Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on August 24, 1975 · Page 105
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August 24, 1975

Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 105

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Charleston, West Virginia
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Sunday, August 24, 1975
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Page 105
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Ridgerunning in West Virginia By Ron Hardway Where in West Virginia can you find a hiking.trail that combines the rocky, windswept paths and exciting panoramas of a Dolly Sods, the groves of cool, shady hardwoods of Otter Creek, and the diversified flora and fauna of a Cranberry back country? Try the North Mountain Trail in Pendleton and Grant counties. The North Mountain Trail perches precariously for 22-miies along the narrow ridgetop of North Fork Mountain, a spiny masterpiece of creation that stretches unbroken over 30 miles of some of West Virginia's finest mountain scenery. Most of it lies within the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area of the Monongahela National Forest, and it is blazed and maintained by the U. S. Forest Service throughout its length. In Forest Service lexicon the North Mountain Trail is #501, and that is how it is identified on most maps of the area. What makes the North Mountain Trail almost unique in West Virginia is the ready availability of spectacular scenic overlooks along the route/Most West Virginia trails wind through thick forests, and even mountaintop trails seldom provide clear overlooks to the vast blue sea of the Appalachians. But the north side of North Fork Mountain, is formed by an outcropping of the geological formation known as "Tuscarora Sandstone." From almost any point hikers can walk out onto exposed rocks and see forever on a clear day, or at least as far as SpruceKnob. The:-terrain of'the North Mountain frail is also unusual for West Virginia.; Most hikers would expect a series of steep ascents and descents. But the North Mountain Trail is mostly level, and changes in elevation are gradual. One knee- cracking exception to this pattern is a 200-foot climb three miles south of the North Fork fire tower. At this point the trail is incredibly steep and rocky, and on a rainy day it would present a severe challenge. You would also expect a mountaintop trail that maintains an elevation of 3,600 feet above sea level to be widely exposed to unrelenting sunlight: Despite expectations, practically all of the trail is routed through shady groves of second- growth hardwood trees. In addition to the natural shade, a breeze blows constantly along the ridge. Our party hiked the North Mountain Trail on two of the hottest days of the summer, but the heat was hardly noticed. Only when we took side trips to overlooks did we realize how hot it was elsewhere. Pendleton County is the most beautiful of our mountain counties, and from the North Mountain Trail you can see much of it in both an easterly and westerly direction: Along the southern part of the trail you can gaze westward into Germany Valley. Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks are also clearly visible. On the northern half of the trail, you can look to the west and up to the lofty plateau of Dolly Sods. 24.1973 The showpiece of North Fork Mountain flora is mountain laurel. This hardly shrub enjoys clinging to the sheer face of the sandstone outcrop in the shelter of a gnarled pitch pine as much as it appreciates the cosier beds offered by shady black oaks. Striking color photography can be achieved by contrasting the rash pinks of the laurel with the deep green pines overhanging the gray and white sandstone cliffs, Eastward, you can look down into the mysterious, wraith-like Smoke- hole Canyon. Wildlife is plentiful. During our two-day hike on the mountain we saw three deer, a baby skunk, a half-dozen grouse, several hawks, numerous smaller animals such as chipmunks and rabbits, and a flock of semi-wild goats. One mother grouse provided a memorable experience. We were strolling along when our attention was diverted by a large grouse hen running noisily through the woods about ten yards off the trail. She was making distressful sounds as though in great agony. Now and then she would flap her wings as if to fly, only to fall back to the ground and continue running. We watched her antics for half a minute as she thrashed about in the woods. Then, from the weeds at our feet, came a sudden cacophony of terrified "peeps," and grouse chicks exploded in four different directions. Immediately the mother grouse ceased fooling around, and prepared to do battle. She spread her tail feathers into a spectacular fan, began hissing like an overtaxed engine, and charged us, running like a chicken in track condition. Not really knowing what to do, but at the same time unawed by this approaching battleaxe, we simply stood our ground and watched as she dashed to within a few feet of us. Apparently aware that her show of hostility was not having the desired effect on these tall interlopers, she suddenly veered sideways and flew off into the woods. For some time thereafter we could hear her clucking to her chicks, trying to collect them. The chicks-were answering her with more composed "peeps," and we left them coming together again. Wildf lowers are not as profuse on North Fork Mountain as they are at lower elevations, but the species that do thrive here make up for their