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