White oak canyon

Apr 18, 2007

I figured this morning the restaurant would once again be overrun with bus tour people, and we were out of the room and ready to eat by 8:30, but they were long gone by then, and we could dine in relative peace and quiet. The eggs and toast had been a big hit with the kids yesterday, so they got the same thing again today. They were serving a buffet too, but we thought it was just continental from what we could see and the waitress and hostess were typically unable to spontaneously offer information, so we didn’t realize until we left that it was in fact a full breakfast buffet, presumably because they’d had the tour groups to feed earlier on. Nobody had mentioned the price either, that might’ve provided a clue.

Today was the big hike, up the White Oak Canyon, one of the more popular hikes on the tour and one that was described with fair warning by the ranger yesterday, not only the 110 story building part but that you needed good climbing boots because if you wore sneakers it would “rip them to shreds”. There are two ways to approach this hike, either from the top or the bottom. From the top you only have to go about a mile out the front door from Skyland to the trail head, and you get to do the downhill part first. Much like the Grand Canyon, though, the downside is you have no way to gauge your comfort zone in going back up because you do that part last. Unlike the GC, however, you have the option of starting at the bottom. The downside here is that the trailhead at the base is over an hour’s drive outside of the park. But it seemed prudent to go this route, there are six waterfalls in all, so even if you don’t see all six, at least the second half of the hike is downhill.

Heading out of the park on 211, you have to make 4 right turns over about 20 miles to get to the trailhead, driving through a scenic area of small farms and smaller houses but little that you would call civilization. Although we’d just eaten breakfast, we weren’t going to be able to make it through the hike and back anywhere close to lunch time, but once on the road there was little hope of finding any place to stock up on some food to bring along. Fortunately, at the intersection of two roads that passes for the town of Etlan, there’s a country store that makes the IGA look like Super Stop & Shop, but they seemed to have a cottage industry in supplying hikers to both White Oak Canyon and the Old Rag Trail which is just up the road. They made ham sandwiches for everybody and wrapped them up for the backpack, and Beth got some chips too and it all came to about $15. Thus equipped, we were at the start at 11am and ready to go.

This trail goes all the way up to Skyline Drive, about 4.5 to 5 miles one way, depending on which measurement you believe. Our intent was to hike only to the bottom of the last waterfall, about 3 miles up. The first mile-plus is pretty flat, and parallels the river that is the conduit for all the waterfalls. Almost at the very beginning you had to cross a stream over several wobbly rocks that were just barely above the water line, probably because it’s spring and the water is higher than normal. Everybody made it across ok except Beth, who lost her balance on one of those wobbly rocks but didn’t fall in, just stepping into the water, which was about 6 inches deep, but it was enough to make her want to quit right then. But she persevered, and we were soon on our way up.

This trail is listed as “strenuous” where the Dark Hollow Falls was listed as “moderate” and the Compton Peak as “fairly easy”. These designations are very subjective, even though they try to weigh elevation gain vs. distance vs. terrain in some quantitative fashion, it ends up that you never know until you try whether a trail is hard or not. this one starts out pretty comfortable, and even after it kicks uphill, it’s still reasonably good footing and lots of steps in the steeper places. You could get up pretty close to the first falls, the 2nd and 3rd are well away from the trail down a steep gorge, basically impossible to get right next to, but easy to see through the trees, at least in April when there’s little vegetation. The weather was perfect, cool but no wind, and the sun came out once in awhile, although usually through some thin clouds.

Once you get to the lower falls, the first 3 falls, including the two that are away from the trail, come in relatively quick succession, meanwhile you continue up and up, but nothing too serious. Then comes a stretch of just climbing, which may not be steeper than the previous stretch but the trail has some patches that don’t have steps and you have to walk sideways up those, digging in to the crevasses in the rocks. Beth had gotten us all hiking poles for Christmas, which came in handy in both directions on this trail, although the rubber tips kept coming off. Yesterday Justin must have lost his 3 or 4 times, but miraculously we kept finding it, sometimes even before he knew he lost it. The others disappeared at least once too. In fact at one point I found a tip that didn’t belong to us, so we had an extra for a while.

