Set off into an adventure through one of Monongahela National Forest’s most scenic routes. The trailhead to the Cranberry Wilderness can be seen from across the road from the parking lot. A few yards down the trail is a kiosk. The North South Trail will lead you in approximately .4 miles to a small clearing. There is a small sign in the clearing that marks the intersection of two trails. Directly in front of you is the North South Trail, which divides the loop that we will be discussing in this article. To the left and right is the North Fork trail. Head south (left) on the North Fork Trail.

©Aaron Philips

The trail begins in a dense red spruce forest in an area known as the Little Levels, a high upland bog. In the fair hiking months, this part of the trail may be muddy and wet with ferns and moss on the rocks and sides of the trail. In the winter months it will be blanketed with snow, hiding holes and depressions. Watch your footing carefully and take your time. About three miles into the hike, the trail may become difficult to find. There is a re-route. Previous hikers, myself included, have built cairns to mark the path. Small streams cross the path from time to time and provide beautiful views of the winding waters. At 6.5 miles you will come to FDR 76, a gravel road that makes for a nice break from the rough terrain. Where the two trails meet, you will find a liming station. This is used to decrease the acidity of the Cranberry River. There is a small shelter here and this is a good place to stop for a break or to have lunch.

Head northwest on FDR 76 for about two miles and here you will find an elevated shelter, known as the Tumbling Rock Shelter, on the Cranberry River. After leaving the shelter, continue down the forest road .3 miles due west and you will see the intersection of the Birch Log Trail (blazed with blue diamonds). Head North (right) on this trail. The is an old logging road makes for a pleasant walk in the old forest but does gain about 1400ft in elevation. Continue north on the Birch Log Trail for about two miles until the path meets the North South trail. There is no marker but the trail is obvious. Make a right onto the North South trail and follow it for about .75 miles. Look to your left for the beginning of the Laurelly Branch trail and follow it. The trail starts as a small footpath but then expands into an old railroad bed. Continue through the switchbacks heading northeast on the Laurelly Branch trail until you come to the intersection of the Middle Fork Trail (approximately 3.25 miles form the last trail junction).

©Aaron Philips

If you’re looking to camp overnight you can find a picture perfect campsite, complete with a swimming hole, just up the Middle Fork trail. From the junction of the Laurelly branch and the Middle Fork, head left just a short distance up the Middle Fork trail. Here you will find a waterfall and primitive sites overlooking the falls and the river. After leaving the campsite and waterfalls, cross the river and head up the trail to the left, ascending approximately 1000 feet. Continue on the Middle Fork Trail. This can be rigorous and very dangerous in the winter months, so take your time. There may be trees down across the trail. Remember when hiking in the snow and sub-zero temperatures that the logs will be covered with ice. Many downed trees will be too low to crawl under and just high enough to be difficult to climb over. These trees can be a natural slide to the valley below.

After the brutal ascent from the confluence of the Williams River and the Hell for Certain branch you will find yourself hiking in some beautiful scenery. This stretch is mostly red spruce and yellow birch, trees so thick and tall that they block out most of the sunlight. The forest floor is littered with small moss covered boulders. After about 5.5 miles you will come to an aggressive switchback, and after another .4 miles and you will see the intersection of the North Fork trail. Make a right and head south on the North Fork trail and hike the last mile through the toughest terrain of the loop. When you come to the intersection of the North Fork and the North South Trail make a left and head easy out of the wilderness back to the parking area.

©Aaron Philips

Difficulty: Difficult

Season: Late Fall/Early Winter

Variety: Loop

Approximate length: 27 miles

Elevation gain/loss: 2500ft

Location: The Cranberry Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest

Maps: USGS quads: Hillsboro, Lobelia, Webster Springs SE, and Woodrow

Open To: Hikers, Dogs

Passes and Permits Required

Coordinates: 38.272587, -80.238476

Trail Name(s): North Fork to Middle Fork

Connecting Trails: Birch Log Trail, Laurelly Branch Trail


Locating the Trailhead:

From Marlinton, West Virginia head northeast on 2nd Ave toward 8th St. Take the 1st left onto 8th St. Drive about .2 miles and then make a right onto US-219 N/W Virginia 55 E. Drive approximately 7 miles and then turn left onto W Virginia 150 S/Highland scenic Hwy. Parking should be on your left and the trailhead should be to the right. Trails that are completely within the wilderness boundaries are not blazed.

Notes of caution: Hikers occasionally go missing in the Cranberry Wilderness. This territory can be unforgiving in the best weather. Do not attempt this hike in the winter months unless you are extremely confident of your hiking and survival skills. Do not leave without a map and compass!

Additional notes: This is a black bear sanctuary. Make sure that you hang your food bags high or bring canisters. Hike safe and have fun!

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