My local(ish) backpacking partner moved away, and I couldn’t recruit my active friends around here to join me on a backpacking trip. I’m also not quite ready to go solo. So, I turned to the internet. I posted in facebook group for women who hike in my state, and there was a pretty good response. We evaluated a couple options and decided on a 2 night trip to Cranberry Wilderness in Monongahela Forest in West Virginia. While initial interest was high, as the day of the trip grew closer, we ended up with a group of four that were up for the trip.

As for a route, I did a lot of searching on the internet, but there weren’t a whole lot of descriptions for multi-day routes. My favorite site for hiking plans is Hiking Upward, and they had a couple 2 day one night treks – some that overlapped with our plan, like Forks of the Cranberry and Middle Fork/Big Beechy. Ultimately, we choose a route published about 16 years ago on mid-atlantic hikes that includes a 24 or 27 mile loop through the wilderness.

I’m going to break this post into three sections — some thoughts about my weekend in general, a description of the hike itself, comparing it the posted hike, and a summary of my gear, my thoughts on that gear, and what I’ll do next time.

Dang, I love being in the woods

I have really missed backpacking. And there’s a place for car camping too, and for hiking. But there’s something I love about the challenge of carrying all your gear, finding a quiet spot to camp, and then packing it back out. There are also a whole lot less people, and the people that are there, are enjoying the woods like you are. As I said above, my backpacking partner who was local(ish) moved away. And I turned to the internet to recruit new people to backpack with me. Specifically, I posted on a facebook page called Girls who Hike Virginia. I believe these kind of groups exist all over, I’m also in the Girls who Hike NC page.

I created an event page in this facebook group, and let people opt in. We had as many as 11 commits, and just as many tentatives, but come event weekend, it was down to four ladies – from all over, and all strangers. I got really lucky. This was a great group! We did get down to three ladies for the majority of the trip. Unfortunately, one woman sprained her ankle about a mile in, and turned back. I believe she found some car camping as a consolation. The three of us that went on were really well matched for fitness and endurance.

I was pretty nervous about this hike. Not for my ability, but the risk of bears! This wilderness is a bear sanctuary, and I did buy bear spray just in case. Turns out it was not needed. In fact, we barely saw any wildlife. We saw bugs and birds, and some jumping fish, but no bears, no deer, no rabbits, no chipmunks. I did see some squirrels on the last day, but I was the only one in the party that saw them. So, I was told it didn’t count.

What did I love most about this hike: gosh, it was so remote. No phone service, no blazes, cairns for sure – but not everywhere. I think after this hike, I feel a lot more capable. I’m not sure I’m ready for solo yet, but I’m close. We had perfect weather, the rivers were so clear and it was so easy to get water. And also the isolation – we didn’t see anyone for about 24 hours.

Our chosen hike

As I said – we selected a pre-vetted hike from mid-atlantic hikes – it was a 27 mile/2 night course. Here are some modified instructions on the hike (original in bold, my edits in italics):

Start at the North/South Trailhead on Scenic Highway 150. From the Nature Center, drive straight across to 150, and in about 6 miles the North/South Trailhead will be on your left, with some additional parking on the right. Follow the North/South trail in from the parking area. At first there are several footpaths which seem to go in all directions. Bear to the left and pass a kiosk. In 0.4 miles arrive at the junction with the North Fork Trail. Turn left here.

Continue on the North Fork Trail. In about 1.5 miles the trail will split. Bear right and descend a short distance before making a sharp switchback to the right. It is marked with cairns. The trail is easy to follow except in two areas where it temporarily leaves the old woods road/railroad grade to avoid blowouts of the bank. These are marked by cairns and some sort of signage. Since this was first published, there appear to many more detours on the North Fork Trail – the cairns are pretty reliable, trust them. Also this trail is very muddy and wet. Prepare for mud and wet crossings.

In about 6.5 miles from leaving the start on the North/South Tr pass the signed Forks trail on the left. Shortly after that there is an isolated campsite on the right. It’s easy to walk by. This is a good place to camp for the night. Never saw that campsite.

As you near the confluence of the main fork of the Cranberry you’ll pass a liming station on the right which is used to neutralize the acidity in the river. Turn right onto FR76 (Black on the map). Follow it for approximately 1.7 miles to the junction of Tumbling Rock Tr. You will pass a shelter and some nice campsites. If you push on just past Tumbling Rock Trail – there is a newly constructed (in 2021) Tumbling Rock Shelter, with a clearing for camping and on the banks of the river. This should be about 9 miles from the start of your hike.

