Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Whiteoak Canyon

Knowing we wanted to get up and get out early on Sunday to avoid the heat, somehow my body woke itself at 6:54am when all it wanted to do was sleep off the hard dinner service from the night before. While I was getting the dogs taken care of, Ann pulled herself together and we were out the door just slightly before 7:30 headed for Whiteoak Canyon in Madison County just south of Old Rag.

Whiteoak Canyon can be hiked from basically two different locations. At the top of the hill on Skyline Drive or from the bottom of the hill near Old Rag. We decided to start at the bottom of the hill and walk up, leaving the second half of our day to be downhill. I pity the bastards that started at the top of the hill and had to finish by walking uphill all the way.

Winding our west south and west of Sperryville, we reached the trailhead parking about 8:45. I saw several fields on the way in with signs reading "Parking $10" and I noted that the parking lot for the trail was enormous. There were a half a dozen cars there when we arrived and checked in with the ranger on duty in the little hut at the end of the parking lot.

We got ourselves all saddled up and headed into woods on a very flat but extremely wide trail. I should have put together the parking situation and the very wide trail to figure out how crowded this place would become later in the day, but my math skills were a bit fuzzy on short sleep.

Lowland Forest at the Beginning of the Trail

Baby Cucumber Tree with 12-15" Leaves
The first part of the walk was naturally uphill along Robinson River but really pretty flat, all things considered, up to the first waterfall and large pool, the so-called Lower Falls. When we got there, Ann, never shy around a body of water, headed straight in. The lower pool is a couple feet deep and maybe ten by fifteen yards, a nice little swimming hole. It was peaceful and a great place to sit for a few minutes.

Lower Falls

Annie Did Not Enjoy Herself

Second Fall
Beyond the second fall, we started to climb pretty quickly and as we climbed the scenery changed entirely, leaving the lowland forest behind in favor of a lot more rock and higher elevation flora. My favorite stretch was along a dry sunny clifftop where a lot of flowers were blooming unlike along the majority of the shaded wooded trail where the only thing blooming were viburnums. I have been watching heucheras for the last several weeks waiting for them to bloom and finally that has happened. Ditto for Mountain Laurel. Bumblebees were busy working the penstemons and I saw a low shrub that is new to me, New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, that was blooming profusely in many locations, mainly dry areas. The best sight of the day for me was a sea of low roses growing out on the cliff rock. Standing about a foot tall with single pink five-petaled blossoms, I thought they were geraniums from a distance.

Heuchera americana in Full Bloom

Bumblebee in Penstemon canescens

Lots of Tiny Wild Roses with 2" Blooms

Finally, Mountain Laurel in Full Bloom

New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus
Halfway up to the top falls, we stopped at an inviting place in the river, a rock shelf where Ann kicked back for a few minutes while I looked around. There was a crazy chute between a couple of rocks where the water was flying. And speaking of flying, lots and lots of butterflies flitted about us while we were out on the rocks. I don't think I have ever seen as many butterflies in one place before, aside from a butterfly house. As we were leaving, I saw a tiny ring-necked snake scurry from one rock to another, notable because they are generally not out and about during the day time.

Water Moving Rapidly Through Chute

Living the Life!
A long weary trudge led us to the upper falls through some very steep terrain. We noticed really how steep several sections were when we had to come back down through them after lunch. As you can see in the photo below, the upper falls are beautiful but really not the most interesting. We had been led to believe that the uppermost fall was the most spectacular; however, we found the lower two falls to be the most picturesque.

The Uppermost Fall

Warrior Ann
At the head of the top fall, we had a brief lunch on a rock in the river and then turned around and headed back down the hill to the car. From the top of the falls, we could have gone one of two ways: back down the hill the way we came or across the hillside on a fire road to pick up the Cedar Run Trail that also goes back down the hill. We decided to go back down the way we came because neither of us are big fans of fire roads, though in retrospect in reading about the Cedar Run Trail, we may have missed a wonderful opportunity to see a wilder side of this walk with some equally impressive water features on Cedar Run. We're definitely going to have to go back and do the Cedar Run Trail. The spectacular scenery will make this an absolute hardship.

Black and Tiger Swallowtails Drinking
Nearly at the bottom, one particular Tiger Swallowtail, the Virginia State Butterfly, of the hundreds I had seen during the day, caught my attention and as I followed its flight, it dipped behind a rock. When I peered over the rock, I saw many dozen Tigers and a few Black Swallowtails drinking in the shale alongside a small creek.

Down below the first pool, we were both glad that we had made an early start. The pool that we had to ourselves in the morning was filled with screaming kids and people were coming up the path in dozens. This must be the local water hole as accessible as it is. I doubt many of these people ventured higher up on the hill. I was truly glad to be back in the parking lot, because although the trip was downhill all the way, it was really, really tough on my knees to the point where each step was painful. I've said it before and I'll say it again, "I hate downhill."

Though we had just eaten a couple hours earlier, the word ravenous would be a great word to describe us after the hike. And thirsty. Beer thirsty. "I just finished a grueling hike and I would love a glass of wine," said no one ever. We had it in mind to stop at the Thornton River Grille in Sperryville to grab a late lunch and a beer. And so we arrived at 2:50, not knowing that they close at 3:00. There isn't cell phone service in the area so there was no way of checking and we would have never gone that close to closing had we known. But we didn't and we were there and it was obvious from her body language that our server was pissed that we were there. She let us know that the kitchen would be closing in 10 minutes and then she left. As in said goodbye to someone in the back and got in her car and left. Being in the business, I understand the sentiment when at the end of a long shift when you are tired and ready to go, a last-minute table walks in. But I will personally strangle any employee of mine who acts like that. After a couple of serverless minutes, we got up and left.

Although we thought about stopping at the Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill, based on the so-so last meal we had there, I decided to keep going to Pavemint Taphouse in Front Royal where we got our beer fix while deciding what to eat. I started with a Sierra Nevada Hoptimum Imperial IPA and Ann had an Allagash White. For round two, I had an Evolution PINE’HOP’LE IPA which sounded weird but tasted pretty good, the subtle pineapple working in tandem with the citrusy hops. Ann had a blackberry cider from Cobbler Mountain Cellars in Delaplane. I had a Whisky Melt burger and Ann got the fish and chips.

Whisky Melt Burger

Fish and Chips

Ravenous Annie

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