I felt like an oddball. All around us, people were dressed for downhill skiing and snowboarding. What else would you expect in the lift line at Timberline Ski Area while waiting to zoom one-thousand feet up the west side of Cabin Mountain? Our group, however, was dressed a little differently. We looked like encumbered turtles surrounded by more agile otters. That’s because we were wearing huge backpacks with snowshoes lashed to them, while no one else was wearing any sort of pack at all. We also stood out in the crowd because our cross country skis were like matchsticks compared to 2x4s—our cross-country skis being much thinner than fat downhill skis. And our free-heel leather boots, of course, were the black sheep in a herd of rigid plastic boots. We all happened to have scruffy beards as well. Oddballs, yes, but for a good reason—we were the only ones in that lift line who planned to spend the night out. Our plan was to ski the first leg of Salamander Run, disappear into the trees, and enter the Dolly Sods Wilderness, where we would ski into the wild and set up camp.
Dolly Sods Wilderness via Timberline
After purchasing your single-trip lift ticket, you’ll quickly encounter the early cruxes of this route: getting on and off the lift while managing a heavy overnight backpack. Survive the dismount, and ski down Salamander for a short spell. Before the first wide left turn, you’ll turn right at a trail marker and leave civilization behind. As you leave the boundaries of Timberline, turn around and look at your portal through the pines so you know what it looks like upon your return. Then turn back, face the wilderness, and follow the good snow.
With cross-country skis and snowshoes, you’re prepared for anything. Ski through the high country, snowshoe if you have to, and find somewhere to set up basecamp. On one trip, after we set up camp, our group skied a four-hour loop around the wilderness with very light daypacks, and returned to camp in time to make dinner ‘round a fire. The following morning, we skied a different loop, packed up camp, and crossed back through our portal to being on-piste at Timberline.
Suddenly, we were skiing down Salamander again, slow turtles surrounded by the speedy otters. But we held our own, and despite the 50-pound packs with snowshoes protruding from the straps, still managed to skinny-ski down the remaining two miles of Sally. Unlike any other backcountry trip in West Virginia, this one ends at a ski lodge. Do you know what they serve in ski lodges? That’s right: Beer.
Parking for an overnight trip from Timberline might take some problem solving, as many spaces are owned by various condos or Timberline. Ask around. The odds are high that any parking in around the resort will be plowed. Snowplowing at any of the following areas, however, is not a certainty. Bring a snow shovel.
Otter Creek Wilderness
Speaking of otters, Otter Creek is another snowy destination to consider for a daytrip. Instead of riding a ski lift to the high country, you drive up to Alpena Gap via Route 33 east of Elkins. You’re already at 3,000 feet when you park.
Your exact parking place around Alpena Gap, and thus your starting point, will be determined by the road conditions of the day and the local plowing schedule. Wherever you park, ski north along Shavers Mountain Trail #129. When you reach the three-way intersection with Hedrick Camp Trail #165, turn right, and stay on Trail #129. Ski until you reach the high point of Shavers Mountain ridge at 3,880’. Take a breather, and if your goal is an out-and-back route, turn around, and ski downhill in your own tracks—woohoo!
If CO 12 is safely plowed and you have two vehicles, you can set a shuttle and ski point-to-point. This will allow you to continue north of the 3,880-foot high point and descend to the four-way intersection with Mylius Trail #128, elevation 3,170. Turn right (east) to ski down to the trailhead and your shuttle at 2,300 feet. You may want to lash snowshoes to your daypack for this journey in case you encounter unskiable conditions.
Locust Springs, Abe’s Run Road, and The Pig’s Ear
Have you ever skied the border country? This is the meeting place of West Virginia and Virginia; of Pendleton and Highland counties; of the Monongahela and George Washington national forests. Have you ever skied where the Forest Service roads drop down westward from Rt. 28, south of Cherry Grove, to the East Fork of the Greenbrier River? Not many have. But if snow is gold, I’ve struck it rich in that area three times.
