Explore Mercer County’s Newest Network Of Hiking Trails

Last updated: August 16, 2022

Mercer County is blessed with an abundance of open spaces and trails for hiking and getting in touch with nature. But, if you’re looking for a new adventure and some fresh views, try Mercer County’s most recent trail addition — the Gardner Center Trails. 

The trails are located at the Mercer County Gardner Center, a 23-acre woodland area in Princeton. The new hiking network consists of six trails, segmented in ranges from easy to moderate. 

The site contains over 6,000 feet of walking trails. The easy trails, which are each under 0.2 miles and link to other routes on the property, are the Falling Timber Trail, Longwood Trail, Picnic Fire Pit Trail and Poor Farm Trail. The Mountain Laurel Trail is a moderate 0.4-mile path with a few rocky areas. The Gardner Center Trail is the longest (0.5 miles) and wraps around the center.

Formerly the home of the U.S. Forest Service’s Forestry Sciences Laboratory, the Gardner Center is a monumental facility with historical significance. 

“In 1963, the Forestry Sciences Laboratory was built by foresters and technicians in honor of late President John F. Kennedy,” Jeffery Palmer, the naturalist and conservator at the Mercer County Gardner Center, said. 

The Forestry Sciences Laboratory had previously used the forest area for their research. 

“The foresters would take samples from trees, and other tree species were planted to be researched for scientific purposes,” Palmer said. 

In 2020, the Mercer County Commission acquired the property in order to preserve the history of the trails. 

“The trails are bordered with stones, so we are keeping that preserved for recreational purposes,” Palmer said. “When people come to the site to walk the trails, we have a few pieces of information around that let them know the history behind the trails.”

While hiking these paths, visitors can enjoy a diverse variety of unique trees, shrubs, wildlife and more. 

“The predominant species found here are eastern white pine and red oak, but the area is very diverse in terms of tree species,” Palmer said. 

The woodland area is also home to black gum, varying oak species (black, chestnut and scarlet), red spruce, yellow poplar, sweet birch and shagbark hickory. Rare and imperiled trees — eastern hemlocks and tamarack trees — are scattered throughout the property, as well. 

Tamaracks are attractive trees that often resemble evergreens. They have needles that turn brilliant yellow in autumn, but unlike evergreens, they lose their needles in the wintertime.

The eastern hemlock tree is an evergreen conifer that retains its needles year-round. The tree’s short, shiny, dark green needles are flat with two parallel white lines along the underside. The future of eastern hemlocks has been under attack since the mid-1900s, and the species has been disappearing at an alarming rate throughout the United States. 

“The eastern hemlock is rare, but we still have many of them on the trails,” Palmer said. “So visitors who are really good at identifying trees can come and see the eastern hemlocks we are preserving here.”

The trail system is also filled with rhododendrons, West Virginia’s state flower. And local wildlife can be spotted along the trails, including deer, squirrels, chipmunks and birds. 

This is just the beginning for the Mercer County Gardner Center. In addition to the scenic network of hiking trails, there are some exciting future plans already in the works. 

“Right now we have a disc golf course being constructed in the trail system,” Palmer said. “We also plan to put together some educational programs to get more people involved in the great outdoors.”  

The Gardner Center Trails are open year-round and are only closed for major holidays. The trail hours are 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Visit The Gardner Center’s website for more information.