“I hiked over a mountain to be here”
By: Carmen Bowes
Photos By: Sam Taylor
The first time I did the hike to High Falls of the Cheat, it was fall and the cinnamon ferns were exploding with color; reaching up towards the sky before splashing into a mass as tall as my shoulders. The fields were golden and swaying in the cool autumn breeze. It held that first crisp hint of colder weather.
Now, driving out the dirt road on this warm spring day, I don’t know what to expect. It is that time of year when things aren’t quite pretty yet. The snow has gone but the rich West Virginia green hasn’t filled in the trees and undergrowth.
Sam & I both have our eyes fixed on the right side of the road. The trail head and wide spot had to be close. We creep by a pull-off and then the trail appears, although we had to turn around and come back to park. The trail is remote. It starts on a back road of a back road outside of Glady, WV outside Elkins, WV and is marked only by a small sign that says “High Falls.”
We slug on our backpacks and descend into the forest. The trail greets us with a squishy, marshy bottom and leads us over a small foot bridge that crosses a stream just below a beaver dam. The sticks are stacked and crammed into a heap. We hear water trickling through the small muddy cracks. A gate from an old homestead lies just on the other side of the bridge; a remnant of another time.
We walk past the gate and out of the woods into a huge clearing. The hawthorn trees are naked and spiky. They cover the field like some kind of twisted orchard. We cross the West Fork Trail and continue through the clearing. The hardwood trees show scars of lightning and fire. The field is full of briars that were not there in the fall.
The clearing ends and we start the uphill push over the mountain. The woods smell good, the ground is damp and muddy in spots. The trail turns into steep, slippery miniature mudslides in spots. Tiny spring beauties pop up through the disintegrating leaves. As we climb, the floor of the forest becomes mossy. The dirt we have been trampling gives way to rocks covered in green sponge and hemlocks that seem ancient. The smell of the rich, damp dirt is exactly how a forest should smell.
There is a sweet little campsite off the trail on top of the mountain. It has a fire circle with logs situated all around. It is in the middle of the grove of hemlocks and I think of waking up there, stepping out of my tent into this gorgeous place.
We wrap around the top of the mountain and begin our decent into the Shavers Fork drainage. The leaves from last fall hide the details of the trail. We stumble and trip and nearly plunge down the mountain. Finally we reach the railroad tracks. The river below assumes a pretty, earthy green color.
We turn right on the tracks and walk towards High Falls. I can smell the ancient tar warming up in the railroad ties. In the fall the tracks were lined with yellow evening primrose. They were standing strong and sturdy. They are waiting now, in the dirt and gravel, for the heat of summer so that they can push up again.
We come around the bend and see the train stop that signals the waterfall. We walk the small trail to the water and take in the bigness. This waterfall is perfect. It spans the whole river, the curtains falling from a big shelf; 18 feet high and 150 feet wide.
The wind is warm for March and pushes itself across the rocky beach just below the falls. The first time I sat next to this waterfall, I had hiked over a mountain to be here. I was sitting on the vacant observation deck above the falls while Sam took pictures. I was having a snack and taking in all of the power of the place and a large older man walked out on the deck and looked down at me. I looked up at him and it took me a moment to register him. Behind him more men clad in Harley Davidson gear walked onto the platform. I had forgotten that there is a train tour that brings people to this spot; it feels so far from things otherwise.
Today we have it mostly to ourselves except a few other hikers. I find a rock to have a snack while Sam takes pictures. The sandstone on the beach is tinted light blues and purples from the minerals housed within. I watch Sam move around on the beach, he is silhouetted by the waterfall. The rhododendron near the falls flutters in the wind.
We take a last look and turn to make the hike out. It is challenging and steep but we pace ourselves and make it out with enough time to stop by Whistle Stop Café in Elkins. It is strange to drive back to civilization. I think of sitting on the rocky beach staring at the curtains of water and I want to go back.