The Cranberry Wilderness - Backpacker
Unmatched solitude deep in the West Virginia forest

Climbing north from Cranberry Glades, you really start to get a feel for the area’s wilderness, and for good reason. Just atop the hill from the glades is the Cranberry Wilderness, which at nearly 48,000 acres, is the largest wilderness area in the East. Even from the road, broad mountains spill out on either side, rolling to the horizon, sliced up by deep and narrow river valleys.

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Trees just off the shoulders of the Highland Scenic Highway are stunted by the elevation, now upwards of 4,500 feet which means for hikes starting on this side of the wilderness, you’re beginning at the top of the mountain and descending. My plan was to jump into the backpacking with both feet in the form of a 19-mile loop along a broad ridgeline before dropping to the Middle Fork of the Williams River to camp and climbing out and back to my car the next day.

Day One: Allegheny Ridgelines to Isolated River Valleys

From the highway (Trailhead: N38.27635° W80.23753°), I followed the North South Trail west through thick brush. For most of the day, the trail rolls gently along the top of the ridge through tall hardwoods over a ground dense with moss. It passes a number of campsites along the way, tucked into the tall pines just off the trail, for those looking to break up the loop even further. The route is mostly in the trees, surrounding you in a cocoon of lush green rainforest-like foliage, but an occasional opening in the trees will offer views of the surrounding mountains. Small cairns of flat stones periodically denote the otherwise unmarked, though obvious trail.

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At mile 7.5, having descended only about 500 feet, the North South Trail intersects the Laurelly Branch Trail (at another campsite), which starts a steady descent down the Laurelly Branch to the Middle Branch. The trail follows a fading forest road, switchbacking down the hillside before reaching and crossing the Middle Fork.

From there, I followed the Middle Fork Trail back west to where the Hell For Certain Branch tumbles down the mountainside to meet it, around 11.5 miles. One campsite wedges between the trail and water but for those willing to re-cross the river, a more secluded site sits on the other side of the pools and eddies that beckon you to take a swim after a long day on your feet.

Remember: Black bears at times outnumber humans in the Cranberry Wilderness so hang your food outside your campsite at night!

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I spent the evening stoking a fire and falling asleep to the sound of the rushing water just outside my tent and, having not seen anyone all day, I was starting to understand the quiet, encapsulating depth of West Virginia’s wilderness.

Day Two: Climbing To The Road

From camp, the trail continues east along the Middle Fork, still following doubletrack that’s quickly becoming more and more vague as it climbs. After crossing the river a few times, the trail begins a long switchback up the hill to the road. Eventually it meets the North Branch Trail at mile 17.5 before rejoining the North South Trail and heading back out to your car. 

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