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Smoke Hole Canyon

May 16, 2013

About 185 million years ago, a seven-mile thick sheet of sedimentary rocks began to buckle and fold. Wind and water wore away the softer layers, wearing down the mountains and creating a region of rolling plains. The plains then violently uplifted and broke. The rivers that had previously rolled gently over the plains turned into raging torrents that cut deep gorges and canyons. One such gorge is the Smoke Hole, where the South Branch of the Potomac River squeezes between North Mountain and Cave Mountain. For over 20 miles the river has carved a half-mile deep canyon, with nearly vertical walls.

The misty fog that often lies along the river as it runs through the "hole" makes the name appropriate. Where the name really came from is uncertain. Some old timers call the canyon "Smoke Holes" and claim Indians used the caves for smoking meat. Others say it was the moonshiner's stills that gave the gorge its name. Regardless, the canyon is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful areas in West Virginia. The remote, rugged landscape provides a unique recreation experience, whether it be fishing, hunting, hiking, canoeing or camping.

The Smoke Hole is managed by the Monongahela National Forest as a part of the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area which was established in 1965. In the Act establishing the area, Congress directed the Forest Service to manage the outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation, scenic qualities and other scientific, cultural and historic values.

Under the Monongahela National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, over 3,000 acres in the Smoke Hole area are set aside for non-motorized, primitive recreation and remote wildlife habitat.

Two roads provide access into the Smoke Hole. State Route 2 enters the Smoke Hole near Upper Tract, a small community 18 miles southwest of Petersburg, West Virginia along US Route 220. State Route 2 follows the river into the canyon and parallels it downstream for about eight miles. The first five and a half miles are paved but narrow. Vehicles towing large trailers may have difficulty. The road passes Eagle Rock, a towering rock information rising directly out of the river. The rock was named for Colonel William Eagle, a revolutionary war soldier who once lived nearby. He is buried near the rock.

Smoke Hole Picnic Area

The roads into the area are narrow and winding. Smoke Hole Picnic Area offers a place to stop and spend an hour or spend the day hiking a 3 1/2 mile loop trail. This trail affords spectacular views of the gorge and surrounding mountains.

Seventeen picnic sites with drinking water and toilet facilities comprise the picnic area which also includes a large lawn area with hoseshoe pits and a volleyball court. A fine, old log pavilion, built by the Civialian Conservation Corps (CCC's) can be reserved by calling the Potomac Ranger Station at (304) 257-4488.

Another popular picnicking area is at the entrance to Big Bend campground. A parking area, restrooms and water are available all year. Although the areas has no tables or grills, cook fires are permitted along the river's edge.


Located at the end of the Smoke Hole River Road, camping is available at the Big Bend Campground. Primitive camping is also available.


Fishing is popular along the river throughout the canyon. Streams are stocked with rainbow and golden trout by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources from January through June and then again in October. Large and small mouth bass are plentiful.

State fishing licenses with a national forest stamp are required. Special regulations apply to the area between Eagle Rock and Kimble Cabins (designated with signs and cables across the river). This area is managed for "catch and release" only from March 1 through May 31. Special bait and tackle regulations apply. General regulations apply June 1 through February 28.


Hiking is another way to see the area. Two loop trails are located in the Smoke Hole. Fishermen and hikers enjoy the 1/3 mile Big Bend Loop that circles the campground following the 'big bend' in the river. A longer 3-1/2 mile loop trail starts at the Smoke Hole Picnic Area, climbs up out of the Canyon and into meadows, 'sods' and cedar barrens. This trail affords spectacular views of the Smoke Hole gorge and surrounding mountains.

Hiking in the lower section of the Smoke Hole provides a challenge to those not intimidated by cross country travel. In the summer and fall when the river can be forded, traces of old pioneer roads can be found. These old mountain roads connected homesteads and farms throughout the canyon.

Kayaking and Whitewater Canoeing

Kayaking and whitewater canoeing provide the best ways to see the canyon, particularly the lower section where there are no roads or trails. The entire Smoke Hole river run is about 25 miles from US 220 to Petersburg.

The upper five miles between US 220 and the picnic area is the most difficult to navigate. Many big boulders and almost continuous whitewater demand expertise to make it safely through this section. Between the picnic area and Big Bend Campground, the stream is gentler and easier. This section is popular with tubers and small rafts as well as the canoes and kayaks.

Below Big Bend campgrounds there are no roads or maintained trails. The South Branch River, as it passes through backcountry and unsurpassed scenery, provides many short rapids with sharp rocks that require some skill to avoid. In between are large slow pools that give the paddler a chance to enjoy the view.

Since help is a long way away, this run is not recommended for novices. Many river runners camp near Blue Rock, a huge rock cliff half way through, and make this a leisurely two day trip. Not all land along this stretch of river is National Forest land so please observe private property rights. All river users should check current conditions and predicted weather when planning a run. The river can rise quickly during storms and may be too low in late summer.


Squirrel, grouse, turkey, deer, rabbit and bear hunting is popular in late fall. Most of the land in the Smoke Hole is managed by the Forest Service and is open to hunting subject to West Virginia hunting regulations.


Caves are common in the area. Some are home to the endangered Virginia big-eared bat and are closed to exploring during critical nesting or hibernation periods. Many caves are located on private land. Check at the Seneca Rocks Visitor Center when planning a spelunking trip.

Please see map for road and facilities locations.

Special Precautions

Weather in the Smoke Hole can change suddenly. Heavy rains can cause flash floods which close roads and strands visitors. Check weather forecasts and seek high ground if heavy rain occurs.

All water, except from hydrants, should be treated before drinking.

Camping is prohibited along the River Road, except in designated camping areas. Pets must be leashed at all times.

Motor vehicles are restricted to roads and parking areas. The Smoke Hole is well known for its great hunting. Both hunters and non-hunters are urged to dress in high visibility clothing during hunting seasons.

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