The mountains and valleys of West Virginia near Morgantown offer spectacular hiking opportunities: Cooper’s Rock, the Monongahela River Trail, and even the West Virginia University Arboretum in the heart of town. These scenic destinations, however, can sometimes become crowded during late summer and early fall when Washingtonians are trying to escape the heat or leaf-peepers are out to witness the autumn foliage.
Fear not. There are so many wild spots in this part of West Virginia that it’s easy to find trails off the beaten path.
The main overlook at Cooper’s Rock State Forest is usually a hubbub of activity with carloads of tourists taking in the panorama. Nonetheless, the nearly 13,000-acre park has so many trails it is easy to find peace in quiet in the woods.
The Raven’s Rock Overlook trail, on the southern side of the state forest, leads to what many believe is the best view of the Cheat River Gorge. The 1.5-mile-long trail can be combined with several other smaller pathways to form loops with narrow passages through the cliffs of Rock City and deep into the forest thick with rhododendron.
The northern side of the park offers an even deeper woods experience, with moss-covered hardwoods, a small lake, stream crossings, and ample opportunities to listen to the silence. In all, there are more than 20 named hiking trails.
Cranesville Swamp provides a glimpse of a northern tundra-like environment right here in the Mid-Atlantic. The 1,650-acre nature preserve can be explored via five trails, each under 2 miles in length.
Stroll along a 1,500-foot-long boardwalk atop the spongy bog. Grasses and ferns, including the scarce Bog Fern, sprout up on both sides of the walkway. The preserve is home to more than 48 rare species of animals and plants and 100 song birds. It is not uncommon to see beavers, hawks, and owls along your walk. Other creatures include snakes and the elusive southern water shrew.
Hike into a former pine plantation, where the tall narrow pines are so densely packed that few other plants or animals can survive in what is called an ecological desert. Trails also meander into a mixed landscape of low pine trees, rhododendron, and beautiful mountain laurel. (nature.org, search “cranesville swamp”)
A forest of hemlock
Cathedral State Park lifts the spirit to the heavens as hikers walk through a magnificent forest of towering hemlock trees — some up to 90 feet high and 21 feet in circumference. The 133-acre state park features six short trails amongst the ancient, virgin hemlocks.
The main Cathedral Trail is slightly more than 1 mile long and runs along a picturesque creek. Thirty other species of trees lie within the not-too-hilly terrain and the undergrowth is resplendent with ferns and wildflowers in the spring and summer.
Decker’s Creek Trail starts out as a paved pathway in downtown Morgantown. It’s a favorite spot of locals for walking and biking. As the trail leaves the city and ascends into the mountains, it turns to crushed stone and becomes less crowded. The grade tops out at 1,000 feet, with spectacular views of the Monongahela River Valley and Decker’s Creek.
Whitewater rapids punctuate the creek and are a playground for kayakers.
You’ll also find rocky cliffs and overlooks of several small, yet breathtaking, waterfalls. In all, the trail is 19 miles long one way. It may be accessed at a variety of parking areas to tailor a hike to your preferred length.
Morgantown Tourism: tourmorgantown.com