Wild Ideas: A gloriously rocky hike on Whiteoak Canyon Trail 

Whiteoak Canyon Run glistens in the sun, not far from the lower trailhead (looking south). By Pam Owen

In our continuing efforts to find hikes that are not too challenging and that accommodate our interest in nature and our respective health issues, my friend Robin Williams and I decided to hike the lower part of Whiteoak Canyon Trail this winter. Robin and I have developed criteria for these hikes: they must have interesting natural features; be pretty, short (two to four miles total) and not too steep; and have good footing.

The day of the hike, Feb. 17, was sunny but relatively cool (upper 40s), considering how unseasonably warm that month had been. We decided our goal would be to make it to the first and smallest of the three waterfalls in the canyon, which is a mile from the trailhead, according to the park’s downloadable trail map. The trail, starting from this end, seemed to fit our criteria, but as we found out, was not without its challenges.

The amenities at the trailhead were evidence of how popular the trail is: portable bathrooms, a kiosk with a trail map and other information, and plenty of parking — rare at other lower trailheads I’ve visited. A sign there also says that the canyon was part of the Old Growth Forest Network, only one of four such sites in Virginia, as I found out later. (In my research on the canyon, I also found that “Whiteoak” in this context is spelled as two words in many sources and on topo maps, but I’ll stick to the park’s spelling here.)

The beginning of the well-trafficked trail, wide and flat at this point, is through a tangled wetland of braided streams that make up Whiteoak Canyon Run. This end of the canyon looks like it has often been hit by high, fast-moving water, as the two sturdy metal bridges crossing the canyon also suggested. But with the recent drought, the stream looked low and tame — and the floor of the canyon, relatively dry.

After crossing the run, the trail narrows and goes up over a short, moderate — if somewhat narrow and rocky — hill. Around us was a forest of mixed hardwoods, with the shining stream tumbling over and around rocks down below. After the first hill, the trail ascended more gradually.

A stand of mountain laurel borders a large rock outcrop. By Pam Owen

The biggest challenges along the trail for us were, or were caused, by rock — lots and lots of rock in various forms. Although, while challenging at some points, the geology along the trail is quite beautiful. As Sally Hurlbert, a geologist who has served as a ranger in the park for many years, later explained to me, it features gneiss and granite for the first half mile, with the harder volcanic rock of the Catoctin formation underlying the upper part of the canyon and helping to form the waterfalls.

Rocks, including this boulder field, are a main feature of the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. By Pam Owen

Whiteoak Canyon Run tumbles over and around large boulders and rock face, rocks of all size are on and around the trail, and outcrops loom over it. Moss and lichen cover most of the larger rocks, with enough soil accumulating on some or in their crevices to host larger plants, including ferns and other shallow-rooted species. A stand of mountain laurel frames one gorgeous rock outcrop above the trail.

The day warmed up as we hiked, becoming quite pleasant. Robin and I went at our usual slow pace, to accommodate our respective health issues but also to enjoy the natural features along the trail, one of which was a lot of large trees — probably oak — rotting away on the forest floor. Some served as substrate for fungi large and small. Looking for early-emerging spring ephemeral flowers and insects, we found only a few small flying insects and no wildflowers blooming on most of the trail.

As the canyon narrowed, the trail rejoined the stream, which eventually ran into a low, rocky gorge. There we faced our first real challenge: a rock outcrop, with the trail going steeply up and around it. Before tackling the hill, we sat briefly to enjoy the water tumbling down through the gorge, which was, well, gorgeous.

We soldiered on, slowly making our way up the steep incline, winding around and over rocks much of the way. I had a hard time finding soil in which to anchor my hiking pole, with much of the surface of the trail being rock, making the top part of the narrow trail especially tricky. In several places, loose pebbles underfoot also provided a challenge. Past this first hill, the trail returned to a more gradual slope up into the increasingly rocky canyon.

As we reached the second billy-goat hill, where the trail again circumvented a gorge wall, we took another break to admire the water flowing over and around yet more boulders. Robin, going up the hill to reconnoiter, quickly shouted back that she could see a waterfall. Grabbing my pack and pole, I headed up after her.

A lone hepatica blooms along the trail in mid-February. By Pam Owen

On the other side of the hill, we followed strands of the trail through a boulder field. As we neared the waterfall, we noticed a lone hepatica blooming at the base of a tree along the trail, the only flower we saw all day.

Close to the waterfall, we faced the last obstacle on our hike — crossing Negro Run, which feeds into Whiteoak Canyon Run just below the falls. This stream was also lovely, running through a jumble of large rocks and by a huge rock outcrop. After Robin and I had a snack, I decided to hazard the crossing, which consisted of a series of strategically placed rocks, to get a clear photograph of the falls with my cell phone, the only camera I had with me.

The lowest of three waterfalls along Whiteoak Canyon Trail. By Pam Owen

Except for one loose rock, the crossing turned out to be quite easy, with a lot of help from my hiking pole. Although the wide setting I used made the waterfall looks shorter than it was, I liked the juxtaposition of the stream flowing over the rocks below it, creating smaller falls.

Noting that the trail rose precipitously after Negro Run and that we’d made our hiking goal for the day, Robin and I headed back, making much better time now that we were mostly going downhill. We agreed that, despite the billy-goat hills and rocky trail, the lower part of Whiteoak Canyon offers enough enticing natural features to make it well worth the effort.

© 2017 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”