By Hugh Rogers
Long-anticipated trails on the Mower Tract, 40,000+ acres on the western edge of Cheat Mountain that came into the Monongahela National Forest in the 1980’s, are welcoming hikers at last. On the Lambert Ponds and Lambert Overlook trails, see the Voice, July 2019. Now we have Hawks Ridge Loop Trail on the southern flank of a ridge that was strip-mined before Forest Service acquisition. The trail offers long views over nearly 360 degrees, as well as patches of old red spruce that show what we might expect in a future beyond our lifetimes.
In the 1970’s, before turning the land over to the Forest Service, Mower Lumber Company’s successors took what coal they could get by “shoot and shove” mining: they dynamited the overburden, extracted the coal seam, then pushed the thin soil and broken rock back to “approximate original contour” and planted grasses and Norway spruce to control runoff. Slopes were stabilized, but the degraded, compacted soil could not support true reforestation. The high, wide-open landscape has been nicknamed “Mine-tana.”
Now the grassy slopes have been ripped by bulldozers with three-foot shanks and replanted with native red spruce seedlings obtained from the Highlands Conservancy’s Administrator, Dave Saville. Kiosks along FR 227 explain the process. On Hawks Ridge, you can see the little spruce establishing footholds amongst the jumble of soil, rock, and knocked-down trees that had failed to thrive over the past thirty-five years.
Thanks to Greenbrier District Ranger Jack Tribble, Biologist Shane Jones, and Recreation Specialist John Wheeler for their help.
Here’s the trail description in Hiking Guide format:
HAWKS RIDGE LOOP TRAIL 2.5 mi.
SCENERY: exceptional DIFFICULTY: moderate
CONDITION: good ELEVATION: 4400/4260
MAPS: Snyder Knob, and Forest Service topo accompanying this description
Access: At Cromer Top, where US 250 south of Huttonsville reaches the top of Cheat Mountain, turn right on FR 227. Drive south 5.7 mi. to a left turn on FR 227C. From this junction, it is one-half mile to the trailhead. FR 227 is a graded and graveled road in good condition, although washboarded on hills; FR 227C is hardpacked dirt, designed for high clearance vehicles, but can be negotiated, slowly, by street-clearance models.
Two trailheads, a stone’s throw apart, are found on opposite sides of the road. Look for parking space on your right at the top of a rise a half mile from FR 227; a sign, “Hawks Ridge Loop 2 ½,” is on your left—the sign faces SE so it’s easy to miss as you approach.
Just beyond is a large open area with a campfire ring. A sign at the edge of the woods credits funding for the project that will encompass four trails by September 2020; Hawks Ridge was the first to be completed. American Conservation Experience trainees (“Ace” on the map) finished a still-to-be-named south loop here in September 2019.
Segment 1: Hawks Ridge Loop begins as a vehicle track up a spine between two old strip mines. You can see the effects of deep ripping on the slopes, the skeletons of Norway spruce, and the new red spruce sprouts. Wire cages protect young quaking aspen. There are spectacular views to the east, across the Lambert Basin and the Shavers Fork to Allegheny Mountain, as well as south and southwest along Cheat Mountain. Crouch Knob (4529’) is in the foreground. (In ten years or so, the maturing red spruce will grow tall enough to obstruct some views, so get ‘em while you can.)
Once the trail reaches the top of the old mine, it stays on the 4400’ contour. At a signed junction, leave the vehicle track and turn N into woods. Shortly, at another sign, the loop begins. Heading W, the trail soon re-emerges into the mined and restored area, where blazes appear on rocks. As the trail rounds the first point, views extend to the west. The trail then climbs to a higher bench.
At a tricky intersection, where blazes seem to point in two directions, straight ahead and sharply back SE, continue NNW and keep alert for the trail bearing off to the right—the blue blaze is on a rock partway up the slope. The trail continues just above and parallel with the vehicle track, at the toe of the reshaped highwall.
The bench narrows as it rounds the N point, and the trail peels off to the right and enters a pine plantation. Here, mature red spruce is regaining its old range; however, depending on the soil, some of the trees are chlorotic, yellowing, and may not survive. As the trail heads NE, there are intermittent openings between the trees. Barton Knob (4434’) dominates the view; on its southern flanks, note the different generations of mineland reclamation.
For a final contrast, the trail enters dense forest on the unmined east slope. Beech and birch are scattered among full-size (some very large indeed) red spruce. As the trail trends S, it joins an old woods road. Stay on the contour as a logging road plunges down on the left. At a clearing where the trail leaves the old road, the trail-builders have left their mark: a stack of three large rocks. The trail winds around through a spruce grove, then briefly rejoins the road, which narrows to a single track. In the next clearing, two low flat rocks have been placed as benches. The trail re-enters the woods on the left, heading north, and then at a switchback, descends to the east. One more turn toward the south closes the loop.