Thomas Reserve – Cowpasture – Cranberry Glades Loop (WV)

This nine-mile loop offers glimpses of area history, great views of the tundra and peeks at distant mountains.

Meadow on the Cowpasture Trail
The trail offered many beautiful meadow views.  Below: Adam checks out the sign at the entry to the Cranberry Glades boardwalk; The old Mill Point Federal Prison used to sit along the present-day Cowpasture Trail; The Thomas Reserve Trail is lined with ferns; A view of the Glades boardwalk.

Entry to the Cranberry Glades Boardwalk
Thomas Reserve Trail The Glades Boardwalk

Christine Says…

The morning did not start well.  We drove into Marlinton, WV before our hike to make some reservations for a bike shuttle.  Once we were in town, we learned that Verizon wireless was not available anywhere in the area (and I really needed to check in on a family emergency).  We couldn’t find anyone that sold pre-paid phone cards in all of Marlinton.  When we did find a phone card, we couldn’t find a pay phone that worked. Apparently, the only pay phone that works in all of Pocahontas County is at the hospital.  After filling up at a BP station, the “service engine” light came on in our car and the gas gauge stopped working.  (Can I blame BP for that?)  Finally, to top everything off, we couldn’t find the trailhead for this hike.  In the end, it all turned out OK, as it usually does.  We ended up hiking a couple extra miles, but on a beautiful, cool, blue-sky day… that’s not a bad thing!

Our original plan was to hike the 7.1 mile Cowpasture Loop which encircles the entire Cranberry Glades Botanical Area and crosses into the beautiful, wild Cranberry Wilderness.  But, the trailhead was not marked and the map we had did have enough detail to indicate the exact location.  We ended up parking at the Thomas Reserve trailhead, instead.  We knew this trail would intersect the Cowpasture Loop after about a mile or so.

This rock ledge along the Thomas Reserve Trail is probably a pretty waterfall when the stream isn’t dry. Below: The trailhead for the Thomas Reserve trail; Trails were adequately marked.

Thomas Reserve Trail Trail Sign

I’m really glad we went this way, because the Thomas Reserve Trail took us past some beautiful and interesting scenery.  There were ruins that looked like some kind of old pool or water treatment facility.  The concrete basin and pillars were still intact, along with several large pipes with wheels attached.  I did a quick Google search to try and figure out exactly what the ruins are, but I didn’t have much luck.  From that point, the trail passes through beautiful fern-carpeted forest and past a dry stream.  The stream has an interesting rock ledge/cave that I think probably makes a lovely, small waterfall when water is actually running.  Eventually, the path intersects an old road that is part of the Cowpasture Loop.

After a short walk along the old road, the trail opens up into a gorgeous open meadow with views of the mountains in the distance.  This is the site of the old Mill Point Federal Prison.  Even though the buildings were all torn down in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you can still see some leftover signs of the site – there are bits of road left, abandoned stairs to nowhere, an old well.   There is also a series of informational signs that include old photos and talk about life at the prison.  Apparently, it was a prison without walls or gates.  Prisoners were treated to weekly movies and could spend their afternoons hiking in the area.  I guess you could say it was very low security! We stayed at the prison site long enough to read the signs and enjoy the meadow view.

After the meadow, the trail climbed back into the forest, following rolling ups and downs for a couple miles.  We saw lots of bear scat and several deer leaping across the trail.  We crossed a small dry stream shortly before passing out into another wide open area.  The meadows along this trail were really overgrown.  The ragweed and other plants were shoulder-height and constantly batted me in the face as I walked the trail.  Even so, the meadow areas of this hike were spectacular!  This section in particular offered beautiful views of Kennison Mountain.

Beaver Dam on the Cranberry River
We got a nice view of a beaver dam on the Cranberry River. Below; The bridge over the Cranberry River.

Bridge over the Cranberry River

The trail dips down to the South Fork of the Cranberry River.  This crossing had a pretty arched bridge and a great look at an active beaver dam.  There were crabapple trees everywhere – so I was really wondering if we’d eventually see a bear.  We never did – just the deer and a very angry red squirrel.

From the river, the trail ascends to a ridge and follows a series of gentle ups and downs.  We passed several beaver ponds and got nice looks at the bogs and glades the area is known for.  One pond even has an elevated wooden platform to view the area.  Because of the dry months we’ve had lately, the ground was much dryer than it should be.  The ponds were so low, I wondered if the resident beavers were able to swim at all.  While we were passing one of the ponds, we heard a huge tree come crashing to the ground someplace nearby.  It must have been a monster tree – it sounded like gunshots as it splintered and fell to the ground with a huge KABOOM.

Just before coming out on FS Road 102, the trail passes over another pretty arched bridge.  The walk along 102 is completely level and pretty uneventful.  You’ll pass a gate and the board marking the entry to Cranberry Wilderness.  The area looks fantastic for backpacking – lots of loops and shelter options.  We’re already talking about making a three day trip sometime in the spring.

After crossing the chain gate, the walk is along the developed portion of 102.  Cars passed by and the walking was really boring.  When we got to the Cranberry Glades Boardwalk, we decided to add the .6 mile loop onto our larger loop.  The boardwalks pass through a beautiful open bog area.  If you visit the right time of year, you can even see carnivorous pitcher plants.

