Coopers Rock State Forest
A trek through West Virginia’s heavenly highlands
Anytime is a good time to hike in the woods, but October is the best! Dan and I look forward to these annual treks, especially after the first cold snap when it’s not so buggy. The brisk exercise is invigorating as we watch Mother Nature change wardrobes, slipping from her playful greens into the glorious warm shades of burgundy, amber, and rusty orange. This year, we chose to watch the vibrant show from the mountains of West Virginia.
We were drawn to Coopers Rock State Forest because of its scenic trails and overlooks, historical significance, and (for me) the elusive, three-toothed snails that are found only along this forest’s rocky cliffs. Also, the Mountain Creek Cabins (see feature below) are just down the road, offering a cozy wooded retreat for an extended getaway.
During the 10-hour drive from our home, we anticipated a peaceful hike with blue skies, sunshine, and the earthy scent of leaves whirling at our feet. We looked forward to seeing the Cheat River Gorge from the main overlook and also hiking the Clay Furnace Trail. It’s one of the most well known trails in the forest because of the 19th century iron furnace still rooted to the ground that once provided a livelihood for 200 men.
The forest also comes with the colorful legend of a fugitive who was a cooper by trade, according to Al Kerns, forest superintendent. “The renegade was hiding from the law in a nearby state and saw a lucrative opportunity for survival. There were five iron furnaces here at the time. He made wooden stave barrels and buckets and traded them for food at the worksites. Nobody knew the cooper’s name or where his mountain hideout was, but there’s a little cave beneath the overlook with a few rooms. Some say he may have lived there. When it came time to name the forest, the legend fit right in.”
We arrived at Coopers Rock mid-afternoon to a colorless sky, chilly temps, strong winds, whipping rain, and a youth group that had been cooped up on a school bus too long. However, parking was plentiful at the visitor’s center, and it was just a short walk to the overlook where the Cheat River snakes through the rocky canyon on the western edge of Allegheny Mountains. Mother Nature was clinging to the green threads of summer but losing her grip to autumn splendor. The view was breathtaking, even through our bone-chilling shivers!
From there, we followed The Rattlesnake Trail a short distance, circled back for a map, and headed to the Clay Furnace Trail. This mile-long trail, once an old mining road, has a few twisty bends and steep sections, but overall it was a pretty easy trek. Chances of seeing one of the world’s rarest snails, known as the “Cheat threetooth,” were pretty slim, though, since they typically nestle in the rock crevices. Besides that, trails have been rerouted in recent years to alleviate their disturbance.
The maples, oaks, and poplars were beginning to flaunt their brilliance. But the color along this trail goes beyond the foliage and into the golden industrial era when iron furnaces dotted the valley. Back then, the forest was rich in iron ore, limestone and timber which were used to produce the pig iron needed for farm tools and numerous household items. We were the only ones on the trail that day. The tranquility must have been a sharp contrast to the bustling activity in the mid 1800s when little communities with slab shanties thrived around the worksites to accommodate the miners and timber folks.
Coming around the last bend, we could see the massive Henry Clay furnace peeking through the trees, bramble and thicket. Most of its hand-cut stones are still intact with a velvet carpet of moss covering the lower area. A sign nearby said the furnace once produced four tons of pig iron every 24 hours from around 1836 to 1847. I thought about the muscle of manpower it must have taken to keep the furnace running as we crossed a nearby footbridge. The stream below was flowing over rocks, dimpling the water. On a better-weather day, it would make a great place to spread out a picnic blanket, listen to birdsong, and ponder the past.
We ended the day at the cozy Mountain Creek Cabins, just a few miles away, where we opened a nice bottle wine and settled by the fire with some fresh crusty bread and cheese. The next morning arrived like one of those glorious autumn day you see in travel magazines. After a stroll along the winding mountain road outside our cabin, we returned to Coopers Rock for a leisurely trek on the Roadside Trail which runs from the main entrance to the overlook. It’s a perfect trail for those days when you simply want to gather the glory of a changing season without the huffing, puffing and sweating of a challenging hike. The trail was graced by a lush canopy of trees, a little lake radiating with autumn’s reflection, and manmade stone piles reminding us of the cairns we stumbled upon years ago during our walks in Scotland. Also memorable was a stone chair and table upon the trail where we stopped for a rest simply because it was there.
Already, we’re looking forward to a return visit when we’ll have more time to explore more of the forest’s 50 miles of trails. The 12,713-acre forest is 13 miles east of Morgantown and 8 miles west of Bruceton Mills -- just off of I-68 at Exit 15. An estimated 300,000 people visit each year for sightseeing, rock climbing, bicycling, mountain biking, hiking, bird watching, camping, fishing, and hunting. For more information on Coopers Rock State Forest's scenic trails and other activities, visit www.coopersrockstateforest.com or call (304) 594-1561.
Also, West Virginia Division of Tourism features a wealth of travel and recreational information at www.wvtourism.com. Check out their fun facts and trivia section!
