Old-Growth Forest Hike

Large trees and moss covered rocks in a forest with a forest floor covered in dead leaves and branches
The Old-growth Forest Tour at Burnwood lets visitors experience the forest before the logging days.

Thomas Saladyga


Old-growth forests are forests that existed before 19th century settlement and logging. It is a window in time glimpsing back into ancient forests. Large trees with multi-layered canopies are defining features of old-growth forest. Decomposing woody debris cover old-growth forest floors. Ecologists use old-growth forest to help shape modern forests. On the Burnwood trail, visitors can see old-growth forest dating back to the 17th century. A self-guided tour is available for visitors hiking the trail. This tour will explore the forest, its history, and what makes it important.

The Burnwood trail is 1.2 miles of easy walking on dirt trail with some elevation change. The trail is mostly shaded and enjoyable in any season. Visitors taking the tour should wear good shoes, bring water, and use insect repellent. The tour will take 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on hiking speed and time taken at each stop. There are no markers currently on the trail for tour stop locations. It is strongly recommended to use the NPS mobile app to complete this tour. Visitors that do not wish to use the app or are not able to use the app can use a GPS device to complete the tour. Coordinates for each stop are included in the description.

Directions to Burnwood Trail

From Canyon Rim Visitor Center: Take a left out of the parking lot and return to US-19. Carefully cross US-19 into the Burnwood area. Continue up the hill into the Day Use area. The trailhead sign is just before the picnic pavilion. Parking is available in the gravel lot.

From Beckley, WV: Take US-19 north from Beckley towards Summersville and Oak Hill. After passing the Glen Jean exit, continue for 12.7 miles past the towns of Oak Hill and Fayetteville. Cross the New River Gorge Bridge and take the first left crossing the southbound lane of US-19. Continue up the hill into the Day Use area. The trailhead sign is just before the picnic pavilion. Parking is available in the gravel lot.

A man dressed in turn of the century trousers, shirt, suspenders, and hat leaning against a large old tree trunk that was recently felled
A logger in Webster County, WV posing with a large tulip poplar log.

West Virginia & Regional History Collection

Stop 1 - Logging History of Appalachia

Directions: Begin hiking on the Burnwood Trail. Hike for about 0.23 miles.

Coordinates: 38.07639, -81.07554

Large trees over 100 feet tall and hundreds of years old were once common across the Appalachian landscape. Throughout the late 19th to early 20th century, a large-scale commercial logging boom swept across the forests of Appalachia. New advancements in sawmill technology and rapid development of urban areas across the country created a higher demand for lumber, resulting in millions of acres of forests being clearcut within a few decades. It is estimated that less than 1% of the original forests remain throughout the eastern United States and West Virginia, usually in small patches of a few dozen acres or less.

The forest along this trail was a small tract of private property owned by the Laing family. Evidence along the trail reveals part of the land was cleared for pasture and a homestead, but some of the forest was left to grow naturally with minimal human impact. Look for clues of past land use from the remnant fencing found along the sides of this portion of the trail.

A forest floor covered in dead leaves and branches with a fallen tree, moss covered rocks, and live trees growing in it
A large fallen tree in the Burnwood forest.

Thomas Saladyga

Stop 2 - Defining Old-Growth

Directions: Continue on the trail for 0.01 miles, about 20 yards.

Coordinates: 38.07656, -81.07538

What determines old-growth? Generally, old-growth forests are considered primary forests, or forests that haven’t been cleared by humans and natural processes have been allowed to shape the ecosystem. A forest that has had major human clearing is referred to as a secondary forest, highlighting that the second forest has grown to replace the original that was cleared. However, some forests naturally don’t reach old-growth age due to frequent disturbances that naturally keep the ecosystem young.

In the New River Gorge, riverscour prairies naturally have frequent flooding that keeps vegetation from reaching old age. A riverscour prairie could theoretically be a primary ecosystem that humans haven’t disturbed, but it isn’t old-growth since flooding naturally keeps most of the species from achieving old age. A forest could also have been cleared by humans 200 years ago and enough time has passed to where old-growth features are coming back, but this wouldn’t be considered a primary forest due to the history of human clearing. A 200-year-old forest in the eastern United States could be considered old-growth, but a 200-year-old forest may not classify as old-growth in the Pacific Northwest where trees can live for over 1,000 years.

Despite all the subjectivity surrounding the definition of old-growth, there are many features that are unique to old-growth deciduous forests that can be scientifically measured and classified.

Four different images showing an aerial view of a forest changing from less to more forested starting in 2003 and moving through 2007, 2013, and 2023.
Aerial imagery of Burnwood shows the field filling in with trees over twenty years.

Aerial footage captured in Google Earth

Stop 3 - Forest Succession

Directions: Continue on the trail for 0.06 miles, about 100 yards.

Coordinates: 38.07733, -81.07518

The forest to your right is in stark contrast with the forests along the rest of this trail. This young forest was an old field probably used for livestock, hay, or a yard. Aerial imagery from Google Earth reveals that the National Park Service stopped mowing the field in the mid-2000s and young tulip poplar trees have quickly infilled. Tulip poplars are not tolerant of shade and are quick to establish in open areas with high sunlight.

