involve some steep hills, rocky sometimes unstable surfaces, which is challenge enough for me.
A couple of weeks ago, one of my wife's friends raved about a hike she and some friends had been on in White Oak Canyon in the Shenandoah National Park. She wanted us to take this hike, mainly because the trail follows a series of waterfalls cascading down the side of the ridge. Looking it up, I saw that White Oak Canyon was one of the most popular hikes, because of the waterfalls and the pools which are popular swimming holes. I also saw that this trail was combined with the Cedar Run Trail, making a roughly 8-mile loop. I also noticed some other things. It was a roughly 2,400 foot ascent in a little less than 3 miles, with Cedar Run on the backside owning a similar slope. Because of the steepness of the both trails, they are rated as a Class 4, a level which I had never attempted.
But she really wanted to see the waterfalls, so with a great deal of what turned out to be misplaced confidence, we made the 90-minute drive out to the Cedar Run trail head, off Weakley Hollow Road.
We arrived fairly early, around 8:30 a.m. We geared up, checked in at the Ranger hut, and hit the trail. The forecast was for a warm and humid day so we prepared ourselves, packing 5 liters of water with three extra 16-ounce bottles. After crossing the stream on a steel bridge, we wandered through the forest until the feeder trail intersected with the White Oak Canyon trail. Once the serious ascent started, the hiking became strenuous.
It was beautiful despite the effort. The trail followed the stream, which was running at springtime volume, the sound filling the forest. The trail was well-populated, being a holiday weekend, and it was plain that everyone was having a great time. The WOC trail passes three sets of waterfalls, a lovely sight in the forest.
That lady in blue must have been a professional photo bomber.
She tried to get into every photo I took that day.
Yeah. We were tired.
The good news was that just ahead was a fire road that connected the WOC with the Cedar Run trail. The topo map showed that the contour lines were spread much further apart, and I was ready for some easier walking. While the walking was much easier, the climb continued, ascending about 800 feet over 2.5 miles. We were now between the streams and the heat and humidity under the tree canopy made itself felt. We stopped several times to drink water and to rest. As the fire road approached Skyline Drive, the ridgetop road through the National Park, we picked up the start of the Cedar Run trail. Just before turning downhill again, I could see the Hawksbill Gap parking area through the trees.
After a few hundred yards, the trail became steep, rocky, and in some places wet by the flow of water coming from the hillsides. This made the footing tricky, and we both had a couple of near-butt plants as our wet boots couldn't hold the traction on the rocks.
I felt foolish. I has simply gotten too impatient, and forgotten to remove my backpack which would have improved the balance problem. Suddenly, I looked down. My $300 Sony digital camera was dripping water. I took it apart and shook as much water out of it as I could, but I feared (and later proved) that my camera was damaged. Fortunately, my Note 4 had survived the dunking.
It was becoming a very long day. This loop trail has an average completion time of 5.5 hours. But it was already past 6 hours and we were not close to being done. We try to average 30-minute miles on our hikes but with the steep descent and the muddy and rocky trail surfaces, our pace was only about one mile per hour. And we were tired. This was hard work for us, and our muscles and joints were complaining mightily. It became a simple matter of one step at a time, checking for grip before proceeding. The second stream crossing was more difficult, and with me now snakebit by the last experience, the crossing took extra time. The rocks were round and pretty tall, so I found them unnerving. But I did make it across, dry this time, and on we went.
Physical discomforts aside, it was indeed a beautiful place. The stream noisily accompanied us through the forest, the trees filtering that wonderful afternoon light. Finally, we reached the feeder trail leading back to the parking lot. The surface was now back to that soft, loamy surface, although it seemed an interminable time before we once again crossed the steel bridge and found the parking lot.
So it turned out to be an 8-mile loop for us, and although breathtaking in its beauty, this hike was in fact a bit beyond my capabilities. Still, we completed the darn thing, and I guess that's saying something.
Like, stick to Class 3 hikes, dude.