November 2003: Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area


Seneca Rocks, West Virginia

Legend has it that the spectacular crags of white/gray quartzite that soar 900 feet above the flat valley of the North Fork of the Potomac River were the childhood playground of Snow bird, beautiful daughter of Seneca Indian chief Bald Eagle. To determine the warrior who would win her hand in marriage she staged a contest to see who could scale the magnificent cliff. The first documented roped ascent of the Seneca Rocks, however, took place in 1935. Today there are nearly 400 mapped climbing routes on the rocks. In 1969 the federal government purchased the West Virginia landmark and pieced together the national recreation area with Spruce Knob within the Monongahela National Forest.

A switchbacking 1.3-mile hard-packed trail ascends the north edge of the Seneca Rocks to a wooden viewing platform. Sure-footed dogs can climb a bit further up bare rock to notches at the very top of the rocks for views of the Allegheny Mountains to the west. The trail is a steady climb but within the means of even the novice canine hiker.
More extended trail time can be found in the Dolly Sods area of the park. The going is not nearly so smooth on the Boar's Nest/South Prong Loop Trail that picks up 1,500 feet in elevation over the six-mile trip. Come prepared for wet trails conditions and slippery rocks. Pay close attention to the blazes on the trail.
Isolated canine hiking can be found in a dead-end gorge known as Smoke Hole Canyon where the South Branch of the Potomac River is forced into a 180-degree turn by North Mountain and Cave Mountain. The Big Bend Loop Trail is a one-mile circle over a hill and around the Big Bend Campground where the river bends back on itself. The South Branch Trail is a 3.5-mile loop that climbs out of the half-mile deep canyon and into meadows and cedar barrens. Stay on the blue-blazed route when encountering old mountain roads.
Spruce Knob is the highest point in West Virginia at 4,861 feet. The Whispering Spruce Trail winds through wind-sculpted rocks and boulders on a wide, gravelly 1/2-mile loop around the summit. Down below the Gatewood Nature Trail shares time in a typical Northern hardwood forest and a Southern red pine plantation during two tranquil miles.

Spruce Knob may be the best place in the East to bring your dog to howl at the moon. The remote summit is perenially ranked #1 on amateur astronomers' Dark Sky Sites list east of the Mississippi River. With nothing more than binoculars or even the naked eye you can spot streaking meteors and even the Northern Lights.

The Seneca Rocks Visitor Center is located in the town of Seneca Rocks off US 33 and West Virginia Route 28.