Thursday, 19 July 2018

Waterfall Chasers: Cedar Run and home!

For our last day, I had planned to drive down Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and do a couple of hikes: one with a rock scramble (Bearfence Mountain) and one with a natural waterslide (Cedar Run Falls). On our last morning, the kids and I consulted and agreed we'd rather go straight to the waterslide. We were close to home now and could do any of these another time, so there was less impetus to pack everything into today.

We had our routine down to the point that my seven-year-old daughter checked us out of the hotel. The hardest part was getting them to stop saying goodbye to the stray cat hanging around outside. (One of the receptionists tried to get us to adopt him; it was very tempting.)


A long drive later, we arrived at the lower parking lot for the Cedar Run trail. You can access it from Skyline Drive, on top of the mountains, but that would mean hiking down to the waterfall and then up at the end of the trip, when we were tired. I opted to go from Whiteoak Canyon Parking Lot at the bottom of the mountain. It should be noted that this car park was already virtually full when we got there late morning—very much at the create-your-own-space stage—and that there's still an entry fee into Shenandoah National Park before you get to the trail.

I had read about this place on the Getting Out of DC blog, and based on that entry I felt confident that my kids could handle the hike to the waterslides. Maybe if this had been five days earlier, they could have done. However, at the end of the trip, on a hot day, up a steep and rocky trail? Not happening. The trail wasn't beyond their capabilities, but it was arduous, it wasn't clear just how far we had to go, and there were tempting little swimming holes scattered all along the trail—though not necessarily easy to reach!

In retrospect, we should have stopped at the first swimming area, where the trail fords Cedar Run. The main waterslide was much further up, but there's a little bit of worn rock there that can be used as a slide and it would have given the kids a respite from hiking, a chance to try the water and decide if we wanted to continue. As the mountain water is cold, this is a really good opportunity to find out if you're going to enjoy this experience or not.

Our first, missed, chance to stop and slide.
Instead we continued—partly because we didn't see anybody else swimming there. The first place we did see swimmers, there was no obvious path down, but there were a group of people in a large swimming hole, jumping off the rocks. They called to us that we needed to carry on, cross over at the top and then scramble down. Initially, we misunderstood and thought the trail was going to cross at the top and this was an extension of the waterslides that were our goal.

Nope. We carried on walking and scrambling and climbing until we met some park rangers who told us that the waterslides were perhaps another half a mile up the trail.

At this, the kids were done. My son wanted to go home; my daughter wanted to go down to the river from this point. I agreed to the latter, but soon realised that rather than finding a suitable pool to swim in, the kids were determined to scramble over the rocks all the way back downstream to where we'd seen the swimmers.

OK, the trail was rocky, but it wasn't this bad!
In no way was this easier than following the trail down, but we did it. It was clear that the waterfall here was not suitable for sliding down, but the pool was deep enough for cliffjumping. We arrived at the same time as a group of students and they went straight to the rocky edges while the three of us went down to the stony beach. Getting our first taste of the cold, cold water, we shivered in the shallows, while the students got up the nerve to jump from the lowest point.

They took the plunge before we did, but eventually I steeled myself to swim out to where the waterfall splashed into the pool, keeping a careful eye out for jumpers. Under the ledge from where they had first jumped, there was actually a small cave just above the waterline. I swam to that, checked for snakes and hoisted myself up. I wasn't in the sun, but the air was warm enough that I didn't feel cold, and I could dangle my legs in the water while watching the students try out a higher jump on the other side. (One girl was the bravest of the group but even she took several minutes before leaping down. Afterwards, she swam to the shallows, looked back up at the boy now dithering on the edge and yelled: "Don't be a pussy! Your girlfriend did it!" That girl is my hero.)

My daughter was desperate to join me in the cave, but she was still only waist deep in the water and couldn't quite get up the courage to drop the rest of herself in and swim. My son wasn't progressing past mid-shin. In the end, I swam back to them and told my daughter I would swim with her. With that final bit of persuasion, she swam out to the cave where I helped her up. Unlike me however, she was still cold once she got out of the water and we didn't stay in the cave long before I took her back to the beach so she could get in the sun.

It was also cold enough that after the waterproof camera had a dip, it fogged up everytime it was exposed to the humid air.

I really wanted one of us to do the cliff-jumping if we weren't doing waterslides, so I climbed up to the low ledge. One look convinced me that this wasn't happening. I may have no problems throwing myself down 100 feet of rock and white water, but I can't bring myself to fall through ten feet of clear air—in our family, that's my son's forte.

So I coaxed my son to do it. He wasn't convinced that it would be any easier to get into the cold water from ten feet up, but the students started cheering him on. Reluctantly he climbed the rocks... and started choking up before he got anywhere near the edge. It wasn't the jump that bothered him, it was the swim through "freezing" water that would follow.

As soon as I saw him getting upset, I told him he didn't have to do it. Part of me regrets not jumping myself... it was something I might have got up the nerve to do eventually... but I didn't want to spend all my focus on psyching myself up instead of being there for the kids.

I had brought some food, so we had a patched together picnic and watched the students jump some more before we found our way back to the trail and the car. The downhill scramble definitely went more quickly, and this time my daughter stopped at the first swimming area to see if it was any warmer there. (It wasn't; she didn't try the slide.)

View of the swimming hole from its beach.
 One awkward change in the car later, and we started heading out towards Charlottesville to meet some friends who had driven up from home for a few days break in the Blue Ridge. But we stopped for lunch once we got back to the main road and I consulted with the kids again. The verdict was in: we could see our friends after we were all home; we just wanted to get back at this point.

We drove back, half-referring to the GPS and half-referring to the BBC's live updates on the World Cup semi-final. It was a long stressful two hours before Croatia knocked England out of the Cup. We were not impressed.

Football did not come home, but we did, after driving almost 2,100 miles. (Still less than the Appalachian Trail.)

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