Soon pass From Tumbling Rock Shelter. In another 0.5 miles arrive at the junction of Birch Log Tr. Turn right here. As you ascend Birch Log Tr ( blazed with blue diamonds) pass a campsite on the right. Climb steadily for 2.1 miles. You’ll gain about 1400 feet in elevation. This is the steepest part of the trip.

Arrive at the junction of the North/South Tr. As of this writing there is no sign but the trail is obvious. Trail is not super obvious, but there is a cairn. Turn right and follow the trail – there are many downed trees, and the trail is not well travelled here – and in about a mile turn left onto the Laurelly Tr. Just before Laurelly trail, there is a large campsite on the right, and is the perfect place to stop for a snack. Laurelly Tr starts as a footpath but shortly after passing a small campsite on the right and crossing the run connects with a railroad grade. Descend on the grade as it switchbacks to the valley below and arrive at a ford and the junction of Middle Fork Tr at 3.23 miles from the last trail junction. Note that Laurelly Trail and the next trail have a fair amount of stinging nettle in the growing season. Pants are recommended.

There are 3 options here. There is a nice campsite to the left just after the ford. didn’t see the campsite by the ford. Camp there or turn left and hike 1.5 miles downstream to the junction of Big Beechy for some great camping (at big beechy, there is one campsite overlooking waterfalls, and then a larger complex of camping along along the big beechy branch) or turn right (upstream) and hike 0.5 miles to good camping at the confluence of Hell For Certain Branch. Highly recommend Hell for Certain – cross the river to a large area for camping with a waterfall. We camped here and it was perfect. There are sites on both sides of the river here. If you opt not to hike down to Big Beechy your trip will be 24 miles long.

Regardless of where you camp, to complete the trip follow the Middle Fork Trail  for approximately 4 miles to the junction of the North Branch Tr. (This trail may be defunct but the sign is still there.) This sign post is here, but unclear if the trail is there – there does appear to be a large campsite. Continue straight on the Middle Fork Tr for another 2.3 miles. Again, there are many downed trees and much climbing over and under. You’ll pass a small campsite on the right before turning north, away from the stream, and finally reaching the North Fork Tr. Turn right onto the North Fork Tr and follow it back to the original junction with the North/South Tr (1.14 miles). There is now a shortcut trail that bypasses the North/South trail and will take you back to the North/South trailhead. When you arrive at an unmarked fork, bear right for the shorter option back to the trailhead. There is a stone arrow on the ground encouraging you to do so. It will take you back to the trail kiosk where you started. Turn left onto the North/South Tr and follow it back to your car.

Here are the strava entries for our hike. Day 1: North South Trailhead to Tumbling Rock Shelter, 9.6 miles; Day 2: Tumbling Rock Shelter to Hell for Certain Branch Camping with an out and back to Big Beechy, 10.8 miles; and Day 3: Hell for Certain Branch Camping back to North South Trailhead, 7.0 miles

Gear and thoughts for next time

I am no where near an ultra-light backpacker. I weighed my pack (prior to water), and it was upwards of 28 pounds. Here’s a rundown of what I brought with me:

Gregory 55L Women’s Pack (the Maven) — i bought this on clearance a while ago and it’s a solid pack. Comfortable and roomy. I do wish it was easier to get the side pockets when I have it on.

Marmot Tungesten 2p Tent — this is just the smallest tent I own, and i had been meaning to upgrade to a lighter tent. This one is fine, but is 4lbs! After this trip, I did invest in a 1p backpacking tent my Marmot. (and note, the link is too a newer version of my tent – mine’s a couple years old).

Sleep System: I’m a side sleeper, and I recently bought the Helinox Lite Cot – I love it! On this, I sleep with a liner, a rumpl quilt and pillow. The cot is about 1lb – but it’s so nice to not sleep on the ground. I do need to figure out if the cot will fit inside my new 1p tent!! – the footprint fits, but can i get it in the door).

Prior to this trip – I researched bear bags and bear vaults, and I ended up going with the bear vault. I was hesitant on my ability to hang a bear bag. I bought the bear vault 450 – which is the smaller size, and it was not too cumbersome.

For cooking, I have the soto amicus cookset – I just brought the burner and the smaller pot with me. i’m only using it to heat water and it’s perfect. For water purification, I have a gravity filter by platypus. Which on this trip, worked out really well, one of the other women didn’t have a water plan.