This enjoyable hike in Watoga State Park, near Marlinton WV, is all about the journey and not the destination. Some hikes show-off their payoffs — gorgeous views, outstanding waterfalls, ruins and the like — but this loop hike is all about the walk itself.
You start just off of Watoga Park Road, near Cabin 11, crossing a foot bridge (which you can see from the road) over Island Lick Run into a path — a tunnel really — through the Giant Rhododendron that populate the side of the mountain. After 50 feet in, you come to a choice: follow Bear Pen Trail to North Boundary Trail to the left; or follow Bear Pen Trail to the Buck and Doe Trail and Busch Settlement to the right.
Almost immediately, you’ll start heading steadily up hill, although there are little ups and downs that give you a welcome breather as you gain elevation. For a while you wind up the mountain, still ensconced in the rhododendron thickets that eventually give way to mature forest, wide open, as you curl around the mountain and into a hollow.
This part of the trail is plagued by tree roots and rocks and often you have to watch where you’re stepping; overall the trail here is well marked with round yellow blazes.
Throughout this first part of the hike, various streams and water falls keep you company: the sounds of water and bird-song are all you will hear. Because it was April, we enjoyed the evergreen rhododendron and mountain laurel leaves, the various shades of greens of the moss and lichen, and the variety of little wildflowers starting to bloom.
You’ll start to notice more pine trees and serviceberry trees — smallish (40 feet or so high, slender trees with plenty of little white blooms in April; I can’t tell you what their leaves look like, since most of the trees had not even begun leafing out when we were there). The trail follows the contour of the mountain, still gaining elevation, but still with the pleasant flat stretches that allow you some respite.
As you gain the ridge and meet up with the North Boundary Trail, you’ll see the ridges of the opposing mountains through the trees. With only the evergreens in leaf, we were able to enjoy these views.
When you meet up with the North Boundary Trail, turn right onto it, following it to the Buck and Doe Trail. This trail follows the boundary of the park along an old farm road, and makes for easy going, giving you an opportunity to enjoy the expanse of the hollow through the trees, enjoy the view of the other mountain ridges, and just being enveloped by the forest.
After a brief downward zag, the old farm road carries you steadily uphill. Don’t be alarmed by the lack of trail markings — the old farm road is obvious and you will follow it a mile or so until you come up on the signs indicating the turn off onto the Buck and Doe Trail.
It’s clear that the land abutting the park has been recently logged and it’s posted as private property, so stay within the park boundaries.
It’s been all uphill to the Buck and Doe Trail, blazed with blue squares. From here, you’ll understand why I advised to go left on this loop hike, as you head pretty much straight downhill, without much relief, nor even switch-backs to lessen the elevation change. We groaned at the thought of having to take on this challenge uphill.
You’re still in mature forest, with the rhododendron thickets increasing as you approach the other end of the Bear Pen Trail. Here you have the choice of checking out the Busch Settlement Trail or turning right onto Bear Pen Trail. We were torn, but decided to take the shorter hike, in part because we had additional hikes planned for later in the day and wanted to have the legs for it.
Once on the Bear Pen Trail again, there are some slight ups and downs, welcome after the steep downward descent and some wet stream crossings that may be dry in the summer months. Soon we noticed the park’s lake below us and then you follow Island Lick Run, paralleling from halfway up the mountain, Watoga Park Road. Gradually, the rhododendron thickets grow more dense and soon you’re walking through a tunnel again, until you come to the left turn to the trail head.
Know before you go: you’ll want shoes that can ford shallow creeks, as in spring (and probably after summer storms) there will be small stream/creek crossings. There is parking for a few vehicles at the trail head.
Getting there: The trailhead for Bear Pen Trail is well marked, with a sign and parking just off of Watoga Park Road in Watoga State Park, near Cabin 11 but on the opposite side of the road, crossing a foot bridge (which you can see from the road). If you’re staying in the park at the Island Lick group of cabins, it’s within walking distance of your cabin.
Hours: Dawn through dusk