Backpack West Virginia's Cranberry Wilderness

Discover a slice of rare Eastern wild country in West Virginia, where Canadian taiga meets Southern forests.
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Discover a slice of rare Eastern wild country in West Virginia, where Canadian taiga meets Southern forests.

East Coast hikers in search of wild country don't need to get on a plane: Trails in West Virginia's 35,864-acre Cranberry Wilderness are unsigned and unmarked, the streams don't have bridges, and the canopy is so dense that cell phones are dead weight. This is the crown jewel of the 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest. It's a mix of alpine balds, rhododendron thickets, quartzite slabs, red spruce, and trout streams. It feels like the Canadian taiga wrapped in the South's homeyness.

A loop visiting the best of the wilderness is a 22-miler starting from the North-South Trailhead on WV 150. Head west on the North-South Trail on a 4,000-foot-high ridge that winds between the Middle Fork Williams and North Fork Cranberry Rivers. Camping is plentiful; sites in secluded grassy meadows pop up within the first four miles. The next day, you'll descend into a dank, mossy hollow with so many shades of green it'd take an entire division of Pantone to name them. Turn right onto Laurelly Branch Trail; there are three creek crossings over its 3.3 miles to the Middle Fork Trail, the second of which hides a deep swimming hole just upstream.

If you're in no hurry, go right on Middle Fork and scout for hidden campsites near Hell For Certain Branch, a steep mountain creek feeding the Williams River. Otherwise, turn left and follow Middle Fork to Big Beechy Trail. Turn right and begin a stair-stepper ascent that gains more than 1,000 feet in two miles. When the path levels out, hunt for a tent site amid the red spruce and yellow birch. The wilderness is also a black bear sanctuary (no hunting or bear-dog training allowed). Hang your food bag well, or pack a canister.

To finish the loop, hike the remainder of Big Beechy, then turn south onto the North Fork Trail, which leads three miles back to the trailhead on terrain so rugged that it was never homesteaded. Who says you have to go to Wyoming to find someplace wild?

Guide

Pick up a copy of the Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide by Allen DeHart and Bruce Sundquist ($18; West Virginia Highlands Conservancy) for trail beta and maps.

The Way

From Richwood, West Virginia, go 22 miles west on WV 39 to the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center. Turn left onto WV 150 and drive 10 miles to the North-South Trailhead.