This young forest is an example of a secondary, early successional forest that is in the beginning stages of development. Succession is the process by which vegetation communities change in species composition and structure through time as the ecosystem matures. This forest is considered even-aged, where all of the trees began growing at the same time after mowing stopped. Old-growth forests are late-successional and uneven-aged, where trees naturally grow to their upper age limits and larger overstory trees are of numerous ages. The uneven-age of older forests is evidence that the trees didn’t all establish after a large disturbance that cleared the entire area, but from numerous smaller events that created small gaps in the canopy and allowed for new growth to establish.

Four young women, four young men, and an older man posing and smiling in front of a large tree in a forest
Research team from Concord University. From left to right: Ricardo Chinea-Pegler, Thomas Saladyga, Alexis Foster (documentarian), Joseph Duffer (in front), Mitchell Roush, Madison Cook, Haidyn DePinho, Madison Cornett, and Andrew Trump. Not shown: Keiley Dudding

NPS / Chance Raso

Stop 4 - Decoding the Old-Growth

Directions: Continue on the trail for 0.04 miles, about 70 yards. Take a left to begin the loop in a clockwise direction.

Coordinates: 38.07722, -81.07581

How do we know that the Burnwood forest is old-growth? The presence of numerous species of large trees made park rangers at New River Gorge National Park & Preserve believe that the forest could be considered old-growth. During the fall of 2022, the National Park Service partnered with Dr. Tom Saladyga, Professor of Geography at Concord University in Athens, West Virginia. Dr. Saladyga is a dendrochronologist, or a scientist who specializes in using the annual growth rings to accurately date trees and study changes in the environment, such as past fire, climate, storms, and human activities.

Dr. Saladyga led eight of his students for a class project to classify Burnwood as an old-growth forest and write a research report published by the National Park Service titled, Documenting Remnant Old Growth at New River Gorge National Park & Preserve: A Pre-Industrial Legacy Forest at the Burnwood Area.

The study confirmed that the forest should be considered old-growth. Fourteen of the fifty trees that were sampled were at least 250 years old, with five individuals dating to the 1670s, indicating the forest has had minimal human disturbance and escaped the industrial logging period of the early 20th century.

A tall tree with a gnarled and twisted trunk stretching up with green leaves towards the sunny sky
An old red maple with a twisted trunk, a common feature of older trees.

Thomas Saladyga

Stop 5 - Characteristics of Old Trees

Directions: Continue on the trail for 0.09 miles, about 150 yards.

Coordinates: 38.07670, -81.07714

This large chestnut oak is over 160 years old and provides an example of some of the unique physical characteristics trees develop in older age. By looking around the entire trunk, you will notice some parts of the tree’s bark is very thick-plated and blocky while some areas of bark are flat. Many older trees will have a mix of balding and protruding bark patterns up and down the entire trunk and the bark on old-growth trees can be strikingly different in appearance compared to younger trees of the same species. Old-growth trees also have very little stem taper, with minimal change in diameter from the base of the tree to the top near the crown.

Perhaps the best clue to determine if a tree is old-growth lies within the branches and the crown. Older trees usually have only a few large diameter branches that are high up into the crown, resembling a stalk of celery that has only a few leaves at the top of the tall stem. The branches are twisted and gnarled from decades of withstanding harsh winds and continuously reaching through the canopy attempting to capture available sunlight.

A wide smooth tree in a forest. A blue and black metal tool shaped like a plus sign has one end stuck into the side of the tree trunk.
An increment borer with an extracted tree ring sample inside an American beech tree.

Thomas Saladyga

Stop 6 - How Tree Age is Determined

Directions: Continue on the trail for 0.03 miles, about 50 yards

Coordinates: 38.07674, -81.07780

The large tree just off the trail to the left with thick-plated, irregular shaped, blocky bark resembling alligator hide is a blackgum. Blackgum is a long-lived, slow growing tree that is highly tolerant of shade, being able to wait in the understory for centuries before a neighboring tree falls and allows for direct sunlight to reach the forest floor. This blackgum is the oldest tree along the trail and has an inner-ring date of 1674, being at least 350 years old.

How are trees accurately dated? The researchers from Concord University who led the Burnwood study used an instrument called an increment borer to extract a straw-sized sample containing the growth rings from the tree. The increment borer has a sharp bit that is twisted into the tree by the user and the wood sample is then extracted from the hollow auger.

While this tree is confirmed to be at least 350 years old, it could be much older. When coring a large tree, if the increment borer is off from the center of the tree by even a couple of inches, decades of growth rings could be missing from the sample, especially on slow growing trees like the blackgum.

A graph of almost 50 different tree inner-ring size in centimeter by their age in years from 1650 to 2000. The graph curves up then slopes down.
A graph showing the relationship between tree age and diameter for each tree that was sampled for the Burnwood project. The graph shows that after a certain age, tree size isn’t always a reliable metric to determine age.