“Almost heaven, West Virginia …”
Mountain Cabins offer an undefined peace
Ever since listening to the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” in the early 70s, I’ve dreamed of seeing the mountains of West Virginia. That dream materialized in October when Dan and I headed to the Mountain Creek Cabins on Cooper’s Rock Mountain near Bruceton Mills. However, we didn’t know that we’d listen to the heartbeat of a real “coming home” through the lives of our hosts, Mark and Sheila Jenkins.
More than a decade ago, the couple moved to Mark’s ancestral land where they began eking out a life among the towering timbers and remnants of an 1870s homestead. Since then, they’ve turned their love of the land and sweat equity into a legacy for their children – the rich heritage of a good life. And they enjoy sharing that life with guests who stay in one of their seven cozy cabins which blends rustic charm with the luxury of modern conveniences. Some guests come simply to escape the daily rat race; others come to explore nature or seek outdoor adventures at nearby parks and forests. All are blessed with unparalleled hospitality.
The cabins are off the beaten path but easy to find, thanks to great signage. Shortly after taking exit 15 from Interstate 68, we were greeted by a lush blazing of autumn radiance along the rolling hills, valleys and twisty bends that took us to our home for the next few days, Shawnee Cabin. We had spent the morning hiking trails at nearby Coopers Rock State Forest (see feature below) and were ready to relax at the woodland retreat which features a comfy front porch, gas-log fireplace, and hot tub overlooking the woods and a mountain stream. That evening as the sun set, we were embraced by the warm earth tones and harvest hues that beckoned us to open a nice bottle of wine and cuddle by the fire. Surrounded by an undefined peace, we listened to trees whispering secrets and the stream’s drowsy murmur trickling over rocks. Yes, it was almost heaven.
When travelling, it’s our habit to wake at dawn and energize the day with a brisk walk. That first morning, we walked along the country road as a pink sheen rose in the sky and a soft mist floated above the meadow. We explored a network of trails that meander along the stream and then visited Mark and Sheila at their cabin down the road. Heaven seemed to meet earth at their doorstep which is just a stone’s throw from the old home place. Life (really) is old there. Come along and listen to a heartwarming story of the country roads that took them home. …
It began several years ago when the couple volunteered at a zoo and recognized a growing problem with exotic pet trading. Their hearts were captured by native mountain lions, also known as cougars, which arrived at the zoo malnourished and in horrible health “The novelty wore off as the cute, cuddly cats grew into 200 pound carnivores,” Mark expressed. They wanted to somehow provide a safe haven for the discarded cats and also educate the public on the evils of the exotic pet trade industry.
Mark had fond memories of the old family farm, tucked in a mountain valley, where he’d spent time as a child. The farm had been abandoned by his great grandfather in 1914. Over the years, it had deteriorated and, except for the chimney, eventually disappeared. For Mark, that old chimney was more than a stack of stones. It was a link to his past. He felt a deep connection to the land and also thought it could provide a natural habitat for the cougars. At the time, he didn’t realize it would also be a link to the future.
“My father was the executor of the land and had been leasing it to hunting clubs just to pay the taxes. “I told him, ‘We have to save the farm!’” As Mark explained, it wasn’t an easy task, since the land was part of a large heirship with relatives all over the U.S. But he and his dad began wrapping their time in the red tape necessary to breathe new life into the family farm. After a laborious 10-year process, which included mining and timbering the land, they divided the proceeds among the heirs and took full ownership.
The Coopers Rock Mountain Lion Sanctuary opened in 1998 and is funded through donations and grants. Mark and Sheila moved to a mobile home nearby, started a family, and began weaving their dreams into a life that has drifted far beyond their imagination – thanks, in part, to actor Harrison Ford, according to Mark. “We had a commercial cleaning business in Morgantown, but I hated leaving these woods and going to work in town. One morning we were trying to think of a way to make a living on the land. Believe it or not, there was a story in the newspaper that day about Harrison Ford’s helicopter making an emergency landing. He stayed at a resort nearby but didn’t have any privacy. Everyone wanted his autograph. Sheila said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a place where people could get away from all that?’ I started thinking about the possibilities here. So I have to give my wife credit for this venture.”
In 2003, they built four mountain cabins, including their own, and opened for business a year later. Mark’s parents, Ed and Jean Jenkins, “Pap Pap” and “Nan” to the grandchildren, built their own cabin down the road. The cabins became so popular, especially through referrals, that they built four more in 2005.
West Virginia is a great destination for a wide variety of outdoor activities, from mild walks on scenic trails to the wild thrills of whitewater rafting. However, Marks believes it’s the tranquility that draws most guests to the cabins and keeps them coming. “We’re close to Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia, so it’s a great getaway in the mountains. People like the seclusion,” he said. Return guests are quite fond of “Nan’s” wild blackberry pies, a sweet perk waiting at the cabin upon request.
