Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hiking Coopers Rock State Forest

By Mike Layne

The view of Coopers Rock State Forest Overlook
The Overlook
Coopers Rock is a 12,747 acre state forest in Monongalia and Preston counties of West Virginia.  It’s southern edge boarders against Cheat Lake and the canyon section of Cheat River, which is popular as an Eastern US destination for white water rafting.  

According to legend, a fugitive from the law, a cooper by trade, hid out from authorities near what is now the overlook.  The legend says he lived and worked here for many years, continuing to build barrels in his mountain hideout.  In the thirties and forties (1936-1942) Coopers Rock was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Many of their structures, including rustic picnic shelters made of American chestnut, are still standing today and are registered on the National Register of Historic Places.

Spencer Layne Hiking at Coopers Rock State Forest in West Virginia
Spencer Layne
A simple Google search for Coopers Rock Hiking produces pretty good results.  As with all state parks and forests in West Virginia, they have a basic Trail Map .pdf file you can view online or download and print. The state page also has a short piece labeled 'Things to Do' that covers the basics.  Hiking/biking, climbing, picnicking, trading post, and, of particular interest to me, playgrounds in the campsites and at various picnic areas.  On the state site, the page I found the most useful is 'Hiking/Biking Trails page'.  Each trail on the map is listed
along with trail length, walking time, blaze, difficulty and a short description.   They could improve this page by making an easily printable version, or by adding it as a second page to the trail map pdf, but it’s fairly easy to print the whole thing and take it as a companion to the map. You can see a brochure pdf online as well, but its basically the same information on the website.    Something I’m having a hard time finding on state websites, it’s especially noticeable because we are planning an early spring trip here, is a good list of what is available during the off season.  Having never been here before, it would be great to know ahead of time if there is a gate, if it is unlocked in the winter and early fall and what time it is locked at night, if at all.  Anything that would make it easier to plan a trip outside of the standard summer season would be helpful.  
We left the house Saturday around 11 a.m.  This was a strategic decision, not a slow start.  We planned to drop Braxton (our 3 month old) of with his Grandma around 11:30 and drive the hour up I-79 to arrive around 12:30.  The reason; this is prime nap time!!
Parent Tip: For day hikes, try to plan drive time around nap time.  The last thing you want to do is take a cranky toddler out of a confined car seat and try to put him into a child carrier.  If they can get their regular nap in on the way, they are more likely to enjoy the carrier ride and hike. 

Day Parking Lot at Coopers Rock State Forest
Day Parking Lot 
We exited the interstate and the first impression I got was that the road is nice new pavement with crisp painted lines.  This may seem like a silly first impression, but with 90% of WV roads in shambles following a horrible winter, it's refreshing to see new pavement.  The Day Use parking lot is less than 1/2 mile from the interstate.  It has restroom facilities and, according to the sign, it's open 8 a.m. to dark.  You can see the parking lot was less than half full when we arrived.  By the time we left there were cars covering every inch of parkable real estate, lining the road all the way our toward the interstate.  So impression two was, if you are in search of solitude, at least on the first real day of spring, this is not your ideal day trip.  But to stay on the positive side, the area is very well kept up.  The trail heads are well marked and later in
Day Parking Lot at Coopers Rock State Forest
Day Parking
our day we discovered large maps posted at a kiosk between day parking and the overlook.  I should say upfront that we never made it to the overlook.  Our main objective on this trip was to see as much of the trail system as possible and taking the time to hike to the overlook, since you cannot drive past the gate at day parking, would have used up too much trail time. My recurring pet peeve with state parks and forests during the off season is that it is very hard to find out what is and isn't open in terms of gates and main areas.  I assumed you would be able to drive all the way to the lookout area, but that is not the case.  It would have been roughly a three mile hike taking the Road Side Trail.  That confusion aside, the park is clean and well kept.  We only encountered two places on the trails we hiked where there was an obstruction that needed to be circumvented.  That's not such a big deal when you're hiking solo or with grown ups, but with a toddler on your back, you're much more aware of hazards off trails.  
Parent Tip: If you don't normally hike with a walking stick or trekking poles and you plan to carry a toddler on in a child carrier, consider trekking poles.  I'm not currently using them, but I found myself wishing a few times that I was.  

The trail head of Scotts Run Trail at Coopers Rock State Forest
Scotts Run Trail Head
Having said what I've already said about the large crowd, we took the Scott's Run Trail on the north side of the road and found solitude.  We picked this trail because it appears to take you the furthest from the main park proper.  This assumption turned out to be correct.  We only saw one other person while on this trail.  The trail itself runs more or less down hill for the first mile, following its namesake Scott's Run as the stream increases in size with the addition of small tributaries.  The creek isn't much to look at when you first see it, but it beauty factor increases exponentially as it increases in size.  For the first mile or so, the surrounding forest scenery is just so-so as well.  Don't misunderstand, it's still 20 times better than walking on pavement, just not a stunning view.  Be prepared for regular good ole' forest scenes with some low growing briers and scrubby brush.  At roughly a mile in, the path turns away from Scott's Run and into a
Scotts Run Trail
quarter-mile or so of steady uphill climbing.  Very gradual, but it certainly reminds you that Junior is on your back.  At the end of the climbing you come back out on the main road through the park.  If you don't have a map this can look a little confusing because you can take the road three different directions.  Luckily this is where the kiosk with the large map is located.  And right next to the road is the Road Side Trail.  We took this to our right headed back toward the parking lot.  A few hundred yards past the large green water tower, we'd been on the Road Side Trail for less than a 1/4 mile and passed no less than 30 people headed toward the overlook, we took a left on what looked more like a gravel road than a trail.  This took us past the power lines and down to the Reservoir Ski Trail.  We took this all the way to the
Toddler picking up rocks while hiking at Coopers Rock State Forest
Spencer discovers rocks
Advanced Ski Trail, took a right and came back out at the parking lot.  I will say that this side of the trail system was much prettier than the other side.  The undergrowth was much thinner, giving way to tall straight hardwood trees, moss covered rocks and ferns.  The lack of undergrowth opens the forest up and gives a more spacious feel to the surrounding woods.   It was long about this time that Spencer discovered the joys associated with picking up and throwing rocks.  We set down in a wide spot for Cheezets and a diaper change, meet a family with three large friendly dogs, at whom Spencer grinned and growled several times.  In the next 30 minutes we advanced roughly 100 yards of trail, as picking up every rock under 20lbs does tend to slow progress.  But Spencer had an absolute ball and this was one of my favorite parts of the hike.
Ready to hike at Coopers Rock State Forest
Spencer having fun
Parent Tip: Hiking with toddlers is not like hiking solo or with 'big' people.  If you are going to keep them interested you have to keep them engaged.  Stop every 20-30 minutes for snacks and play time.  When they want to throw rocks, let them until their heart's content.  I make it a point to show Spencer the different tree bark and move him close enough so he can touch it. He likes this and will ask for it from time to time.  Anything to keep them engaged, learning and having fun.
After rock play time, the rest of the hike was uneventful.  We made it back to the parking lot roughly 2.5 hours after leaving.

Closing thoughts
We will definitely be back during 'open season' to see the overlook.  We may come back and
hike out and back, but the road side trail is exactly what is says it is, 'roadside' and very crowded.  Not really what I'm looking for in a hike.  Other than that, I really liked our visit to Coopers Rock.  There are a number of trails on the north side of the in interstate that are part of the state forest system.  These look like they may be more remote than the south side, which appeals to me, so we may try this side next time out.  Let us know your impressions of the trails.  What did you like and dislike?  Which trails should we try next.  Until next time, happy trails. 

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