North Fork Mountain
Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia
Breathtaking vistas, running out of water and toes that feel like "minced meat pie."
06/2000 - by Dana Farnsworth, Outdoor Travels
The North Fork Mountain Area is part of the Seneca Rocks Unit of a National Recreation Area. It extends for 24 miles between US Routes 33 and 55. On its ridge crest is the district's longest trail, the 23.8-mile North Fork Mountain Trail.
North Fork Mountain runs roughly north/south. The east side of the mountain slopes gradually down to the valley, however the crest of the west side has a number of large, long, sandstone outcroppings. These outcropping provide spectacular views of the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River as well as Germany Valley, Seneca Rocks, Fore Knobs and Champe Rocks. Looking west beyond the valley one can see Spruce Knob, Flatrock Plains, Roaring Plains, Dolly Sods and the Allegheny Front. Looking east, one can see Cave Mountain in the foreground and the ridges beyond extending into Virginia.
But North Fork Mountain provides more then just wonderful vistas. NFM, along with the Smoke Hole Canyon on the eastern spine of the mountain, was recently highlighted by the Nature Conservancy as one of the most remarkable natural areas in the eastern United States. The mountain is home to a dizzying array of rare plants and animals. For instance, the rock outcrops and the air currents through the North Fork valley create conditions favored by various birds of prey. Vultures, hawks, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles can be seen soaring overhead. In fact North Fork Mountain is one of the best places in the East for seeing raptors. It's situated right along a route that the birds follow during their fall migration. Other wildlife one might encounter includes white-tailed deer, black bear, grouse and turkey. There are even wild goats that have been startling hikers for years.
Like most national forests, the woods of West Virginia have been logged at various times, but the summit of North Fork Mountain was spared the axe. Here the trail passes through an ancient forest consisting of several oak species that are stunted and twisted by the wind. White, Virginia and Table Mountain Pines are common on the ridge top and the trail is so isolated and rugged that such far-north species as aspen and white birch thrive here. Vast fern beds, flaming azaleas, and grasses line the route and in some places the trail is in danger of being overrun by mountain laurel.
Arriving at night we only got to admire the stars and not the beautiful mountain range that surrounds our mountain top camp. The stars were plentiful however; as were the usual satellites we usually spot on clear nights when we're this far away from urban development. Around 11:30 pm a very strange thing happened. A truck rolled by our campsite. Why does this seem strange? We're on top of a mountain that's only acces road would barely be called a road. Freddy Kruger? People from "Deliverance"? My thoughts are racing too much. Around a half hour later the truck passed by again without incident.
I woke up this morning to a cacophony of snores and farting! Here's a tip, if you drink beer with people you're going to share a tent with, you better like them a lot because you could be trapped in a tent full of farting and snoring strangers.
Lucky for us, the weather is beautiful. No clouds in the sky and a very nice breeze are ours to enjoy today. As I sit here and write this with the morning sun on my back, I've noticed a couple of buzzards circling overhead, I think I'll move a little.
It's now 10:00 am and I'm not sure what's happened to our hike. We seemed to never have actually found the trailhead. We've hiked about a mile or so along a power line cut that was at least heading in the correct direction. At this point, after some sans pack exploring, we've decided to send Jeff back to the car. We think we crossed the road that we drove up on the day before and we are theorizing that Jeff may be able to see the trailhead when he drives up the road. Oh, gotta go, Jeff is here.
It's now 12:10 pm. We finally did find the trailhead. It was right off the road that we came in on. Perhaps darkness and beer consumption by the passengers were factors in us driving by the trailhead last night. We've stopped for lunch now at a breath taking over look. We have so far been treated to an unbelievable pink moutain laurel forest that was thick with blooms as well as scenic vistas whose beauty is hard to describe. Whenever we want to leave the trail and hike 10 yards to our left, we are treated to another gorgeous mountain valley vista. The mountains and valleys below us are almost pristine. Seeing very little touch by the hand of man. I can see a small sheep farm way below in the valley. It certainly has a very European look to it.
5:45 pm: Long, long, long, did I say long? Long ass climb uphill this afternoon just about slapped the dog poop out of us. We're hiking with full overnight packs that are probably somewhere in the 40 pound range; made even heavier by the fact that there is no water on North Fork Mountain, we're carrying all that we can use.
Heman, our guest on this hike, was very tired, due to the fact we found out later: "the rookie" was packing several CANS of Chunky Soup. Tasty? Yes. Heavy? Oh you betcha! We seemed to have underestimated our water consumption on this now very hot and humid day. Jeff, Christopher and Heman are almost out of it. It's turned into a very hot day and I'm sure the first thing that we'll buy tomorrow will be a giant bottle of Gatorade! We tried to find a good campsite and thought that we did, but Jeff decided to explore farther up the trail and found another rather steep uphill section. We decided to press on. It was a good thing as none of us wanted to even think about that section being the first thing we do in the morning. The upside to hiking that last uphill section was that we have found one of the most incredible campsites I've ever seen. It's somewhere between the 17-18 mile marker. It sports a nice clearing in a wooded area with breathtaking views from rock ledges a short 10 yards away. We can look back at this point and see the entire ridgeline that we hiked today. It certainly is a fantastic, awe-inspiring sight to behold. Christopher says that it reminds him of the Great Wall of China, and although I've never been there, I have to agree.
After we ate a delicious but thirst creating meal of chicken fajitas in tomato basil tortillas, Spanish rice and chips and salsa, we went back to our own personal cliff overlook and watched the orange early summer sun set over the distant hazy mountain range to the west. I particularly wanted to do some stargazing, but do to our altitude and the time of year it was still only dusky at 9:45 pm. As soon as the sun went down a strange thing happened. The winds picked up and really didn't stop until late morning. Oblivious to our presence, we had a deer walk pretty much up to us while we sat on our cliff. We also had one of the cutest toads I've ever seen sit next to Heman for quite some time, perhaps enjoying our view too.
As tired as we were, we decided to all retire to our tents at about 10:30 pm. The wind picked up and actually began sounding very fierce. As I lay in my tent, I could hear it rolling up the side of the mountain and eventually reaching us. We had done a great job of selecting our campsite, as several large trees and a mound of earth that formed the cliff sheltered us nicely.
I must admit that around 3:30 am, roughly an hour after our site was invaded by a herd of deer, I was positive I heard a bear cub. Bear cubs mean bear mothers and mothers with cubs can be big trouble. I clutched my knife, flashlight and pepper spray for over an hour, as I lay motionless in my tent. Turns out I was frightened by a tree limb rubbing against another. Okay, so I can be a big wilderness wussy sometimes. I just have no desire to be mauled and eating by an animal, any animal!
Due to our non-existent water situation, we broke camp early this morning and were on the trail by 6:45 in an effort to beat the mid-day heat. Most of today's hike was an aggressively descending trek. At the beginning we walked along the northern ridge. Once again we had endless opportunities to enjoy what makes North Fork Mountain famous, it's vistas. It's as easy in some areas as walking 10 50 yards to our left to any one of the many rock ledges that overlook the valley from a respectable east coast elevation of around 3,500 ft. As we passed some of the most scenic vistas to date, we seemed a little more interested in our dreams of a tall iced tea or some other thirst quenching cold beverage.
Several last stops, before our final descent, at overlooks provided even more exceptional views. Chimney Rocks being one of the more notable spots. The long descent ate at our feet so hard that Jeff summed up the sensation with, "My feet feel like minced meat pie"! I described my right big toe as "feeling detached and just bouncing around in my boot". Even after all of that, I still think I prefer the descending to ascending. When we joyously reached Jeff's car at the opposite trail head, cheers of anticipation could be heard for what I thought might be the cold beer in the car. Not really to my surprise, there was actually a mad rush for the melted ice water in the cooler. You know a mans' thirsty when he passes up beer for water! After soaking in the cold liquid, it was time for a brew or two. Normally I can't stand Miller Lite, but I do not believe that I've tasted beer quite as tasty as those ice-cold fellas in the trunk of Jeff's car.
Trail Hiked: North Fork Mountain: In: FR 79 Out: CO/28/11
Distance: 12 miles
Outdoor Travels Rating: 5 out of 5 Backpacks
- Did we say scenic vistas? This trail is loaded with some of the best scenery anywhere!
- Mountain laurel thickets in bloom.
- During the right season golden and bald eagles can be spotted as well as eight species of hawks
- Named by the Nature Conservancy as "one of the most remarkable natural areas in the eastern United States".
- The vast majority of the hike is either up an incline or descending.
- Lack of water sources on the trail creates a heavy water laden pack.
- Don't assume that you know where the trailhead is. Unless it's marked, make sure you know where to start your hike. Nothing sucks as bad as getting turned around at the very BEGINNING of you hike.
- Conditions play a major role in your water consumption. It sounds simple, but it's easy to screw up. If the trail you are hiking lacks water access, make sure you carry enough. If it's hot or will be hot outside, you'll need even more than you think.
- Leave the canned Chunky Soup soup at home. It's tasy but heavy as a brick.
Nuts & Bolts
Location: It extends 24 miles between US Routes 33 and 55 North of Seneca Rocks, WV
Directions: North Fork Mountain can be accessed by car at three locations.
- The southern trailhead is located on US33, nine miles west of Franklin and five miles east of Judy Gap.
- The FR79 trailhead, near the midpoint of the trial, is 3.5 miles up the mountain on FR79 from a junction with Co28/11, Smoke Hole Road. Access to this junction is south from WV28 near Cabins, or north from US220 at Upper Tract.
- The northern trailhead is 0.3 miles south along CO28/11 from WV28.
- The North Fork Mountain Trail runs the entire length of NFM and is rocky with several steep sections along it. Several segments of the southern part of the trail cross private property and could possibly be closed. You can either check with the Potomac District Ranger or access the trail from FR79, which is roughly the midway point. Except for the lack of water, the trail is ideal for a 2-3 day backpacking trip.
- Redman Run and Landis Trails provide access to the North Fork Mountain Trail from the east side. Junctions between the trails and the North Fork Mountain Trail are located at the 15.7 mile and 20.1 mile markers. Access to both trails can be reached along CO28/11.
Admission: currently none
Contact: Monogahela National Forest Service: Supervisor's Office - Forest Headquarters
200 Sycamore Street, Elkins, WV 26241 304-636-1800 (Voice & TDD). website
Maps & Stuff
Lots of great photos to give you a good idea of what the area is like!