Cranberry Glades Monongahela National Forest

November 10, 2022

On my last trip through central West Virginia, despite my earlier statement that the Falls of Hills Creek were a “must do” hike, I skipped them.

I did this at the advice of a friend and business acquaintance from Marlinton, WV who assured me that I should really check out the boardwalk at Cranberry Glades and, having limited time during “lunch” (in quotes because I rarely, if ever, eat anything at lunchtime), I didn’t want to try to squeeze both hikes into an hour(ish) break.

Besides, I’d never been there so I had no idea how extensive the site might be. I had managed to find out that the whole botanical area encompasses 750 acres making it the largest wetland in the state of West Virginia and that the area had been listed as a National Natural Landmark in 1974 but I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as trail(s) or distance.

Cranberry Glades is a boreal bog. Five of them, actually, (although the boardwalk only visits two) that sit in a natural bowl atop the mountains in Monongahela National Forest. A leftover from the last ice age, the elevation, surrounding topography and geographical orientation combine here to create an area where some alpine and tundra plants can survive despite being well south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The ground here is spongy and is made up primarily of peat (decaying plant material) with water at or just below the surface. The peat makes the water highly acidic which makes an ideal environment for some unique plant species including the cranberries for which the area is named, reindeer moss and even some carnivorous ones such as sundew and purple pitcher plant.

I visited in late fall when many of these were dormant but I’ll definitely have to stop in the summer to check it out and to see if the same cold, slightly dreary vibe persists here when it’s hot outside. (Elsewhere the day was reasonably nice but it seemed more overcast here like it could start raining any minute.)

Like the Falls of Hills Creek, the site is accessed from WV Highway 39 (the Highland Scenic Highway) and the access road is, in fact, just a mile or two from the trailhead for the falls.

A mile and a half drive down the access road brought me to a very large parking area (GPS 38.197913, -80.274416) complete with a picnic area and a composting toilet. There was also, of course, a trailhead leading to the bog.

Starting down the trail, I soon came to the beginning of the boardwalk and some informational signage telling about the area. I thought it was interesting that they give you contact numbers for the Sheriff, State Police, some hospitals, etc but I didn’t even have a single bar on my phone.

I was a bit surprised that it was marked as one-way but I figured that maybe there was signage along the route that would make more sense if going in the recommended direction, so I obediently started off around the loop clockwise. (Note: in hindsight, I suspect that it is because the boardwalk is wide enough for a wheel chair but there's not much room left if someone was walking in the opposite direction)

In practically no time I came upon a board indicating that I had arrived at Round Glade which is 28 acres. The path led along the edge of the wetland with more signage about some of the plants that could be found there. There were also signs encouraging you to stay on the trail but, honestly, the water table was high enough that I doubt many would venture off the boardwalk.

The entire pathway is ½ of a mile long boardwalk that is elevated slightly above the ground. Unlike most of the places that I hike, this one is wide enough and level enough that it could easily be done by someone in a wheelchair and there are several places where the boardwalk widens. These wider areas contain more informational signage relative to what is around and in front of you and about 1/2 of them (seemed like the more recently rebuilt ones) had a bench if you’d like to rest or relax.

The boardwalk was in good repair, was obviously maintained regularly in order to remain as such and, just as obviously, was very likely to be slippery when wet or snowy. (The Highland Scenic Highway does not receive winter maintenance so even getting to the glades in the snow might prove tricky)

While the glade itself looked reasonably solid and there were animal trails in certain areas, the lack of trees seemed to define the bog area to the left of the boardwalk until the trail bore slightly to the right and another board indicated that I was entering a bog forest. The water table was still obviously high and it was not long before I came to Yew Creek and another sign which encouraged me to lie down on the boardwalk and look closely for fish and insects that live there.

Yew Creek had no banks to speak of and seemed to be defined by the lack of vegetation and the bottom being just a little deeper than in the surrounding wetland. I dutifully laid down on the boardwalk and peered into the water for a bit but I didn’t see any of the fish or caddisflies which the sign indicated might be there. I would have liked to get a picture (or at least see) a Mountain Redbelly Dace as they are reportedly very pretty.

Past a widened area that lacked a bench, I then came to the 8 acre Flag Glade where I learned that Purple Pitcher plants are a carnivorous but non-native species and that the Appalachian Jacob’s Ladder, which can be found here, is so rare that noone is really sure how close it actually is to being extinct. I had to wonder how the pitcher plant came to be released in this remote area but vowed to return in the summer to see if I could spot one or both of these plants or the native (and also carnivorous) Sundew.

The path then reentered the forest where mountain laurel and pines crowded in and the winding walkway crossed and re-crossed the even more erratically wandering Yew Creek a few more times. I passed a sign that told about a blue crayfish that tunnels beneath the earth in this area and can burrow as much as 6 feet underground and, having neither heard of nor ever seen a blue crayfish, I had to wonder how specific to this area its range might be. I may have even Googled that one on the spot except that there is absolutely no cell service or wifi in this area. (actually, another reason to love Monongahela Nat’l forest as far as I’m concerned)

One more wetter-than-normal area where it seemed an enterprising beaver was attempting to further increase the size of the wetland by damming, yep, you guessed it, the omnipresent, Yew Creek and I was soon back to the trailhead.

I briefly checked out the picnic area and then went about a ½ mile further from the highway in search of the backcountry trailhead. Bikes and horses are forbidden on the boardwalk but there is a large parking area, a bike repair station and even a chain link garbage station at the end of the access road.

Plenty big enough to park horse trailers, there was some evidence that horses as well as bikers and hikers use this trailhead and the signage here indicated that there are several shelters along the next 16 miles of trail.

There was also a grim reminder that the wilderness can be a dangerous place. A laminated notice was tacked up that indicated that a hiker had gone missing in the area in 2011, that search efforts had been unsuccessful and they were now asking anyone who might find evidence of abandoned camping gear, packs or other indicators to mark the location and contact the Forest Service or the WV State Police.

In all, it turned out to be a very easy walk through a very interesting area. I do think it would be better in the spring or summer when the plants would be more active but, in my opinion, having an excuse to return is not a bad thing.