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May 16, 2013

Do you have a day to spend hiking in the Potomac Highlands? Here are some suggestions that highlight the area's scenic beauty, while only covering short to moderate distances.


Seneca Rocks Hiking Trail -- A 1.3 mile trail ascending nearly 900 feet from the North Fork River to an observation deck just below the top of the rocks. This vantage point offers a splendid view of the North Fork River valley below and the Allegheny Mountains to the west. The trail is a wide gravel path where switchbacks and steps help to ease the steep grades so that people of all ages can hike this trail. Benches provide resting spots along the way. The trail begins at the parking lot of the Seneca Rocks Visitor Center.

DOLLY SODS AREA -- Boar's Nest/South Prong Loop Trail -- A total of 6 miles, these two trails are connected by Forest Road 70 to form a long day hike. They can be hiked in either direction and begin at the same place on Forest Road 70. The elevation gain on the Loop is 1,500 feet and rocky, so this route is not for the faint at heart. The trail crosses streams and bogs so be prepared to get your feet wet. Views of Dolly Sods Wilderness can be seen from Boar's Nest Trail. FR 70 is closed to public motorized vehicles from March 1-September 30. This trail can be difficult to follow.

Northland Loop Trail -- A 1/2 mile loop trail with interpretive nature signs along the way, Northland Loop trail begins from Forest Road 75 in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area approximately 1/2 mile south of the Red Creek Campground. This trail meanders through the heath barrens to a bog and circles back to the road passing through a spruce/hemlock stand. The tread is very rocky and surrounded by dense rhododendron and laurel thickets.

South Prong Trail -- Forest Road 70 is a 4-1/2 mile loop. Begin at the South Prong trailhead located approximately 1/2 mile south of the Dolly Sods Picnic Area on Forest Road 19. Follow this rocky trail through blueberries and bogs along the ridge. Nice views to the east and south can be seen before the trail drops steeply down to Forest Road 70 back to Forest Road 19. Turn right onto Forest Road 19 and walk 1/8 mile back to your car. The tread is rocky on South Prong Trail. FR 70 is closed to motorized vehicles from March 1-September 30.


The Smoke Hole Area of the Monongahela National Forest offers the hiking enthusiast both long distance backpacking opportunities and shorter day hikes. Thirty miles of trails are maintained, but the area offers a vast backcountry for hikers to explore without the convenience of trails.

North Fork Mountain Trail -- Extends for 24 miles along North Fork Mountain between US Routes 55 and 33. This ridge top trail provides views of the North Fork River valley and the Allegheny Mountains to the west. Looking east one can see Cave Mountain in the foreground and the ridges beyond extending into Virginia. The rock outcrops atop North Fork Mountain 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.

The trail is rocky and has several steep sections. The vegetation along the trail varies from oak and hickory stands to mountain laurel thickets. Azaleas are common along the trail and bloom in mid-May. White Virginia and Table Mountain Pines are common on the ridge top.

Note: There are no water sources along this trail so backpackers must carry in all their water.

The trail can be reached from three trailheads located along the Smoke Hole Road (State Route 28/11) located approximately six miles west of Petersburg on Route 28 and 55. The Smoke Hole Road crosses the North Fork River immediately and then follows the side of North Fork Mountain for several miles before dropping into the Smoke Hole Canyon. The first trailhead is for the North Fork Mountain Trail. Traveling further on the Smoke Hole Road, one comes to an intersection with Forest Road 79. Vehicles with high clearance of four wheel drive can attempt this road which leads to the top of North Fork Mountain. Hikers can head north or south from this point.

Big Bend Loop Trail -- This 1 mile trail encircles the Big Bend Campground. From the day use parking lot, it climbs the hill above the campground and offers views of the surrounding canyon walls. The trail then drops back down to the South Branch River where it follows the bend in the river around the campground and returns to the day use parking area. Before reaching the parking lot, one can see a chimney which is all that remains of the old Ketterman Post Office. This is a nice trail for viewing wildflowers in the spring and early summer and provides easy access to the river.

South Branch Trail -- A 3-1/2 mile loop trail beginning at Smoke Hole Picnic Area on County Road 2. From the parking lot, walk along the base of the hill through the picnic area. The beginning of the trail is a mowed path leading downstream from the picnic area. The trail crosses a gas pipeline on a small footbridge and then continues following the South Branch River downstream. Beware of a rocky tread in places. Eventually, the trail ascends above the river and comes to a road where blue blazes lead the hiker uphill into an open meadow dotted with cedar trees. Signs of an old homestead can be seen throughout the meadow. Several old roads come into the meadow so be sure to follow the blue blazes and arrows marking the trail. When the trail turns off the road, it becomes a footpath through a dense pine and cedar forest. The trail stays high on the mountainside for a mile or more before descending steeply back down to the picnic area. The terrain and vegetation are varied on this hike and nice views of North Fork Mountain can be seen along the trail.


Big Run -- Allegheny Mountain Loop is a 7 mile loop that follows clear mountain streams through hardwood forests and open meadows. Beaver signs can be seen along the way. The two steep grades are short in length. Begin at the Big Run Trailhead on County Road 29 south of Whitmer. Follow Big Run Trail up to Allegheny Mountain Trailhead. From this point follow Allegheny Mountain Trail almost 2 and 1/2 miles to its junction with North Prong Trail. Turn left onto North Prong Trail which leads through an open meadow and into a forest following the North Prong back to Big Run.

Seneca Creek -- Allegheny Mountain Loop is a 6 mile loop that follows old railroad grades and logging roads through meadows, northern hardwood forests and along Seneca Creek. Begin at the Seneca Creek Trailhead on Forest Road 112. Follow the trail to Tom Lick Trail which leads up the mountain passing through a wildlife clearing where quiet hikers might see deer. At the top of the mountain, turn right onto Allegheny Mountain Trail (a road closed to public traffic). Follow this trail approximately one mile to a big clearing where Swallow Rock Trail crosses the Allegheny Mountain Trail. Turn right onto Swallow Rock Trail which leads through a northern hardwood forest and crosses a small creek on its way to Seneca Creek. Upon reaching Seneca Creek, ford the creek and turn right to follow the trail upstream. Following the trail in this direction, hikers have better views of the cascading creek. There is one gradual ascent and one fairly steep descent when following the loop as described.

Gatewood Trail -- A 2-mile loop trail with several short, steep sections, it leads hikers through a red pine plantation, northern hardwood forest, open pastures and along the banks of Big Run where signs of beaver can be seen. Spruce Knob is visible from the pasture. This trail has two access points -- one trailhead is located on Sawmill Run Road where the road crosses Big Run; the other trailhead is located on Forest Road 112, a quarter mile southwest of the intersection of Forest Road 112 and Forest Road 1. The trail can also be accessed by the Short Trail which begins across the road from the entrance to the Spruce Knob Campground. The Short Trail is a 1/2 mile.

Whispering Spruce Trail -- This 1/2-mile loop trail encircles the Spruce Knob tower. Visitors can feel what life is like for the plants and animals living above 4,000 feet in the Allegheny Mountains. This nature trail winds through windblown rock where one can feel the sharp west wind blow. It then leads out to a point where giant boulders are scattered through an open field. Exceptional views to the east and west are seen beyond. From this point the trail enters a thick spruce patch protected from the wind where visitors can peek through breaks in the trees to see the North Fork valley below and the mountains fading into Virginia. Beyond the stand of spruce the trail forks -- left leads back to the tower and right leads through a blueberry patch speckled with azalea bushes before reaching the parking lot. The path is wide and graveled.

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