The fourth falls stretches out over a wide flat expanse of rock that looked perfectly suited to a picnic, but we didn’t want to eat and then keep climbing, so we kept it in mind if we didn’t find something suitable at the top. There were some smaller falls that could’ve qualified as the 5th falls, and then a bigger falls shortly after that, but not one that appeared to be significantly bigger than Dark Hollow Falls, and this last White Oak Canyon falls is the 2nd longest of the whole park. So my thinking was that must have been the 5th falls and we still had to reach the 6th falls, which, according to the trail map, were just ahead. By this time it was around 1:30 and everyone was losing steam, including myself, and if anything the trail seemed steeper than every, although that was probably just trail fatigue kicking in. after rounding one switchback after another with still no further falls in sight, and in fact starting to veer away from the water, I was starting to wonder if we’d seen the last one and just not counted them correctly. So while everyone else took a break I continued up ahead a ways without the pack, just to see if there was an end in sight. After only a hundred feet or so I came upon a trail marker next to a sign, the sign indicating the half way point on the trail, and the marker pointing up to Skyland Drive and down to “base of first falls”, but nothing else. So did we see all 6 falls or not? the map shows that shortly after reaching the last falls, there’s a fire road going off to the left and a horse trail to the right, and we didn’t see either of those. And the pictures I’ve seen of the last falls don’t match what we saw. But the last falls, for being the longest, aren’t necessarily the most spectacular, so I don’t feel like we necessarily missed much.

We turned back and hiked back down to our picnic spot in probably 15 minutes and had a very late lunch (around 2pm by this point) and took our time recuperating. Chloe climbed around on the rocks quite a bit (she’s not much for hiking but loves climbing on rocks), until she slipped and slid into the water up past her knees, soaking her shoes, socks and jeans. But nothing was damaged, so it was squishy walk back down for her. The rest of the climb down was pretty quick, sometimes a little too quick, Chloe fell and landed on her elbow at one point, and Justin lost his footing a couple of times too but didn’t damage anything else beyond the shin-scraping he got on the way up. The flatter part at the end after leaving the falls behind goes on for a while because it’s not really any faster on the way out that it was the first time. We knew that stream still needed to be forded one more time, chloe was well in the lead and crossed over without any problems, not that it matter since she was wet already. Justin went next instead of waiting for me, and lost his balance on probably the same wobbly rock that got Beth, except he flopped on his stomach right on top of the rock, landing on one hand and both knees. Mostly his pride was hurt, he’d been otherwise going full steam all day without any hanging back or having to stop and rest every 3 minutes like at the Grand Canyon. Fortunately it was a short walk back to the car by then, and beth even had an extra pair of pants for him to change into. There’s a portapotty at the parking lot that was extremely handy before starting the hike, but in the intervening time we were on the trail someone had managed to lock the door from the outside (or else someone was inside dead). The whole trip lasted almost exactly 5 hours, including lunch, and we passed maybe 10 people during all that time, some up some down. With much of the trail being in the more temperate zone at the base of the mountain, there were some wildflowers coming up here and there, but most of the trees were still without leaves, which probably made it easier to see the falls from a distance. There were branches down all over the place, some looked fairly recent, between either the wind of the last few days or an ice storm they had here around Thanksgiving, but nothing that completely blocked the trail.

Back in civilization, or what passes for civilization, we stopped back the country store (which is open until 7:30 most days) for ice cream (although I just opted for oreos since you can’t eat ice cream and drive at the same time). Since the power had been out for awhile there too, the generator had preserved the tubs of ice cream but not the separate case full of ice cream bars and other frozen products. We got back on the hard road and made the complementary number of left turns to get back to Skyland, where it was time for dinner. Although not excited at the prospect of eating at the same place yet again, the only other option was to go to Luray instead, and the kids were happy just to get chicken fingers at the bar again, so that’s what we did. This time the place was basically empty, we chatted a bit with the girls working there and just hung out for a while, in no hurry to go anywhere. Bought a few things at the gift shop, which would appear to be the largest one in the park, and headed back to the room to see the follow-up American Idol show, although I was half-asleep by the end when everyone bid goodbye and good riddance to Sanjaya. It was lights-out immediately afterwards for everyone.

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