Southside Trail is an easy seven-mile riverside trail that provides great views of the New River and passes through several abandoned mining towns. Rush Run, Red Ash, and Brooklyn were all once-bustling communities located along this abandoned railroad line. It’s one of the few trails in the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve that travels along the river, and there are numerous side trails that lead to the river’s edge. Because of its level terrain and length, it is a great choice for a scenic bike ride or a long, leisurely hike.
We hike Southside Trail several times a year and it’s our favorite trail for wildflower viewing.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Officially Southside is an out-and-back trail, beginning at Cunard river access site and ending just before it reaches the road near the bridge to the town of Thurmond. This is because in order to reach the road you must cross about 25’ of a somewhat active railroad line that has no provisions for pedestrian traffic. Folks regularly cross here with no problem, but national park personnel won’t tell you this due to liability concerns.
- This is a great trail to shuttle with a group of friends. Leave a car at the Dun Glen parking area (just across the railroad tracks mentioned above) and start your hike from the Cunard/Brooklyn end of the trail. The drive between the two points takes about 25 minutes. There is ample parking near both trailheads.
- The trail is very flat with only a couple of short elevation changes of less than 10 feet.
- It’s a long trail and many people hike only part of it as an out-and-back.
- The Southside Trail is a great choice for a hike during every season. As we mentioned, it is our favorite wildflower trail in spring. It is mostly shaded and cool in the summer. Fall colors are magnificent and bare winter trees afford nearly constant vistas of the New River.
- Figure on 20-25 minutes per mile, a little more in peak wildflower viewing season!
Finding the Southside Trailhead
Follow Route 16 south through the town of Fayetteville. Take a left on Gatewood Road (the sign indicates Kaymoor and Cunard). Follow Gatewood Road for 4.6 miles and turn left at the sign for Cunard. Go 1.8 miles and turn left at both of the signs indicating Cunard River Access Road. Follow this road to the river access point where you will find ample parking and restrooms. Officially, the trail begins here, but the first mile is along the gravel road leading to the Brooklyn campground where there is parking for 6 or so cars. If parking is available, we usually start our hike from Brooklyn to avoid having to share the road with vehicles.
The Terrain of the Southside Trail
Following the former riverside railroad line, the trail is level, wide, and even. There are numerous side trails leading down to the river’s edge that can be steep in places, but these are optional.
Beginning from the Brooklyn end (near Cunard), the trail heads in a southerly direction for a mile or so (two, if you start from Cunard). In the early days of spring, this section of the trail gets a good dose of sunshine, coaxing out spring ephemeral wildflowers earlier than any other part of the park. Usually by the first week of April Carolina Spring Beauties are starting to show along this section. It’s also a great mushroom trail any time of year as long as there is sufficient rainfall that fungi need to fruit and grow.
After the first mile, the river and trail begin to turn toward the west. As it does, the microclimate changes significantly and the keen observer will notice that the flora along the trail reflects this change: Spring Beauties give way to Trout Lily and Trillium. As the river twists and turns through the Gorge, the bends and the steepness of the Gorge create many different microclimates as the sun angle and prevailing winds change along the way, providing hikers with an ever-changing and diverse smorgasbord of plant life to behold.
At 3 miles, the trail passes alongside Red Ash Island, a place that was once used to quarantine people during a smallpox epidemic in the 1890s. Gravestones of the people who died during the smallpox outbreak, along with victims from multiple mine disasters, can still be found on the island today. The island is accessible on foot when river levels allow. If you venture onto the island, please be respectful of the many gravesites.
Shortly after passing by Red Ash, the river and trail bends to the northwest before crossing a section of private land, then passes over the roaring Arbuckle Creek on a large trestle bridge. Just around the next bend, the town of Thurmond will come into view across the river and you know your journey is nearing its end, but not before walking along the former site of Southside Junction, a once-bustling rail yard where 150-year-old steel rails now coexist with decades-old trees. Take a moment to reflect on the recuperative powers of the earth as you witness firsthand mother nature’s reclaiming once what was once hers.
Tips for enjoying the Southside Trail:
- Go in the early spring to see the magnificent showing of spring ephemeral wildflowers! Carolina Spring Beauties blanket much of the forest, while several species of Trillium, Dutchmen’s Breeches, Trout Lilly, Bleeding Hearts, and Squirrel Corn can be found in abundance along the trail.
- Look for the coke ovens. These beehive-shaped stone ovens were used to heat-purify the coal. There are several sets of these ovens along the trail and some are remarkably well-preserved.
- Listen for whitewater roaring as you start the hike. At .6 miles in, you’ll see Surprise Rapids. This class III has a large hole/hydraulic at the bottom that often surprises both inexperienced and experienced paddlers.
Who are we? Amy & Shawn, New River Gorge hikers, WV Master Naturalists, and owners of Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals.