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West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest offers a lifetime of exploration

By Johnny Molloy • Sep 2, 2018 at 6:00 AM

The Monongahela National Forest, located entirely within the Mountain State, is the heart and soul of wild, wonderful West Virginia. The numbers are as follows: over 900,000 acres of land with elevations ranging from 900 to 4,862 feet, including Spruce Knob — the highest point in the state; 600 miles of coldwater fisheries, including 90% of the native brook trout waters in the state, 130 miles of warm water fisheries; over 115,000 acres of designated wilderness, over 75 tree species, and more than 700 miles of marked and maintained hiking trails.

Formed in 1920, the “Mon” is about more than numbers. It is a natural getaway for native Mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts from the Mid-Atlantic metropolises as well as visitors nationwide, even from the hills of East Tennessee.

And well it should be. Climbers can scale Seneca Rocks. Auto tourists can enjoy the vistas of the Highland Scenic Highway. Mountain bikers can pedal Canaan Mountain. Campers can spend the night at any of the fine campgrounds scattered throughout the national forest. Hikers can enjoy the “Mon” from the Dolly Sods up north to way down south near Blue Bend.

The first trails were made by Indians who camped along the valleys of the major rivers here -- the Cheat, the Tygart, the Greenbrier, and the Potomac. Later, these nomadic natives formed more permanent communities that were the genesis of tribes such as the Seneca. These tribes suffered the same fate as most North American Indians, as the fertile valleys became settled by pioneers spreading west over the Alleghenies.

The high forests remained mostly untouched until after West Virginia became a state during the Civil War. Battles were fought on what later became national forest land, to control passes through the rugged mountains. A notable clash was over Cheat Summit Fort, where Robert E. Lee himself failed to wrestle the stronghold from Union hands. And so the western part of the Old Dominion became independent, the state of West Virginia.

America expanded and the need for wood grew. The spread of the railroad and high-speed band saws opened the mountains of West Virginia to removal of vast stands of virgin woodland. Within 30 years, much of the state was cut over.

Then the floods came, because there was no vegetation to absorb and slow waters flowing from the mountains. This watery devastation of the lowlands, particularly the flood of 1907, led to the creation of the Monongahela National Forest. Federal management of these lands could result in watershed protection among other things.

There was much work to do: replanting trees, cutting roads, building fire towers and hiking trails. At first, the work was slow. Many mountaineers resented the presence of the “Feds” in their backyard.

Ironically, it was the Great Depression that sped the evolution of the forest. Many young men, unable to find a job, joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, which established work camps throughout the Monongahela National Forest. For nearly ten years they made a mark on the forest. To this day, you can see their handiwork at campgrounds like Blue Bend.

The forest began to recover. Through wildlife management programs, native species of the Alleghenies began to thrive. White-tailed deer lingered on the edge of clearings, black bear furtively fed on fall’s mast. Other smaller critters, from salamanders to falcons, called the wooded ridges and valleys home. Later, several wildernesses were established to protect unique large swaths of the national forest.

And, now man, as recreationalist, can return to a grand wild land once again to fish for secretive brook trout, to listen to the wind whistle through highland spruce woods, to identify colorful wildflowers, to see the changing seasons from a magnificent rock vista.

To best enjoy the Mon you must take to your feet. Hikes head to overlooks, waterfalls and wildernesses, as well as scenic, cultural and historical sites, lakes and rivers, too. And there are ample rewarding treks, for the Monongahela National Forest is an incredibly attractive land, a place where mountains tower thousands of feet above fertile valleys, where crashing cataracts plunge into deep forests, where rock overlooks and wide meadows deliver resplendent vistas, where brawling rivers cut deep gorges through majestic highlands.

It is where the Falls of Hills Creek makes its exceptional plunge into a rock cathedral. Along the way to the falls you traverse a rugged gorge. It is where hikers walk West Virginia’s master path — the Allegheny Trail — to an overlook of the Blackwater River Canyon.

Other trails take you through biological wonderlands such as Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. There, the West Virginia’s largest tundra wetland harbors rare plants while availing vistas of surrounding mountains.

Speaking of waterfalls, vertical variation and ample rain create an abundance of waterfalls in these parts. In addition to the cataracts already mentioned, there are a host of falls in the Seneca Creek Backcountry, along Red Creek and its tributaries in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, and on lower Otter Creek, deep in the Otter Creek Wilderness. Then add the waterfalls of the Cranberry Wilderness.

Big Beechy Run Falls makes its wide drop, the Falls of Middle Fork form a big slide while interestingly named Hell For Certain Falls dives off a ledge. It is an easy family hike to picturesque Lick Branch Falls. And there are still other, more modest falls. The Forks of Tea Creek Cascades enhance the excellent hiking destination that is the Tea Creek Backcountry. The spillers along East Fork Greenbrier are a lesser visited aquatic feature.

Other hikes take you to you to and through historic destinations. The Cowpasture Loop leads to a former WW II federal prison camp without walls, where isolation and the harsh climate discouraged escape. The Camp Five Run Trail takes you by cabins built by early Monongahela National Forest rangers. Those structures are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Other trails travel along logging grades from the 1800s and past former camps where loggers lived.

And there are still more possibilities, including places where you can not only hike but combine trail trekking with other activities in the Monongahela National Forest. The trails of Lake Sherwood Recreation Area take you along a scenic impoundment and to the state line ridge dividing West Virginia and Virginia, where overlooks can be found. Upon returning to Lake Sherwood, you can camp, swim, fish or picnic.

Or walk the loop around Big Bend in Smoke Hole Canyon then overnight in their campground and paddle the South Branch Potomac River. Or hike up to Seneca Rocks, grab the wonderful views there, then rock climb or go bouldering in addition to camping at nearby Seneca Shadows Campground. Take the loop around Summit Lake then camp, fish or paddle its mountain-rimmed shores.

Who can forget the views to be had on Monongahela hikes? Rohrbaugh Overlook and Blackbird Knob in the incomparable Dolly Sods Wilderness deliver a visual feast, as do panoramas from Chimney Top along North Fork Mountain near Petersburg, or atop Black Mountain, and in multiples from Spruce Knob and the Huckleberry Trail. And how can we leave out the vista from aptly named Table Rock?

The important thing is getting out there and enjoying the wonderful trails and terrain of this scenic slice of the Mountain State. It offers a lifetime of exploration.

For more information, please visit www.fs.usda.gov/mnf or check out my guide Five Star Trails: West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest.

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