Monday, June 24, 2013

Cacapon State Park: Ridge Trail (Blog Hike #324)

Trail: Ridge Trail
Hike Location: Cacapon State Park
Geographic Location: south of Berkeley Springs, WV (39.50025, -78.29939)
Length: 1 mile
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2010
Overview: A low-elevation hike to the summit of rocky Warm Spring Ridge.

Directions to the trailhead: The state park entrance is located on US 522 10 miles south of downtown Berkeley Springs, WV or 26 miles north of Winchester, VA.  After entering the park, drive to the Nature Center, passing turn-offs for the swimming area, golf course, and cabin area in that order.  Turn left on the one-way loop road beside the Nature Center.  Stop in the Nature Center if it is open, then continue on the loop road to the Play Area parking lot.  Park here.

The hike: The tall, mature forest and old stone structures you drive by on your way to the trailhead give away this land’s long history as a state park.  Indeed, established in 1933, Cacapon State Park (pronounced ca-CAY-pon) was one of West Virginia’s first state parks. 
            The name Cacapon comes from a Shawnee Indian word meaning “medicine waters.”  The Shawnee described this area as such because of the mineral springs which have their sources on the mountain and come to the surface in Berkeley Springs.  These springs are renowned for their healing powers.  Nonetheless, this land’s natural resource of greatest importance today is not the water but the sand, from which large quantities of natural gas can be extracted.  Of course, commercial exploitation of parkland is prohibited, so the park’s part of the mountain will not succumb to the drill.
            Cacapon State Park today claims resort park status, and rightly so with its top-notch golf course, 31 cabins, swimming area, lodge, tennis courts, and 20 miles of hiking trails.  Hikers with a full day to spend here should take on the Ziler Trail, a 5.1 mile loop offering great views from the side of Cacapon Mountain.  In my case, I was merely stopping for a leg-stretch while driving from Virginia to Pennsylvania.  Thus, I chose to hike the Ridge Trail, which offers a taste of mountain hiking and good views of the park’s namesake mountain without the length and difficulty of the Ziler Trail.
            From the playground area, follow the blacktop path that leads across a bridge and heads for the swimming area.  About halfway to the swimming area, look for the brown plastic sign that reads “Ridge Trail” with an arrow pointing to the right.  Turn right to leave the blacktop and begin the Ridge Trail, which at this point is an easy gravel path.
Beginning of Ridge Trail
Stone Dam in Creek
            The path drops to join an old road as the South Fork of Indian Run comes into view on the right.  At 0.2 miles, an old stone dam appears in the creek to your right.  Dams such as these usually mark former mill sites, though little other evidence of a mill here remains.  Past the dam, the trail curves left and begins climbing Warm Spring Ridge.  The climb is somewhat rocky but never steep.  As you approach the top of the ridge, you pass a couple of benches, and a few gnarled pine trees mix in with the broadleaf forest, which is dominated by poplar, maple, oak, and hickory.           
Climbing on the Ridge Trail
            At 0.5 miles, you reach the crest of the ridge, and the trail makes a sharp switchback to the left.  The trail is marked with yellow paint blazes, but it is always wide and easy to follow, so getting lost is difficult even without the blazes.  Now walking northeast along the ridge crest, you soon reach the highest point of the hike.  The stunted pines block any broad views, but some gaps in the trees allow for partially obstructed views of Cacapon Mountain to the west and Sleepy Creek Mountain to the east.  The mountains here are dominated by broadleaf forests, so this would be a great place to do some leaf peeping in early October.  On my visit in mid-September, a few trees had turned color, but the mountainside was still a blanket of green for the most part.
            The trail tops a couple of small knobs before beginning the descent to the swimming area in earnest.  Given how moderate the climb was, this descent seems quite severe, so be glad you are hiking the trail counterclockwise.  At 0.75 miles, you reach the bottom of the hill beside the large blacktop swimming area parking lot.  Follow the yellow blazes by turning left and passing to the left side of the bathhouse.
            The last segment may be the hardest part of the hike.  With a chain link fence keeping you out of the beach area to your right, the trail passes over and around numerous large boulders.  Just pick your way through the boulder field whichever way looks best.  I was able to avoid crawling on all four but not without some awkwardness.  At 0.9 miles, you close the Ridge Trail loop.  Continue straight on the blacktop path to return to the playground area and complete the hike.

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