After the quick turn along the boardwalk, we walked the last mile along the paved road back to our car. By the time we got back, I was pretty tired and hungry and was looking forward to making homemade pizza for dinner back at our Watoga State Park cabin.  Although the day got off to an inauspicious start, it really turned out to be perfect.

Adam says…

Christine had suggested this hike to me when we were planning our trip to Watoga State Park and I’m so glad that she suggested it.  This hike is one of my favorites that we’ve done this year.  It has some interesting history and the open views of tundra are nothing short of beautiful.

Ruins on the Thomas Reserve Trail
We saw these mysterious ruins along the Thomas Reserve Trail.  Below: The Thomas Reserve trail begins; An old well at the prison ruins site.

Thomas Reserve trailsign Old well at the prison ruins

We had trouble finding the start of the hike, since the trailhead for the start of the Cowpasture Loop was not marked.  We saw a sign for the Thomas Reserve trail and I could tell from our map that it hooked up with the Cowpasture Loop.  The Thomas Reserve Trail starts bisecting a field, but quickly moves into woods.  At about .6 miles, we saw the pillars of the old “pool” that Christine mentioned off to the right of the trail.  The trail continues for another .4 miles through the woods until it comes to a sign.

Take a right here to get on to the Cowpasture Loop.  The trail is quite level at this point as you move through a field with great views of the tundra around you.  Here, and in some places throughout the entire loop, there may be tall plants that you have to push aside, but you shouldn’t need to bushwhack.  As you’re passing through the tundra area, you may notice several bluebird boxes.  The trail begins to turn towards the left and then opens up to more of a clearing.  You will see posts that give information about the Mill Point Federal Prison camp and life for the inmates.  You will then come to a sign around mile 1.5.  Take a left here to stay on the Cowpasture Loop.  This will loop back around the tundra, paralleling Charlies Creek, and then goes back into the woods.    You will start to reach some footbridges around the two mile mark that take you above some marshy areas.

A view of the Glades Boardwalk
The glades boardwalk is a pleasant .6 mile walk around the bog. Below: The walk along the forest road wasn’t that exciting; Once we got back to the paved portion of 102, there were some pretty scenes along the road.

Forest Service Road 102 The walk back to the car

After this point, you will begin to climb slightly up.  At the height of this gradual hill, you will begin to see views of Kennison Mountain.  At mile 3.5, the trail then takes a sharp left (marked by an arrow on a sign) and descends again.  This area was quite overgrown, but the trail was still clearly visible.  The trail tends to alternate at this point from going through areas of marshy glades to trails through the woods with slight ups and downs in elevation.  At mile 5.7, you will see a destroyed sign where there is a side path of about 100 yards to an observation deck.  This would be an excellent spot for birding.  At mile 6.4, the trail connects again to FS 102.  Take a left on the fire road until you reach the gate at mile 6.6.  At mile 7.3, you will reach the parking lot for the Cranberry Glades Boardwalk loop.  This loop is only about .5 miles and I would highly recommend it.  There are interpretive signs along the boardwalk and it does give some more wonderful views throughout the loop.  Once you complete the loop, just walk back up FS 102 to reach your car.

There are also a few geocaches along this loop:

Trail Notes

  • Distance –9 mile loop
  • Elevation Change – 200 feet
  • Difficulty 3. This is really an easy hike, but we’ll give it a 3 due to the longer length.
  • Trail Conditions 2.5. The trail was largely passable, but very overgrown.  Several bridges over streams were broken and rotted through.
  • Views –3. You get some nice views of the mountains and great views of the glades/tundra.
  • Waterfalls/streams 3. In times with normal to higher precipitation, this trail has great views of streams, ponds and the Cranberry River.
  • Wildlife 4.  We saw deer, signs of bears, active beaver dams, red squirrels and many kinds of birds.
  • Ease to Navigate 3.  Once you find the trailhead, the trail is relatively easy to follow.
  • Solitude 4.  Outside the popular boardwalk area, you probably won’t see a soul!

Directions to trailhead: From Mill Point, WV head west of WV 39/55.  After about 7 miles, you will find a sign for the Cranberry Glades area on your right (FS 102).  Head down this road for one mile until you reach the trailhead for the Thomas Reserve trailhead.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Reserve – Cowpasture – Cranberry Glades Loop (WV)

  1. bennington200

    A side note – it isn’t just Verizon. When my son and I toured the National Radio Astronomy facility nearby last summer, they told us that cell phones disrupt their readings, so there’s no service from any provider in a large area around the facility extending east into Virginia. Now whenever I drive west on U.S. 250 I look for cell towers, and don’t see any west of Churchville, VA.
    The tour guide told a story about getting readings a few years back on one of the dishes that showed some disruption, and they traced it to a doghouse over 2 miles away that had an electric blanket with a short! No doubt they are sensitive. We couldn’t even use digital cameras within a half mile of the dishes. (Great tour, BTW.)
    Though I would hate to not have access in an emergency, I think the lack of cellphone service is one of the things that makes this part of our area unique and wonderful.
    Thanks for the description of this area. I’ve never ventured far off of the Highlands Scenic Highway, but looked at maps of this area for years wanting to make the trip. I’m saving your description and hoping to get out there in the next couple of years.


    • virginiatrailschristine

      In Marlinton, ATT wireless and GoPhone now offer service! I actually agree with you about cell phones. Adam and I have only had our cell phones for a couple years now. We hardly ever use them, but it’s nice to have them when there is an emergency!


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