Although most days are spent chauffeuring their children Caleb, 9, and Shawnee, 8, to and from school, cleaning cabins, and ongoing upkeep and maintenance, Mark and Sheila enjoy a life that harkens back to the old days when neighboring on the porch swing was the social norm. “We’ve met people from all over the world. It’s nice to just sit on the porch and get to know them. Some of our guests have become good friends,” Sheila said.
Mark talked about his ancestors who tamed the land in the 1870s, shortly after the state was admitted to the union. His Great Aunt Frances lived there as a child from 1904-14; memories gather ‘round her in a vivid journal she left for the family. It’s a moving account of the bounty and beauty of simpler times when self-sufficient farmers were the backbone of the economy. “We made our own fun,” she recalled, bringing days filled with childhood wonder and excitement to life. But times were changing, according to young Frances. Her parents were part of a mass exodus to town where farmers found regular paychecks with factory or foundry jobs. Still, she “thirsted for a drink of spring water” as her heart turned toward the farm. Mark said, “The book amazes me. I grew up in town where we could reach out and touch the neighbor’s house, but I remember coming out here to the farm and picnicking next to the stream. We always visited the chimney.”
Today, Caleb and Shawnee (Frances) are blessed with the simple pleasures of a childhood that echoes the bygone days of their great-great aunt. “They’re growing up with an imagination, playing by the creek, building forts, collecting junk, and floating leaf boats in the ditch after a big rain. And just like Mayberry, we’ll go down to the lake and fish for bass or bluegill. It’s the only life they know,” Mark expressed. Best of all, their Pap Pap and Nan are just down the road.
He showed us around, beginning at the mountain lion sanctuary where we were introduced to 11-year-old Tecumseh stretching in the sun after a morning nap. Mark talked about the other cats who have found refuge at the sanctuary over the years. “Their stories would make you cry,” he said, struggling to fight back tears. Future plans include providing a haven for smaller exotic cats, such as the lynx, bobcat and ocelot that are losing their predatory habitats to housing developments and other progress.
A short distance away, Mark pointed out a block of wood, drilled with tiny holes and nailed to a tree. “It’s a habitat for native mason bees. They’re great spring pollinators,” he said. Although the bees don’t make honey, they help perpetuate the bramble bushes that berry into season beneath the sweet summer sun. Searching for these prized mountain berries has become an annual, multi-generational activity. Each bucket of glistening jewels is soon transformed into “Nan’s” homemade pies, jellies and jams. These sweet delights are available for guests to purchase.
Each year, the family also taps trees for maple syrup, a time-honored tradition that goes back to Native Americans. The “sugaring season” begins in late February or early March, depending on the spring thaw. Mark said, “One day I got the bright idea to tap for syrup. My dad got a big kick out of that, but guess who loves doing it the most now? We still tap the old fashioned way like they did 150 years ago.” Knowing that it takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup gives us a greater appreciation for the work that goes into all that sweetness smothering our pancakes.
We visited the chimney that Mark remembers from his youth. A knotty firethorn vine, thick with crimson berries, still grows nearby like a splash of color from the past. “The kids come out here all the time and play on the same rocks their great-great aunt played on,” Mark said.
Later that day, we drove back to Cooper’s Rock for another walk in the woods. The afternoon was rather surreal – like one of those moments in time that reflects autumn’s brilliance on a greeting cards. It was that perfect! Shortly after returning for our last night at the cabin, Caleb and Shawnee stopped by with the jams we ordered from their “Nan.” They pulled up, all smiles, in a golf cart. Shawnee was driving. Caleb walked barefoot across the rocks and delivered our goodies. They switched drivers and headed home, waving good-bye. That sweet memory was among the highlights of our mountain cabin visit!
That night, Dan opened a nice bottle of West Virginia Chambourcin from the Potomac Highland Winery and prepared his Grandpa Martino’s legendary “Tartinas” – crusty bread topped with brick cheese and baked until the cheese begins to brown. We cozied by the warm glow of fire, stirred by the memories, foods, and traditions that link families to their roots.
The next morning we woke to the gentle tap of rain on the roof. We enjoyed a hot mug of coffee on the porch while listening to raindrops beating the pulse of time against the mountain timbers. Pulling away from the cabin that day, we, too, felt a connection to this land. Maybe it was the peaceful-easiness of our time spent there, or Mark’s family stories that took root in our hearts. Or maybe it was our own stories that unfolded during those few days of tranquility.
Mark’s Great Aunt Frances always yearned to return to a place called “farm” where the “air was so pure and sweet smelling, the sky so blue and sun so bright.” Mark had those same yearnings. Today, he and Sheila are giving their children a life that reflects those simpler times. As Dan observed while driving away, “It’s not always an easy life, but it’s certainly a good one.”
For detailed information on Mountain Creek Cabins and area activities, visit www.mountaincreekcabins.com, or call (866) 379-7548.