By David Sibray
Fall always means the West Virginia forests are at their poetic peak, inspiring the writer and artist in all of us.
According to Jodi French-Burr, a park ranger for the New River Gorge National River, autumn hikes are supremely popular in southern West Virginia. A seasoned hiker herself, she is an enormous fan of the season herself and speaks with excitement about the leaf-change.
“The cool, crisp air, the brilliant colors, the scent of fallen leaves -- all add to the beauty and splendor of the season, a true feast for the soul.”
French-Burr, who also serves as Outdoor Ethics Coordinator for the National Park Service’s Northeast Region, urges hikers and walkers to try at least one of the region’s trails this fall.
“Each step reveals a story of history or nature to be discovered. The season calls for a closer look, whether you only have time for a short walk or can spend the entire day on the trail. I hike all year long, but autumn is especially inspiring to me.”
Despite the excitement, French-Burr cautions hikers to watch for increased activity among hunters. Hikers should wear blaze orange when hunts are in season and are advised to familiarize themselves with seasons by searching online.
Firearm season for white-tailed deer, in particular, is a time to be on high alert. It’s when the greatest number of hunters are active. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy also advises hikers to avoid wearing red or blue during fall turkey season, and hikers who bring animal companions with them should consider dressing them in blaze orange as well.
Thankfully, mishaps involving hikers and hunters are rare, and the chief worry for some hikers may be finding a trail that won’t be heavily trafficked by other hikers. As some of the best known woodland paths in the region will be busy in autumn, we’ve asked park and forest officials to recommend great trails that are less well known. The following, we think, are likely to provide the kind of autumnal solitude that inspires.
Potts Valley Rail Trail
This moderately strenuous five-mile trail follows the route of an old railroad along the north flank of Potts Mountain, within the margins of one of the Mountain Lake Wilderness, one of the most isolated wilderness areas in the Virginias. Though the crests of the surrounding mountains may already be frosted in ice, sheltered Potts Valley is likely to have remained relatively warm, and peak color is likely to linger late in the season, likely into late October.
The Potts trail wanders a forest of mixed mountain hardwoods punctuated by pines and a thick understory of rhododendron. Interpretive waysides along the route recount the history of the Potts Valley and its railroad, built in 1909 to haul timber and iron ore out of the valley. Stonework along the route is remarkable, a highlight of the journey.
Directions: To reach the northeastern trailhead from Union, follow W.Va. 3 east nine miles to Gap Mills. Turn right onto Zenith Road and at 3.5 miles, turn left onto Limestone Hill (Waiteville) Road. Follow the latter five-and-half miles over Peter’s Mountain to Waiteville Road. Turn right onto the latter, and proceed through the village of Waiteville. At one mile turn left onto Rays Siding Road, along which the northeast trailhead is located, or proceed five-and-a-half miles along Waiteville Road. to the southwest trailhead.
Young’s Nature Trail
Though a favorite haunt of hikers who know the Greenbrier State Forest, this remarkable trail is surprisingly obscure, which greatly adds to its charm. For hikers who are in search of a good workout, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better, easy-access trail near the heart of the Greenbrier Valley. The trail climbs more than 1,000 feet from the Harts Run valley to the crest of Kate’s Mountain, ascending gradually through a hollow and a foot slope of the mountain then mounting a steep ridge. Though the route climbs, its rate of climb is relatively gentle and not exceedingly strenuous.
Directions: From the Hart’s Run exit on U.S. 60 and I-64 at White Sulphur Springs, follow Harts Run Road approximately seven miles south to the state forest’s picnic area. The lower trailhead is located about a tenth of a mile north of the picnic area. The upper trailhead is located along Kate’s Mountain Road, and many hikers shuttle between the two points. The state forest is also a popular hunting preserve, and hikers should take special care to wear blaze orange.
Polls Plateau Trail
A treat for hikers in search of undiscovered country, this little-known loop trail wanders a remote tableland high above the New River. Established by the National Park Service in the 1980s, accessibility was impractical before 2015 when the park service acquired land for a new trailhead. Until that time hikers were required to trek as much as seven miles to reach the loop.
The trail follows a series of old jeep trails and the bed of an old logging railroad through some of the least-visited forests in the territory of the New River Gorge National River. Only intrepid hunters have traditionally ventured here. Along the way hikers will encounter some of the oldest forest areas in the park -- woodlands that have not been timbered for more than a century. The remnants of an old farmstead and abandoned fields highlight the route at one of its most remote reaches, a pleasant surprise and a wonder.
Directions: From I-64 at the Bragg exit, follow Plumley Mountain Road (CR-27) approximately one mile to a left turn onto Polls Branch Road. Follow the latter approximately one half mile to the trailhead. The trail head is a drive of approximately 40 minutes west of Lewisburg.
High Rock Trail
The loftiest trail considered in our survey, the High Rock Trail is, in actuality, relatively well known. However, its accessibility and breathtaking views earned it inclusion. The trail follows a ridge off Cranberry Mountain to an overlook of the Greenbrier Valley and its Stamping Creek, one of its principal tributaries in southern Pocahontas County.
Much of the trail follows the crest of a ridge through the Monongahela National Forest more than 4,000 feet above sea level. As a happy consequence of its relatively high elevation, peak of leaf color will arrive earlier here than on other trails -- possibly in late September and early October. The increased elevation also increases the presence of sugar maples in the trail’s viewshed, so hikers are more likely to encounter brilliant reds and pinks in the forest canopy and in the far-ranging view from the end of the trail at High Rock.
To the rock and back, the trail is just more than three miles and follows a gentle grade with only two short climbs and switchbacks. Be sure to allow time to linger at the rocks. Use caution planning your hike in late autumn as the mountain is susceptible to early snows.
Directions: From the Highland Scenic Highway near the Cranberry Visitor Center, follow the highway (Forest Route 150) north approximately two miles to a the High Rock trailhead and parking area. This section of the highway is untreated in winter, so plan your journey to allow for the possibility of a late autumn snow.
Arrowhead & Ann Bailey Trails
From the margins of the Greenbrier River into the highlands within Watoga State Park, the steep-climbing Arrowhead Trail provides hikers an idyllic overview of the Greenbrier Valley in autumn. Lined by the paper-white trucks of sycamore in fall, the rocky margins of the river at the trailhead are wonderfully counterpointed by the yellowing poplars that ascend along the trail to the Ann Bailey Lookout Tower.
From the tower, hikers (and bikers and cross-country skiers) are treated to a stupendous view of the Greenbrier Valley and its Little Levels and the crest of the Yew Mountains to the west. Hikers ascending to the tower from the river may wish to return or hike through three miles to a trailhead at the Mountain Picnic Area. Of all the trails presented here, this route is longest and promises the most heart-pumping fun. Take care to prepare well for the journey, packing water and high-calorie food for a snack along the way.
Directions: From Hillsboro, follow U.S. 219 north one-and-a-quarter miles to a right turn onto Seebert Road. Follow the latter two miles to the riverside picnic area in Watoga State Park.