Visiting Cathedral State Park in Preston County is akin to stepping in a time machine. The story is in the ancient virgin hemlock stand that evaded West Virginia’s timber boom in the early 1900s. Mr. Branson Haas, the original land owner, sold the 133-acre property to the state in 1942 with the contingency that the timber was never to be touched by ax or saw. Today, Cathedral State Park is home to West Virginia’s largest remaining virgin timber tract. Towering hemlocks and dense rhododendron thickets shade the dense forest floor, making for a fairy-tale trip through a landscape of the past.
Cathedral State Park offers six miles of gentle trails that wind through the park. Rhine Creek, stocked with trout during colder months, offers scenic opportunities for anglers. Move your eyes toward the sky for some staggering sights—the hemlocks’ heights are dizzying, with some specimens standing over 100-feet tall. But this species isn’t notable only for its sheer size—the USDA lists the eastern hemlock as a foundation species that plays a significant role in the health of forest and freshwater ecosystems.
Park Ranger Ben Leedom shared the must-do hikes at Cathedral. He recommends the Cathedral Trail and Giant Hemlock Trail for some of the best views of the ancient timber. “The Cathedral Trail is great because when you hike that trail, you get to see the majority of the largest hemlocks in the park,” Leedom said. “Rhine Creek, the creek that flows through the park, actually runs parallel to that trail You get some nice views of the trees and also have the creek running along.”
While hiking, picnicking, and fishing are the park’s primary activities, Leedom said Cathedral offers cross-county skiing opportunities when enough snow makes it through the thick canopy. The park offers a quiet experience compared to nearby hiking hotspots like Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley.
Every fairy-tale, however, has an antagonist. In the story of Cathedral State Park, the hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) poses an existential threat. An invasive species, the adelgid is an insect barely visible to the naked eye. It feeds on starches in the sap crucial to a hemlock’s health, leaving it perceptible to disease and decay. Infected hemlocks have the appearance of being dusted with light snow—the fluffy hairs of the insects that allow them to be transported by air currents between stands.
The hemlock woolly adlegid’s effect is felt not only in Cathedral State Park, but throughout many forests in the eastern U.S. In Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, the National Park System recorded that over 80% of hemlocks have died due to hemlock woolly adelgid infestation. Cold, hard winters, Leedom explained, offset the insect’s impact—the aberrations of increasingly warmer winters will not be favorable for the survival of Cathedral’s ancient hemlocks.
In the story of Cathedral, the protagonists are scientists—forests, biologist, and entomologists battling the invaders. Observant hikers may notice that some of Cathedral’s hemlocks are marked with metal tags. These hemlocks have been treated with insecticide spray or soil injection—short-term solutions to a long-term challenge. Despite the risk posed by the antagonist, the fairytale beauty of Cathedral remains, hinging on the work of those dedicated to a happy ending.
Melanie’s Family Restaurant serves home-cooked meals directly across the street from Cathedral’s parking lot. The park offers plenty of tables for picnicking and shelters that can be reserved for events. Trail maps can be found at the parking lot, located directly on U.S. Route 50 near the WV-MD border. The nearby quaint town of Aurora is perfect for folks looking for peaceful trails and a piece of the past. Take a detour and step into the fairy-tale nestled inside West Virginia’s oldest virgin timber tract.