Trail Truthing, Part 5: Your Turn

By Hugh Rogers

Ever-resourceful Editor John has proposed a contest for hikers who will help us bring our Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide up to date.

Here’s some background.

More than ten years have passed since our 8th edition came off the press. Many changes have affected the trails, and hikers’ experience, since 2006.

First, we want to draw attention to the three new Wilderness Areas designated in 2009: Roaring Plains West, Big Draft, and Spice Run (although the last has no formal trails). At the same time, Cranberry, Dolly Sods, and Otter Creek were expanded. It was in large part due to the efforts of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy that they gained this protection, joining the five that were created in 1975 and 1983: Dolly Sods, Otter Creek, and Cranberry, plus Laurel Fork North and South.

A number of trails, especially in Greenbrier Ranger District, have been restored and/or rerouted, including a 2.5-mile trail along the Shavers Fork.  In the same district, hikers can look forward to a new array of trails on Cheat Mountain, where construction of the first phase began in the summer of 2016. The 41,000-acre (64 sq.mi.) Mower tract, acquired from the Mower Lumber Company in the 1980’s, had been extensively timbered and strip-mined, leaving broad vistas more like Wyoming than West Virginia. The Forest Service has done reclamation and some red spruce restoration on the old mines. Now it plans a system of trails that will allow hikers to vary the distance and difficulty of their experience. The first five trails, totaling nearly ten miles, will be located south of US 250 between FR 227, on the western edge of Cheat Mountain, and FR 233 along the Shavers Fork. Later phases include a connector trail to Snowshoe Mountain Resort.

Hikers should be aware of the long-term impacts of major weather events: the flood in June 2016, a derecho and “Superstorm Sandy” in October 2012.  Many trails on the Forest, especially on the Gauley and Marlinton/White Sulphur Ranger Districts, will take years to repair.  Visitors should call there for conditions and plan to encounter washouts, missing bridges, altered stream crossings, and landslides.  Lingering effects of Sandy are mostly downed trees blocking remote trails and “hangers” that continue to fall.

A variety of short but interesting new trails have been added to the National Forest inventory. At the same time, several familiar trails are no longer maintained, or will be rerouted. The best known might be the Blackwater Canyon RR Grade, which is affected by a dispute with an adjoining landowner that wants to make the trail a logging road. Although both sides of the trail are deteriorating (the boundary is right down the middle, for the most part), the uphill side is still public land, and it still sees lots of use by hikers and bikers. We’ll continue to include it, to promote it, even, with appropriate cautions.

Also in Cheat Ranger District, South Haddix Trail (TR126) and Shingletree Trail (TR121) will be realigned during Corridor H construction. Details should be available this summer.

So, what about the contest? Well, since the earliest editions, supporters of the Highlands Conservancy have updated trail information, by post card, phone, or online. Some hikers have taken photos to illustrate their experiences (and we need photographs!).

Topics have included rare or heavy trail usage, water sources, overgrowth, scenic views, potential campsites, condition of trailhead parking areas, trail erosion, signage, unusual rock formations or botanical oddities, and any problems with crossing private land. We’ve received suggestions on our style, our maps, and of course the trail descriptions.

It’s time to ramp it up. A new edition is an opportunity to correct any lingering errors. This time around, we can’t rely on our long-term author-editors, Allen de Hart and Bruce Sundquist, since they passed away. We’re counting on you.

Re-read the ad. Maybe you have a pet peeve about a certain trail description. Or maybe you’ll simply go out with an eye more sharply focused on what you find and what the Guide led you to expect. Beginner’s eye, we could call it.

Given the many inconsistencies in trail DISTANCES*, that’s probably not so important. More helpful would be changes in trail CONDITIONS, most often affected by floods and windstorms. Best of all would be mistaken DIRECTIONS, or REROUTES since the 8th edition. Possible IMPROVEMENTS in how we present the material are always welcome.

Bonus topic: Tell us about an unrecognized place in the forest where you would designate a trail.


*Footnote on trail length: Although we hoped to reconcile the lengths quoted by our authors with those provided by the Forest Service (presumably using more advanced mapping technology), that hasn’t been possible in every case. For example, trails in the Cranberry Wilderness are listed on a Forest Service brochure map, the brochure text description, and a master trail list. Map and text disagreed on thirteen of fifteen trails (for three, the difference was only 0.1 mile, but others differed by as much as two miles). The master list generally agreed with the text, but on five trails it differed from both text and map. For the Seneca Creek Backcountry, map and text disagreed on twelve of eighteen trails; the master list disagreed with both map and text on seven of eighteen, agreed with map but not text on three, and text but not map on four.  Conclusion: regard mileage numbers as helpful but not infallible.