Backpacking West Virginia's Cranberry Wilderness North-South Loop
In the heart of the West Virginia's Yew Mountains rests the largest Forest Service wilderness area in the eastern United States, Cranberry Wilderness. The more than 47,000 acre wilderness and designated black bear sanctuary features a beautiful and rugged landscape. Its mountains and valleys are filled with dense Appalachian hardwoods, thick rhododendron groves, and towering stands of red spruce. Its high plateaus blanketed in sphagnum moss, drawing striking similarities to the primeval tempered rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. Flowing through Cranberry Wilderness is its namesake river, a tributary of the Gauley River, whose pristine water holds more trout per acre than any other stream in the state. This lush wilderness, located wholly within the Monongahela National Forest, features more than sixty miles of unmaintained trails; there are no bridges over its streams, no blazes on its trees, and zero cell service. True wilderness. Scattered along its trails under canopies of hardwoods are some of the finest backcountry campsites in the eastern United States, ready to reward those who call the Cranberry home for the night. This guide details an overnight backpack utilizing the North-South, Laurelly Branch, Middle Fork, and North Fork Trails, creating a 20-mile loop where you're all but guaranteed to experience loads of solitude. Due to the abundance of mud, stinging nettle, and overgrowth on this route, waterproof boots and pants are highly recommended. The best time to backpack this route is late summer when the temperatures are more favorable, the water levels are lower, the mud is tolerable, and bugs are minimal. We also highly recommend downloading the AllTrails Pro trail map since the trail can be challenging to locate at times, especially during the first day on the plateaus.
Trailhead elevation 4,492'
Water North Fork Williams River, unreliable elsewhere
Don't miss The riverfront campsites along Middle Fork Trail, especially at the Laurelly Branch junction
Day 1: North-South & Laurelly Branch Trails
North-South Trail (8 miles/700')
Laurelly Branch Trail (3.5 miles/downhill)
You'll find two parking areas near the trailhead, one at the trailhead that can accommodate two vehicles and another directly across the road that can hold four to five vehicles. On the rare occasion that these are filled, parking is permitted along WV-150/Highland Scenic Highway. The trailhead is clearly marked with the sign below.
After entering the forest you'll find a number of trails going in various directions, but stay left and within a few hundred feet you'll find a large map kiosk indicating that you're on the right track. Heading clockwise, the first 3.5 miles feature plateaus covered in moss as far as the eye can see, thick rhododendron groves, red spruce, and a fair amount of overgrowth. It's pretty damn gorgeous.
It's worth noting that mud is prevalent throughout the first day and ranges from around a quarter inch to ankle deep in spots. You'll likely find this to be the case even in the driest months.
At roughly 5.5 miles you'll reach the signed Tumbling Rock/North-South Trail junction where you'll hang a right and proceed up a steady incline.
At 6.4 miles you'll encounter an area with several noticeable rock formations. Stay to the right of them and follow the rock cairns to stay on trail. Around 8 miles you'll reach the signed Laurelly Branch Trail junction where you'll make another right and descend 3.5 mile before reaching the North Fork of the Williams River, your only reliable water source on day one.
Once at the river, you'll find three excellent campsites. The large site on the near side of the river can hold at least three or four tents and has an established stone fire ring. The first site on the far side of the river, pictured below, can hold one or two tents but does not have an established fire ring. The third site is about a hundred feet past the second at the Laurelly Branch/Middle Fork Trail junction and has an established fire ring. The river crossing here should be nothing more than rock hopping in late summer, but earlier in the year or after heavy rains you may find it to be calf to mid-thigh deep. Information on the water levels for the Williams River can be found on the USGS website. About a half mile from the Laurelly Branch/Middle Fork Trail junction there's another excellent campsite on the opposite side of the river, but is often snagged early in the day. We hiked to it, found it taken, and ended up returning to the Laurelly Branch/Middle Fork campsites, which added another mile to the day. The three sites mentioned above are equally as impressive. A list of campsites with established fire pits that we noticed on this route can be found at the bottom of this article.
Day 2: Middle Fork, North Fork & North-South Trails
Middle Fork Trail (6.6 miles/1,350')
North Fork Trail (1.2 miles/300'
North-South Trail (0.5 miles/flat)
The second day is considerably easier with a very gradual, generally mud free incline. Sights and sounds of the river and its many small cascades will be present for the first six miles or so. The landscape will be similar to that of the Laurelly Branch Trail, hardwoods with the occasional rhododendron grove. At roughly 12.9 miles you'll find a moderately sized waterfall hugging the near side of the river and a large rock slab that would be a good spot to fish from if that's something you're interested in. There are river crossings at roughly 13.3, 14.1, and 14.9 miles, and all are nothing more than rock hopping later in the year.
There are also numerous blowdowns on day two, ranging from small to those that require a little more work. At roughly 17.5 miles the landscape begins to change. Moss, ferns, and spruce become more prominent as the sound of the river gently fades away. Around 18 miles you'll reach the signed North Fork Trail and make a sharp right. The remainder of the trail is covered in a thick layer of spruce needles, a welcome sight to sore feet. At roughly 19 miles you'll reach a fork in the trail where you'll stay right even if a rock cairn directs you left. When the rhododendron becomes thick, as in the photo below, you're very close to the junction with the North-South Trail where you'll turn left and return to the trailhead.
After returning to the trailhead make sure to check out the two nearby scenic overlooks, Big Spruce Overlook and Williams River Valley Overlook, both minutes away, south on WV-150. There are bathrooms at the Big Spruce Overlook for those that held it in all this time. If you have any gas left in the tank, you can also check out the 1.4 mile trail to Falls Creek Falls about fifteen minutes south of the North-South Trailhead in the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area.
We noticed the following established sites and all had established fire pits. Mileage is listed from the start of the route, hiking clockwise.
1.8 on the left
2.0 on the left
2.5 on the left and right
2.9 on the left (large site)
3.3 on the left (large site)
4.3 on the right
4.7 on the right (large site)
5.1 on the right
5.5 at Tumbling Rock/North-South Trail junction (multiple sites)
6.5 on the right (small)
11.6 along North Fork of the Williams River (multiple sites)
12.0 on the right
12.1 on the opposite side of the river)
13.2 on the right (large site)
14.6 on the right
14.7 on the right
16.2 on the right
If you have any gas left in the tank at the end of the backpack make sure to check out Falls of Hills Creek, a large waterfall about a twenty minute drive south of the North-South Trailhead. A fairly easy 1.5 mile round trip hike leads to multiple viewing areas and is definitely worth the time.
And that's two days backpacking the Cranberry Wilderness North-South Loop. Have a blast and enjoy the solitude on this one! You'll have plenty of it.