Springtime hike with a new buddy
I made a new friend recently. He's got big feet, floppy ears and long, black fur.
A former resident of the Pocahontas County animal shelter, Smokie came to live with me about a month ago. He was a bit uneasy at first. After being cooped up in the dog pound for more than two months, Smokie wasn't sure if he really had a home.
With some well-deserved TLC, Smokie settled in and started feeling at home. So, I thought it would be OK to take him on his first trip away from the Frost homestead (except for that terrible trip to the vet).
I'm always anxious to get into the woods when springtime arrives.ﾠ I thought Cowpasture Trail in the Cranberry Backcountry looked interesting, so Smokie and I loaded up and headed out on an adventure.
The trail circumnavigates the Cranberry Glades. For those who haven't been there, glades is a fancy word for swamp. A swamp is a beautiful, but dangerous, place. Exotic plants and flowers grow there, but the bog has the consistency of thick, wet cement. If you step in and sink too deep, you're going to get stuck.
Cowpasture Trail traces the edge of the glades and gives you a good look at theﾠ the primeval landscape. You can leave the trail to take pictures of the unique vegetation, but stay out of the swamp!
Smokie and I started our hike at a trailhead about a mile north of the Cranberry Glades parking lot. To get there, take Route 39 west from Route 219. Go about a half-mile past the Cranberry Nature Center and you'll see the sign for Cranberry Glades on the right. Continue past the main parking lot on a gravel road to a second parking lot. Walk about 500 feet north through the closed gate and you will find the trailhead on the right.
It's a good idea to fill out a backpacker itinerary at the Nature Center before going on any hikes, especially if you hike alone, like I do so often. The people at the Nature Center know all the trails very well and can tell you what to expect, generally speaking.
The rule for dogs in the backcountry and wilderness is to leash them at all times. But if you don't see anybody on the trail, nobody's going to get a serious case of heartburn if you let your well-trained dog run loose. If you hear or see people coming, just put the dog back on the leash.
Since Smokie had done very well with his obedience training, he was allowed to run free for almost the entire hike. We saw nobody on the trail during our four-and-a-half hour trek.
I carried a fairly small rucksack with more stuff than I would ever need. I don't mind carrying extra stuff on a day hike because it's good physical training for carrying a larger ruck on multi-day hikes. The rucksack weighed about 25 pounds - a good weight for an easy, first-hike-of-the-season.
I thought bugs would be awful on a warm day, so close to the swamp, but skeeters were not a problem whatsoever. I carried a big bottle of bug juice, just in case.
I was curious why the trail was named Cowpasture, when the map showed it going around a swamp. I discovered that the trail hugs the swamp in many areas but also rises onto higher ground and large meadows that must have been farm fields in days past.
The first quarter-mile passes through the narrow, northern branch of the swamp and the path is mostly dry, but muddy in places. Where the trail crosses water, the Forest Service has erected very attractive white wooden-arch bridges.
About a half-mile into the hike, a side path leads to a viewing platform, providing views into the lush, but forbidding landscape of the Cranberry Glades.
After crossing the marsh, the trail rises onto the lower edge of Black Mountain and enters an area of small meadows.ﾠ
I said to myself as I walked through this area, 'what a great place for a picnic.' Sunny areas with scattered shade trees would be perfect for throwing down a blanket, unloading a picnic basket and enjoying the inspiration of nature.
The trail varies between high and low ground but is never steep. At approximately the five-mile point, the trail descends from a forested hillside to a stream, where beavers have been very busy. Kids would enjoy seeing this awesome beaver dam and lodge.
Since the trail traverses a variety of terrain, springtime hikers will discover a wide assortment of wildflowers. Expanses of bright yellow marsh marigolds lure hikers into the swamp. Exotic, purple trillium and trout lilies grow along the fringes and spring beauties, violets, star chickweed, foam flowers and countless other wildflowers decorate the trail in drier areas.
The entire loop is about seven miles from start to finish, including a mile on the forest road to get back to the car. It's an easy hike with some uphill sections, but nothing difficult. The trail is marked with blue diamonds, but never go into the woods without a good topographic map, a compass and the ability to use them.
The trail is open for bicycles and horses, except for a short stretch through the Cranberry Wilderness, where bikes are prohibited. A cutoff allows bikers to take a shortcut and avoid the wilderness section.
Cowpasture Trail was a great hike to start the hiking season and get a rucksack on my back. I was surprised by the quality and variety of scenery along this trail.
Most of all, I enjoyed exploring new territory with my new friend. Smokie had a great time. I know he heard the call of the wild out there and probably thought about running off and living in the wilderness.
I know the feeling well. We will be returning to the Cranberry very soon.