Close your eyes and think of the most remote, extensive, and wild wilderness area you know. Now multiply that by 2, and you can get an idea of what the Cranberry Wilderness is all about.
This congressionally designated 47,815-acre wilderness is one of the largest in the eastern United States. It ranges from 2,400 feet to more than 4,600 feet above sea level. Between the towns of Richwood and Marlinton, the Cranberries (as it’s so affectionately called by the locals) is a vast patchwork of forested land that is only broken up by trails, forest roads, and rivers. Starting in November, nighttime temperatures fall below freezing, and there is usually significant snow cover by January.
All said, there are close to 100 miles of trails and an additional 100 miles of forest roads you can explore. Many of the trails have rocky creek crossings, but no bridges; these are not recommended for cross-country skiing, so be sure to plan accordingly.
What Makes It Great
There is a great 20-mile cross-country ski loop—Cowpasture to Kennison to FR 102 to FR 232 (Dogway Fork)—that will have you trekking on some of the most used tracks in the region, with a few options to venture off the beaten path if you want. Once you’re geared up, be ready for anything. You might be breaking trail for the entire 20 miles, or you could get lucky and find that someone has been up here before the last snow, and you can glide your way through this winter wonderland. It’s even possible that a big storm has dropped a ton of trees across the trail, so be ready for anything. This is big wilderness, and the unpredictability is just part of the fun. If you have doubts about committing to the entire loop, there are shorter options like the Cowpasture Trail, Frosty Gap Trail, South Fork Trail, and Charles Creek Trail.
If you decide to go for the whole enchilada (and you should), be on the lookout for the 5 shelters you will pass—these are some of the most memorable sights along the route. Be sure to stop at the 4th shelter, House Log Shelter, for lunch. Look around and smell the pine needles and listen to the river; you’ll surely feel like one of the original frontier families who settled out here in the early 1800s.
At this point, you can decide to drop down Kennison Mountain Trail, which is absolutely beautiful with lots of fern, pine trees, roots, and rocks. This will more than likely be a tougher and longer return trip, but if you are feeling strong, go for it!
If you stick to the original route, you’ll wind your way past one more shelter, Dogway Shelter, and continue onto Dogway Fork, which is another forest road that cuts through the mountains. Take this for about 7.5 miles until you hit Frosty Gap Trail,then return to your vehicle by WV-39.
Who is Going to Love It
Although hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners, and fishermen in the know have it good out here, it’s the cross-country/backcountry touring skier that gets the most out of this place. Folks looking to get a good winter cardio burn doing high miles on pure cross-country skis will love this loop. Telemark skiers and powder junkies looking to find that perfect stash of north-facing snow will be grinning from ear to ear as well.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Access the trailhead through Richwood, WV, or Marlinton, WV. Just remember that the Highland Scenic Highway is not plowed in the winter, so be careful.
Regardless of which way you drive to the trailhead, you’ll be rewarded with big sweeping vistas, craggy outcroppings, and hardwood forests as far as the eye can see. Eventually you’ll make your way to Forest Road 102, which is about 1 mile away from the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center. Park in the parking lot off of WV-39, just west of the Nature Center.
Temperatures can vary greatly from day to day, and cell signals are virtually nonexistent up here. Always bring a snow shovel, extra food, and a sleeping bag in case you get stuck.