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Chasing waterfalls: Piney Creek Preserve opens first trail to public

Story by Rick Steelhammer at Charleston Gazette-Mail.

A few minutes’ drive from downtown Beckley, Cranberry Creek and Little White Stick Creek meander off a plateau and tumble down their steep, rocky streambeds, forming waterfalls and plunge pools as they cascade into the West Virginia Land Trust’s Piney Creek Preserve.

A newly completed trail that opened to the public earlier this month provides access to two of the Piney Creek tributary streams’ most scenic waterfalls — Little White Stick Falls and Cranberry Creek Cascades. The half-mile Waterfall Hollow Trail is the first of more than 20 miles of trail expected to open to hikers and bikers venturing into the 613-acre preserve in coming years.

Piney Creek Preserve, acquired by the West Virginia Land Trust in 2019, encompasses a 4.5-mile stretch of Piney Creek and much of the 600-foot-high northern wall of the gorge containing it.

The land that makes up the preserve was heavily mined from the early 1900s to the 1970s. Remnants of its industrial past can be found throughout its boundaries.

“A gob pile once covered this area,” said Jesse Cecil, operations manager for the West Virginia Land Trust, after greeting volunteers arriving at the parking lot serving the preserve’s new Wildwood Trailhead, starting point for the Waterfall Hollow Trail and the nearly completed 4.3-mile-long Wildwood Trail.

As Cecil hauled a load of crushed rock to a damp stretch of Waterfall Hollow Trail, he passed a rock wall built in the early 1900s to stabilize a slope near the entrance to the Stanaford Mine, and, at a point just off the new trail, showed visitors the mostly filled-in mine entrance.

“This preserve is symbolic of an enduring landscape,” Cecil said. “Mining impacted every part of it. But 50 years after mining ended, it’s beautiful again.”

The preserve’s coal mining past will be embraced and interpreted, he said, and several former mine benches within the tract will be used to support trails, including the Wildwood Trail.

“While we’re a conservation organization, we recognize that coal mining is an essential part of our heritage, and we want to honor it,” Cecil said.

The long-abandoned coal camp of Stanaford, deep within Piney Creek Gorge, was the scene of the 1903 Battle of Stanaford, during which a posse of 50 armed men led by a deputy U.S. Marshal and the Raleigh County sheriff ambushed, shot and killed three striking miners and fatally wounded four more. Labor organizer Mother Jones visited the scene of the carnage the following day.

When completed, the Piney Creek Preserve’s trail system will include trails dedicated to mountain bikers, others reserved for hikers, plus several shared-use trails. Some will provide access to clifftop viewpoints, while others will guide climbers to bouldering and top-roping locales within the preserve, as well as to the shores of Piney Creek, noted for its brown trout fishing opportunities.

At the new Waterfall Hollow Trail, “we would eventually like to build an ADA accessible boardwalk, allowing everyone to view the falls,” Cecil said. When the trail system is complete, it will be served by two additional trailhead parking areas.

Eventually, the trail system will connect to Beckley’s Gray Flats Trail System, a 14.5-mile network of existing hiking and biking trails along the rim, and down a wall of Piney Creek’s canyon adjacent to the Land Trust’s preserve.

“We’re working on a trail now that will connect this trail to the Gray Flats trails,” said Gary Moorefield, the city of Beckley’s trail coordinator. “It’s my dream to eventually have a trail system with a link that goes all the way to the New River and connects with trails in the national park.”

“It’s projects like these that make Beckley a more attractive place for business,” said Cecil. “Beckley already has all the needed infrastructure, including high-speed internet. Having places right in Beckley where you can hike or mountain bike, climb rocks, go bouldering or fish for trout — all right on the doorstep of a national park — creates more of a draw for living and working here.”

The Piney Creek Preserve is a cornerstone of the Beckley Outdoors Economic Action Plan, which seeks to brand the city as a premiere outdoor recreation destination that celebrates Southern West Virginia’s Appalachian heritage.

“We couldn’t open this preserve without our partnership with the city of Beckley and a group of willing and interested volunteers,” Cecil said.

The week before the Waterfall Hollow Trail’s dedication, 25 ecology students from WVU Tech spent hours removing multiflora rose and other invasive species from the trail and trailhead parking area. A wood rail fence along part of the trail was the result of an Eagle Scout project.

Story by Rick Steelhammer at Charleston Gazette-Mail:

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