Thomas Saladyga

Stop 7 - A Forest Giant

Directions: Continue on the trail for 0.07 miles, about 115 yards.

Coordinates: 38.07757, -81.07836

This American beech is the largest tree by diameter and volume along the trail. Unfortunately, this tree couldn’t be dated due to being hollow, but despite its size it may not be as old as it appears. Some large trees are young, and some small trees are old. While larger trees are usually older, this relationship between size and age will not be as consistent with the oldest of trees.

The graph from the study conducted by Concord University researchers shows that the relationship between tree size and age starts to fade once a tree reaches about 200 years old. Oftentimes, the oldest trees are rather small; the oldest tree in this forest is a blackgum off-trail that dated to 1671 but was less than 19 inches in diameter.

The large, spreading branches on this American beech indicates that it could have been growing in more open conditions free of neighboring trees competing for sunlight, allowing for multiple decades of rapid growth. Two American beech trees smaller than this individual were sampled in this forest, each with inner ring year dates of 1829 and 1755 respectively, and the age of this large tree is probably within that range.

A fallen tree in the forest decomposing with orange flat rounded fungus growing on and around it
Jack-o-lantern mushrooms growing on decayed coarse woody debris.

Ricardo Chinea-Pegler

Stop 8 – Decomposition

Directions: Continue on the trail for 0.14 miles, about 245 yards.

Coordinates: 38.07840, -81.07713

An old-growth forest is made up of a lot more components than just large, old trees. Large fallen trees on the forest floor, also called coarse woody debris, are a key feature researchers use to determine if a forest truly is old-growth. When a large tree falls, it can take decades if not over a century for the wood to fully decompose. This wood does not go to waste. The decomposition of wood recycles nutrients and carbon back into the forest soils which act as large, long-term carbon sinks for greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Coarse woody debris provides habitat for many species that grow and feed on moist, decomposing wood such as moss, lichen, mushrooms, and insects.

Many species of wildlife are more abundant or even rely on old-growth forests for their habitat. The moisture retained in the shaded forest floor and in the coarse woody debris creates the perfect conditions for salamanders to flourish. Coarse wood debris can also be used as denning habitat for smaller mammals such as foxes, skunks, and opossums. Many species of birds, like the cerulean warbler, prefer the large trees and multi-layered canopies that old-growth forests provide.

A blue metal rod shaped tool leaning up against a decomposing reddish brown large tree stump.
An old-decayed stump of a fallen tree with an increment borer propped up next to it.

Thomas Saladyga

Stop 9 - Old-Growth Habitat

Directions: Continue on the trail for 0.1 miles, about 170 yards.

Coordinates: 38.07773, -81.07582

Large dead snags are a critical component of old-growth forests. Snags are classified as microhabitats, or small features that differ from the larger ecosystem and provide unique habitat for specialized species that depend on these features. These two large white oaks on the right side of the trail had the top of their crowns blown over during a windstorm in the summer of 2021. Infrequent disturbances like windstorms, ice storms, and wildfires that may kill a few trees within a larger forest stand are some of the dynamic processes that shape the Appalachian forests.

The windstorm may have killed these two white oaks, but these trees still provide a vital ecological role by serving as habitat for many species of wood eating insects, mushrooms, moss, and birds. The large crowns will slowly decompose on the ground, providing habitat for decades to come and recycling nutrients back into the soil. A beam of light now shines through the opening in the canopy, allowing for young tree seedlings to grow. The deciduous forests of Appalachia are self-sustaining and in a constant state of change, where the end of one organism means new beginnings for others in the cycle of life and death.

A group of about 34 people posing in front of trees in a forest. In the middle of the group are 3 park rangers and a person holding a white and green certificate
Attendees from the ceremony inducting the Burnwood trail into the Old-Growth Forest Network on August 4th, 2023.

Mark Strella & Kayla Green

Stop 10 - Old-Growth Forest Network

Directions: Continue on the trail, finishing the loop for 0.05 miles, about 85 yards. After finishing the loop, return up the trail back towards the parking lot the way you came. After the final stop, it is about 0.3 miles hike to the parking lot.

Coordinates: 38.07736, -81.07532

On August 4th, 2023, a ceremony was held with over 50 people in attendance to induct the Burnwood Trail into the Old-Growth Forest Network, a national non-profit organization with the goal of dedicating at least one protected old-growth forest open to the public in each county in the United States that can sustain a native forest.

Having forests permanently protected in parks like these at New River Gorge National Park & Preserve means more forests will be allowed to continue to grow and mature into old-growth in the future. The research done by Concord University allows park managers to better understand what kind of forest we are managing towards.

Trails like Burnwood allow visitors to look through a window into the past and see what the original forests looked like. Now that you know what kind of unique characteristics old trees and forests have, look for these features whenever you are hiking and you may stumble across a previously undocumented old-growth forest that could potentially be part of the Old-Growth Forest Network.

To learn more about old-growth forests within New River Gorge National Park & Preserve, including a video about Burnwood and a link to the research report produced in partnership with Concord University, visit Old-Growth Forests - New River Gorge National Park & Preserve.


Last updated: September 20, 2023

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