sparse numbers by splashing brilliant colors among the dull green pines and mossy logs. Particularly prevalent during early summer are intensely yellow rattlesnake weed, gentle blue beardtongue, and delicate columbine, ranging in color from a deep scarlet to nearly white. Although orth Mountain Trail is relatively level, good hiking legs and strong shoes are essential if you are to achieve satisfaction from a hiking trip. North Fork is high and its soil is very thin. As a result the trail is rocky. Heavy shoes are essential to avoid bruised feet and an abrupt and painful end to a hike. The only disadvantage is the total absence of water along the route. Although most maps of the area show creeks on both slopes, do not count on getting water from them. Not only would you have to descend sheer cliffs to get to them, but also once there you would find that the creeks are either underground or dry. A hiker with an average thirst will need no less than two quarts of' water- just for drinking purposes over the 22-miles. If you intend to camp overnight, extra water will have to be carried for cooking and cleaning up. Camping sites are not plentiful, but the few that are available could serve as models of perfect campsites (except the lack of water.) All are located in grassy glades hear overlooks. Campers who use these sites have kept them in excellent condition. Previous campers have constructed stone fire rings and firewood is abundant. But, building a campfire on North Fork Mountain can be a risky venture. The crest of the ridge is covered with picturesque pitch pine. The fire hazard these trees present is not so picturesque. The thick layer of fallen needles makes a comfortable and aromatic resting place, but a carelessly dropped match or a blown spark could set the entire area ablaze more quickly than a camper could get off the mountain. Backpacking is the favorite use of the trail by the few people who go there. An Eric Ryback could easily cover the entire trail system in one day, but those backpacking for pleasure will find two or three days on the trail will leave an entire party with the desire to come back again. There are several trailheads. At the southern end, the trail is located on U.S. Rt. 33 at the top of North Fork Mountain between Judy'Gap and Franklin. There is no trail sign here, but the beginning of the trail is a clearly delineated jeep track, closed to motor vehicles by a heavy cable. Watch the trees carefully for the standard blue blaze of a national forest trail, and the footpath quickly becomes obvious. The greatest advantage to beginning a hike at this point is that you are already at the top of the mountain, and no climbing is necessary to reach the summit. At the opposite end the reverse is true. The northern trailhead is located on Forest Service Rt. 74, a secondary road that turns off W.Va. Rt. 28 about two miles southwest of Cabins. From this trailhead the ascent to the ridge is quite steep. Once on the ridge, a Isfig, gradual climb follows for several miles until you finally reach the top. In all, you will have ascended more than 2,000 feet from the northern trailhead until you reach the summit at North Fork fire tower. Additional trailheads are available at various points along Pendleton County Rts. 2 and 8. These trailheads are signed with Forest Service markings. But most of them follow jeep trails up to the ridge. These are easy, but unimaginative, walking. ' There are two national forest campgrounds in the immediate vicinity of the North Mountain Trail, either of which could serve as headquarters for a party wishing to hike for a day or backpack for several days on the trail. These campgrounds are also safe places to leave cars. There is, however, ample parking space at all of the trail- heads. Although none of the trail- heads are regularly supervised by the Forest Service, that agency reports that there have been practically no cases of vandalism to cars parked overnight at these locations. The North Mountain Trail, trail- heads, and campgrounds are clearly marked on two maps published by the Forest Service: One map, on a very small scale, portrays the entire Monongahela National Forest. The other map is on a much larger scale and shows only the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area. Both maps show the North Fork Mountain trail system, but neither have adequate topographical details, and both are misleading in locating streams. The Monongahela National Forest map and the map of the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area are available on request from the U.S. Forest Service, Box 1231, Elkins, W.Va. 26241. Accurate topographical markings are available only on maps published and sold by the U.S. Geological Survey. They are awkward to manage because four different sheets are necessary to encompass the entire trail area. These maps cost .75* each and must be ordered from the U.S. Geological Survey. Descriptions of the trails themselves on North Fork Mountaiare contained in a book entitled "Hiking Guide to The Monongahela National Forest," published by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. The book costs $3.00, and is available from the WVHC, 206 Union Street, Webster Springs, WV 26288. If your vacation calendar is not yet complete for this summer, consider a hiking trip to North Fork Mountain. Not only will the spirit be uplifted, but also you can neVei tell when one may te charged by an outraged grouse. W.VA. 35m

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