Through hike on North Fork Trail
Late spring/early summer and late summer/early fall are great times to go hiking. Mid-summer heat is uncomfortable, makes the bugs really bad and there's not a lot of water flowing. Now that it's late summer in Pocahontas County, I'm ready to get back to my favorite place in the world - the Cranberry Wilderness.
Earlier this summer, I hiked the North Fork Trail with Randy Sharp, who recommended the trail to me. Randy is a lifelong resident of Pocahontas County and spent wonderful times with his father, learning to be an outdoorsman, down along the North Fork.
Accompanying us was Smokie, my dog from the Pocahontas County animal shelter. Smokie has given me great joy and has been a wonderful hiking companion. He insisted on leading the way for the entire hike.
The Forest Service maintains wilderness trails to a minimal degree, which is how it should be. North Fork Trail is difficult to follow in places and completely washed out in some areas along the river. It's all part of the wilderness experience to be able to navigate and bypass these obstacles. Never go into the wilderness without a map and compass and the ability to use them. A GPS is often rendered useless by thick vegetation or dead batteries.
I carried my Army rucksack with a gallon of water, a poncho, bug repellant (which I didn't need), a knife, a little bit of food and more stuff than I would ever need. I like to carry at least a 25-pound pack, even when I don't have to, just to limber up the shoulder muscles.
Randy is more sensible and wore a cool hunter's jacket with huge pockets for a water bottle, some food and all the stuff that he really needed.
We left Randy's car at the parking lot north of the Cranberry Glades parking lot, on the west side of the Wilderness, and drove my car to a trailhead on the Highland Scenic Highway, on the eastern side of the Wilderness.ﾠ That's a good technique for a day hike that covers a lot of territory. It's also a good way to hike downhill the whole way, which is how we did it.
Starting on a high ridgeline along the Scenic Highway, the trail winds down through spruce and then hardwood forests to the North Fork of the Cranberry River. The North Fork lies entirely in the Wilderness and is an exceptionally beautiful river.
From the trailhead, we hiked through spruce forest where visibility was very limited. Continuing downward, we crossed several rocky draws and much water flowed through these draws and along the trail. We passed through a corridor-like section through spruce trees, after which hardwood trees became predominant.
An overgrown portion of trail, that may have been an old rail grade, curved down around the inside of a large hollow.ﾠ Logging companies clear cut these slopes in the 1920s and 1930s, after which they happily sold the burning, ravaged land to the government.
Proceeding down the mountain, we crossed several larger, boulder-strewn draws with cascading waterfalls. Although horses are allowed in the wilderness, these rocky draws would be impossible for a horse to traverse.
We had walked about four miles when we heard rushing water. Crashing through some rhododendron, we reached the North Fork of the Cranberry River. Rounded rocks fill the stream and line both banks, making it easy to walk along and find a comfortable place to sit down.ﾠ
Jumping from rock to rock, Smokie took an unintentional dip when he slipped off a slick rock into the stream, which only invigorated him to continue the hike.
Back on the trail, we passed an enticing swimming hole where water flowed over the top of an enormous, smooth slab of rock into a 15x30 foot, crystal clear pool, just three feet deep. Just past the swimming hole was a washed out portion of the trail, where we climbed a spur to avoid a steep area along the river.
Descending the far side of the spur, we came to the remnants of an old bridge - just the stone abutments remaining - at a picturesque stretch of the North Fork.
A quarter-mile past the old bridge, we came to washout, where a landslide had carried the trail down to the river. On the far side of the river, a flat area, thick with rhododendron, would be perfect for a campsite. But the trail side of the river was steep and rocky. Smokie scouted out a bypass back to the trail, which Randy and I scrambled up.
After this final washout, the trail became flat and easy. Two miles of easy hiking took us to the forest road on the western side of the wilderness, which we followed back to the parking lot. We had walked more than eight miles, bisected the Cranberry Wilderness and seen some spectacular scenery. My feet were sore but my spirit refreshed. The North Fork Trail is highly recommended.
Randy said it was good to walk through the area where he and his father had spent such good times. We're planning another hike through the Wilderness sometime soon.