By Hugh Rogers
Looking for obscure trails such as the Flame Azalea Trail I wrote about last month (see the follow-up below), I have old-fashioned encounters. Instead of plugging in coordinates, I ask strangers for directions; instead of timeless, placeless voices, I hear people say, “I’ve lived here all my life.”
Old joke as told by Brother Dave Gardner:
Q: Have you lived here all your life?
A: Not ye-et.
That goes double for me. I got here after the beginning and I haven’t reached the end. And although I have lived forty years in sight of Cheat Mountain, until this month I had never hiked the four National Forest trails that begin on its crest and wind down to Shavers Fork. Built in cooperation with the Division of Natural Resources, they were, and on some signs still are, called Hunter Access Trails. They are parallel and more or less identical. See their descriptions in the Hiking Guide’s 8th edition: “through a forest of hardwood and red spruce;” “its entire distance is through a mixed forest;” “it is similar in terrain and vegetation;” “mixed hardwood and spruce.”
In order, driving north on FR 92 from US 250, they are now called Stonecoal Ridge Trail, Whitmeadow Ridge Trail, Crouch Ridge Trail, and Yokum Ridge Trail. The two northernmost have connector trails, but the basic pattern is a ladder, with FR 92 as the west rail and Shavers Fork as the east rail. The whole arrangement tilts toward the northeast.
Additional rungs are two graveled forest roads that go all the way to the river, FR 47 and 49, plus another, FR 188, that is blocked to vehicles halfway down but continues as a trail. The roads dead-end at simple campsites. The same is true, but moreso, on FR 209, the Shavers Fork Road, which begins on US 250 a few miles east of the FR 92 intersection. That road has many well used camping sites dispersed along its five-mile course. The three dead-ends are connected by a trail.
Shavers Fork Trail (TR366)
On the USGS topographic map (Wildell Quadrangle, 1995), it appears as an unnumbered informal trail. It wasn’t included in the Guide’s 8th edition (2006). Now it shows up on the Monongahela National Forest (MNF) recreation map (2007) with its numeric designation.
The complete trail is 2.5 miles. The best part is the southern, upstream half, from FR 209 to FR 47. A round-trip on that section makes a beautiful, partly strenuous, short hike. An ambitious loop can be put together by hiking the full distance of Whitmeadow Ridge Trail (4.5mi) and Stonecoal Ridge Trail (3.7mi), connecting them along the river by adding a short piece of FR 209, and at the upper end a little more than two miles of FR 92; altogether a hike of about twelve miles. Either choice could lure you away from fishing.
Since I was also exploring the hunter access trails, I began the Shavers Fork Trail from the north. The campsite at FR 49’s end had a picnic table, fire ring, and two signs: “14 day limit;” “catch and release.”
From there to the intersection with TR 361, on a sketchy transition from the river bank to an old road well above it, I had to fight through a series of blockages. Even when the trail dipped back toward river level, it was removed behind a thick screen of spruce and rhodies. Vertical or horizontal, the distance seemed constant. There were glimpses of the railroad on the opposite bank. The river announced its presence by sound.
TR 361 came steeply downhill to join, or, more accurately, to take over the Shavers Fork Trail. After a turn upstream, it crossed a small tributary. The track’s width practically doubled; from that point, allowing for erosion, it could have been called a hunter-access road. Young spruce lined the grassy trail.
Whitmeadow Ridge Trail ended at FR 47. A wide-open area had space for group camping (and parking), with easy access to the river. The clue that Shavers Fork Trail continued was an inconspicuous blue plastic diamond back in the woods off a camp site. The little path meandered over to Whitmeadow Run. After rock-hopping the run, I poked along in the bottomland until I encountered another twist, a switchback and a steep climb to a narrow path high above the river. The view was across to Shavers Mountain’s spruce-topped silhouette.
After that stretch came an equally steep descent. The trail crossed a ravine and leveled out, much closer to the river. Hundred-year-old railroad ties appeared. Wherever the current railroad on the opposite bank shortcut across a bend or ducked behind a fringe of trees, the view was free of its naked limestone ballast. At one point the trail offered a rare combination of access to a grassy bank and a natural opposite shore. (Apparently, fishermen and –women camping along FR 209 do not mind the glaring rocks.) Near the trail’s end at the FR 209 turnaround, one relatively private campsite had its own bridge over a little run.
Flame Azalea Trail (no longer maintained)
A sad footnote on this trail came from Matt Edwards, South Zone Recreation Manager for the MNF. He had promised to consult retired staff and historic records on the unusual history of this unusual trail. He wrote:
The trail was part of a system of temporary roads and skid trails that meandered through an oak stand that had been thinned in the early 1980’s. Apparently, the thinned canopy released these azaleas and allowed them to thrive for a time. Mr. De Hart discovered the area and wrote a proposal to designate a trail. The Forest Service worked with Allen to make this trail an official system trail. Blazes and signs were installed . . . sometime around 1989. The azaleas only lasted a few years due to the canopy closing in. At some point in the early 2000’s, the Forest Service was encouraged to downsize our trail systems where possible, and this trail, along with the Sugar Camp Trail nearby, were logical targets. The decision was discussed with Allen. The trail was removed from the trail system later in the 2000’s.
The trail was retained in Allen’s revised copy for the 9th edition, and it still appears on the MNF’s official trail list. However, there’s no doubt it has been dropped from the Marlinton-White Sulphur Ranger District list – and the azaleas are gone. I’m no botanist; when I saw the isolated clump of rhododendron (the species Allen always referred to as rosebay, it’s also known as rhododendron maximum), I hoped that later in the spring or early summer the flame azaleas would somehow pop out of hiding amongst them. Fat chance.
What remains is the example of Allen’s lifelong dedication to trail-building. As we wrote in our appreciation (“A Friend Hikes Away,” December 2016), “When he was twelve, he and his brother hacked a trail through the woods so they could walk to school, avoiding an hour and a half (each way) bus ride.” Much later, he founded a Friends group for one of his favorite projects, North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Can you think of an unrecognized place in the forest where you would designate a trail?