Hiking the Hemlocks at Cathedral State Park

By John McFerrin

For big trees, or at least big Hemlock trees, it’s Cathedral State Park.  It is the largest virgin timber tract remaining in West Virginia.  Although there were some other species, it is dominated by Hemlock trees, big ones up to 120 feet tall and 21 feet in circumference.  They are also old; the biggest ones are routinely 350 years old while the oldest tree in the park is estimated at about 500 years.

We were there on a sunny afternoon, or at least a sunny afternoon outside the forest.  On the trails, it is the perpetual twilight found where trees are that big.  The trail was a pleasant walk, winding through these enormous trees.  It wasn’t the right time for wildflowers although we did see jack-in-the-pulpits.  There were a lot of mushrooms.  There were birds, although not as many as on the edges.  We saw a Downy Woodpecker and flushed a Ruffed Grouse (we think; we had no real bird brains with us to make a positive identification).

There were a few maple seedlings sprouting along the trail, hoping against hope that they will be able to find enough sunlight.  In the long run, the sun loving maples will probably discover that they fell off the bus in the wrong part of town.  It’s a climax forest; one of the characteristics of a climax forest is that its dominant species creates only the conditions that benefit itself.  It’s a tree eat tree world out there.

The wildflowers, the birds, and the mushrooms are, however, sideshows.  The main attraction is the trees.  They are so big and stretch up and up.  It is a wonder to behold.

The park is only 132 acres so the trails are necessarily short.  The longest is a little over a mile.  There are intersecting or side trails someone could take to stretch out the hike but it is still not going to be very long.  The hiking surface is, for the most part, good.  It is not sidewalk smooth and there are a few places where hikers have to watch their feet but it is generally good.  The trails are largely flat.  There are places where they go up and down but, on our trail at least, there was no spot where it felt as if we were climbing a real hill.  There is only 160 feet of elevation difference between the highest and lowest points in the park so there can’t be big hills.

The park is located along Highway 50 near Aurora in Preston County.  Highway 50 winds around some but there is not much traffic so it is not a bad drive.