The serene loop trail at Elizabeth’s Woods south of town is almost ready for hikers.
Hiking in a young forest can be intense. The trees and shrubs are waging a ground battle for sunlight. Chaos tangles all over the understory, and fast-growing vines can trip hikers even on well-maintained trails.
But eventually, the trees win out. They grow stout and tall. Their leaf canopy starves low shrubs and vines of light, leaving the forest floor clear. Vistas breathe, open and hushed. There’s a reason people describe the feeling in a mature forest as “cathedral”: It’s vertical, filter-lit, sacred.
It takes decades of unmolested growth for a forest to mature to that level. So if we’re to have restorative places like that for hiking—and for their unique habitats and other benefits—we have to be savvy.
Elizabeth Zimmermann was savvy. In 1994, she donated 84 wooded acres just south of Morgantown to the West Virginia Land Trust. Based in Morgantown, the WVLT is known today for its hand in conserving more than 9,000 acres of extraordinary properties in every part of West Virginia. But a quarter-century ago, there was no land trust. Zimmermann’s bequest was the founding property—the impetus for the organization’s formation.
Zimmermann’s vision was for her already mature woods to serve as a nature preserve and a place for recreation and education. The WVLT held Elizabeth’s Woods passively for two decades—two more decades of unmolested growth. Then, a few years ago, two adjacent tracts came available, and the WVLT built on its holdings.
“We could continue to leave it—protecting the water that flows into the Mon, protecting the wildlife that’s in the mature hardwood forest, and maybe allowing some research projects to go on,” says WVLT Executive Director Brent Bailey. “But we want to make it more publicly open because we think it plays into what Morgantown wants to be, which is a healthy community.”
Tom’s Run Preserve
The WVLT calls its now-320-acre oasis beside the Monongahela River Tom’s Run Preserve. It’s off Exit 146 of Interstate 79, just seven miles south of town. The preserve takes in most of the land between Little Falls Road and State Route 73, extending north just past a sharp turn in the river.
Tom’s Run Preserve is mostly mature forest on gentle slopes, with sharper drop-offs close to the river. In one steep and bouldery reach, Tom’s Run cascades as Little Falls. Rhododendrons grow tall in those lower, wetter areas, alongside beech trees and maples. On the drier ridges, oaks and hickories dominate.
Wood thrushes nest there. “The wood thrush is a ‘dense forest obligate’—it needs mature forests to nest,’” Bailey says. “I love knowing they’re here. They’ve been in serious decline—there are places where they used to be and you won’t find them anymore. But we have some of the healthiest populations in West Virginia, because we have some of the best forests remaining in the eastern U.S. So the role of places like this becomes increasingly important as fewer forests like this exist.”
Tom’s Run Preserve is big enough—more than three times the size of either WVU’s Core Arboretum or the West Virginia Botanic Garden—that shy critters feel at home. Black bears raid neighbors’ bird feeders from there. Fishers live there, too—that’s a weasel relative the size of a house cat.
The preserve is also big enough for a hiker to get away from the sights and sounds of civilization.
As the WVLT added to its original property, staff were inspired to more fully honor Zimmermann’s vision. They’ve harnessed thousands of hours of volunteer muscle and expertise—students and retirees, Boy Scouts, The Shack Neighborhood House and MedExpress staff, and experienced trail builders from the American Hiking Society—to develop a two-mile loop trail in Elizabeth’s Woods. The trail turns, crests, and falls through leaf litter among the high, old trees. Handsome hand-built structures make a couple of short steep sections safe and divert running water to prevent washouts.
Not all land trusts develop public access. Their core function is usually to hold development rights in order to preserve properties in perpetuity. The WVLT does hold such rights for about 20 properties across the state, but it also goes beyond that. “We really see our land protection as supporting West Virginia’s sustainable future,” Bailey says. “When people talk about moving to Morgantown, they want to know, ‘What can you do there?’ We play a really important role here, as in other communities around West Virginia, in preserving places that protect the outdoors and give people recreational opportunities.”
Over time, the WVLT plans to develop biking trails on other parts of Tom’s Run Preserve. Bicycle access will be possible just a nine-mile rail-trail ride from Hazel Ruby McQuain Riverfront Park.
Meanwhile, because the Elizabeth Woods retreat has been built “inside-out,” in Bailey’s words—a developer might usually start with parking and then figure a trail out, but the WVLT did the trail first—all that’s needed to make this serene preserve accessible to hikers is a small parking lot. The land has already been cleared and drawings and permits have been prepared, so it could be done as early as the end of the year. Consider donating at wvlandtrust.org: click “donate now” and designate your gift for the Elizabeth’s Woods parking area.
Photographs courtesy of West Virginia Land Trust