Searching for snow one day, we turned east off of Route 28, found a place to park at Locust Springs, and in this high elevation headwaters area, found skiable terrain in the woods through fields and along a creek. That memory is a diffuse, impressionistic watercolor by now. Were we along Locust Spring Run or Buck Run? Did we get up Buck Knob, or down to Laurel Fork? I’m not sure, but I do recall the light browns of dried grasses and dark browns of leafless trees against a white background, all sprinkled with dark green conifers. I also recall good, skiable terrain in a beautiful setting, and the feeling of searching, for good snow and scoring big. Another time we scored was when we skied down Abe’s Run Road (FR51) toward the East Fork of the Greenbrier. Close your eyes, picture a snowy ribbon of a wooded road slaloming down the valley, surrounded by hardwoods and hemlocks, with a two-foot base upon which you can do anything you want.
Pig’s Ear Road (FR 254) might also hold some snowy adventure. At the bottom of a down-and-back ski, across the river at Pig’s Ear, I saw my first-ever near-vertical headwall of snow in West Virginia, complete with such a big cornice that it cast a shadow across the whole upper part of the headwall. Lack of daylight forced us to turn around before we could get to it, but finding and skiing that day’s snow was like discovering a new stream and landing a whopper. At the bottom of either Abe’s Run or Pig’s Ear roads, you might be able to extend your day by exploring up or down the East Fork Trail #365, and up into beaver country via some trail-less tributaries.
Little Canaan Wildlife Management Area
You can do it all at Little Canaan—a prime example of what “Wild and Wonderful” actually means. Most know it for fishing, canoeing, hunting, camping, mountain biking, and bouldering. If conditions are good, you can XC ski there, too.
At the east end of Davis, elevation 3,000 feet, Camp 70 enters the WMA to the left of the grocery store where Route 32 bends right and crosses a blue bridge over the Blackwater River. Like many other public lands, parking will be available based on current road conditions and local plowing schedules. You’ll enter the WMA soon after you cross Beaver Creek on Camp 70 Rd. You can ski the road, the powerline corridor, the colorfully-blazed mountain bike trails, or just ski across the countryside wherever the good snow leads. Bring a copy of the free map available at www.wvdnr.gov.
Little Canaan WMA provides many options, and if you head for the hills early enough, that includes crossing over into the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Area. You can ski over the frozen wetlands that would be far more difficult to traverse any other time of year. And when you ski back, there’s great food and beer in Davis. The fun part is the choice: burritos on one side of the street or pizza on the other.
Roaring Plains & Haystack Knob via Flatrock Run Trail
If this ain’t the premier three-day backcountry XC ski trip in all of West Virginia, I’d sure like to know what is. Located just south of Canaan Valley, take Bonner Mountain Road from Laneville Road to find the trailhead for Flatrock Run Trail #519.
This trail will test your legs with the greatest vertical relief of any trail in West Virginia: 2,200 feet of gain. That’s the kind of vert you’ll find in the Catskills of New York or the Green Mountains of Vermont. It takes 5.1 miles to top out at 4,620 feet. Set up basecamp somewhere soon after you reach Roaring Plains Trail #548.
On your second day, take daypacks to explore the windswept Roaring Plains. Or, try for a nearby summit. Mount Porte Crayon at 4,770 feet; Haystack Knob at 4,555 feet; and Green Knob at 4,700 feet. All of these remote peaks lie within striking distance from camp. We skied to and hiked up Haystack Knob, which has the only open summit of the three. The crowds should be pretty thin and the view pretty fine when you finally get to the top of this hard-won summit. On your third day, you’ll descend over 2,000 feet back down Flatrock Run Trail. Now that’s some West Virginia mountaineering.
You’re more likely to run into Adam Polinski at Coopers Rock State Forest than anywhere else. Adam lives in Morgantown with his family, and wishes for a winter with 90 straight days of snow coverage.
3 thoughts on “A Backcountry Journey: WV’s Premier Cross Country Trails”
Great post! Great info!
Consider carrying big loads with a pulp… a tow behind, easy to make sled… you and your gear will float over the snow!
Excellent suggestion. Thanks for the comment.
Pulk… not pulp