Sunday, July 26, 2009

Almost Heaven, West Virginia

This will not be one of my typical blueline exploration reports. However, it is an exploration of sorts - simply no brookies involved.

I have a young coworker from Salt Lake City, Utah that has been asking me to take him to the mountains to do a little hiking. He is a ChemE and a 2008 graduate of the University of Utah and I was honored to "show off" the beauty of my home state.

What better place to do a day hike than the Dolly Sods Wilderness area and the Seneca Backcountry. The plan was to explore some new trails in the Sods on Saturday, camp on Spruce Knob (highest point in the state), then into the headwaters of Seneca Creek and the Seneca Backcountry.

Our adventure would begin at the Red Creek trailhead.

This particular piece of information caught my young friend's attention.

The plan was to take Red Creek trail to Big Stonecoal trail (1.5 miles), Big Stonecoal trail to Rocky Point trail (1.2 miles), Lion's Head Spike trail (0.5 miles), Rocky Point trail back to Red Creek trail (1.8 miles), then Red Creek trail back to the trailhead (3.2 miles). With a little bushwhacking thrown in, the round trip would be a little over 8 miles.

The first flat 1.5 miles went fairly uneventful, until we had to cross Red Creek to get to Big Stonecoal trail. At this point my friend informed me he had already developed blisters on his heels. I had loaned him a pair of hiking shoes but I did not notice he had put on "footies" - not a good choice for these rugged, rocky trails.

In his own words, he would "man up" and keep going. The next 1.2 miles were uphill the entire length. Once we hit the first switchback I looked for the cairns that would signal the beginning of the first bushwhacking adventure. At this point on Big Stonecoal trail there are supposedly some very nice falls below the trail in Big Stonecoal run.

The bushwhacking would be quite the adventure! The rhododendron thickets were very difficult to maneuver through, but I would take the lead and make a trail. I got to a certain point where I could see through the rhododendron that the solid ground seemed to disappear. So it was back up the mountain, around the ridge and try to pick my way down again. This would lead to the same result, so I repeated this and the third time was a charm as I finally able to make it to the stream.

I would not be disappointed and the rain the previous day added some water to the stream, adding needed flow to the waterfalls and cascades.

These next few shots ran consecutively on Big Stonecoal:

As we worked our way downstream through this very rugged section of stream, I learned why the ground seemed to disappear in the rhododendron thicket - there was no ground! It's a good thing I decided not to push through the thicket, had I done so it would have been a real bad day.

After working our way past this obstacle we found a route we could work our way back up to the trail. It was nearly straight up but at least we weren't fighting the rhododendron.

Once back on Big Stonecoal trail, our next destination was Rocky Point trail and the Lion's Head spike trail. I was concerned I would not find this spike trail but again rock cairns marked the trail.

It was another quick uphill climb and the trail leveled out in this pine grove. The pines were obviously planted in nearly perfect rows, possibly by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp).

Once at the end of the pine grove we were looking for a small trail out to the rock outcroppings that would contain Lion's Head. The trail was easy enough to find and the view was simply amazing.

Can you make out the Lion's Head?

After taking a nice break while enjoying the scenery and a quick lunch, it was backtracking to Rocky Point trail. Once we returned to Rocky Point it was back around the point below the Lion's Head formation and the junction with Red Creek trail. By the way, Rocky Point trail is aptly named as about a mile of this trail is composed of softball-sized limestone cobble - real ankle breakers.

The junction with Red Creek trail is well above Red Creek and the trail downhill to the creek is much steeper than the trail up Big Stonecoal. I think we chose our route wisely.

Once down and back across Red Creek, my next goal on the way out was to locate Thea's Falls. I had the coordinates but traveling from the north Thea's is easily spotted from the trail. Another beautiful set of falls in Dolly Sods.

We stopped one last time for another snack at the junction of Big Stonecoal, completing the loop section of our journey. The remaining 1.5 miles back to the vehicle went without event and we completed our journey in about 7.5 hours.

After popping a couple of Aleve (those rough trails were rough on my old knees & ankles), we took a quick photo at the entrance of the Sods before we headed up the road to the top of the Sods.

I had one more spot I wanted to visit before we headed toward Seneca Rocks and Spruce Knob. There is an overlook with a great view of North Fork Mountain and the Chimney Rocks formation.

From the top of Dolly Sods it was down to the Potomac watershed and one of the most scenic drives in the state - Route 28.

Our next destination was Seneca Rocks, but on the way we pass Champe Rock formation. Champe Rocks are named for Sergeant Major John Champe, a Revolutionary War soldier who became a double agent in attempt to capture the American traitor General Benedict Arnold. Commanded by Major Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee and handpicked by George Washington for the mission, Champe "defected" to the British side and came very close to succeeding, but at the last minute, Arnold changed plans and the whole endeavor had to be called off. Champe settled near the rocks after the war.

Following a quick stop at the Seneca Rocks Visitors Center, it was on to Spruce Knob where we would set up camp for the night and meet another friend for Sunday's journey.

This is another view of North Fork Mountain and the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River valley (that's a mouthful).

From the overlook we made it to the campground, pitched the tents, and had dinner. These would be firsts for my young friend: first night in a tent and first freeze-dried meal.

Following dinner we made a quick trip to the top of Spruce Knob, hoping to catch a sunset over the Seneca valley but we were too late. By the time we returned to camp our third member of the Sunday adventure had arrived. It was a couple of quick introductions, a little conversation, then off to catch a few winks.

The plan for Sunday was up before sunrise and back to the Spruce Knob summit with hopes to catch a sunrise over North Fork Mountain. As with the attempt to catch sunset, we missed sunrise due to heavy fog. However, we did find temperatures down to 41 degrees (in July) and a wind chill that most likely pushed it into the upper 30's.

Having missed the sunrise, we returned to camp, packed up and hit the trailhead.

I was anxious to hit this trail, as it would be the personal completion of Seneca Creek. I had traveled Seneca from the mouth to just below Judy Springs and this section would complete the "puzzle" which is the entire Seneca Creek watershed.

It would also be the first time I had laid my eyes on Judy Springs - one of the major sources of upper Seneca Creek. Three miles down the trail....Judy Springs.

Judy Springs is also a major junction for several trails in the Seneca Backcountry.

The next stop on our journey was the upper falls of Seneca just above the junction with Horton Trail. As an indication of how low the water was, this set of falls normally has two major streams over the falls.

Once at the deepest point in our adventure, we stopped for some photos and a quick bite to eat. The next task was to put my young friend on the first fish of his life - he had never been fishing before. With the low water I had my work cut out for us. It was difficult to put a first-time fisherman on fish with the low water and trying to do it with a fly rod compounded the difficulty.

The fish were plenty but fly line in the air spooked them, shadows spooked them, and a not-so-gentle presentation also spooked them. He was able to move a couple of fish, fishing downstream in plunge pools and using the large in stream rocks as cover. He simply couldn't get the hookset down.

I picked up three of these little guys as I demonstrated technique or if we hit one of the many long, slow pools above the falls.

We continued to make our way back upstream toward Judy Springs, hoping to put him on a fish but with the low water it just didn't happen. At least he can't say he has "never been fishing" now.

Even though Seneca changes gradient significantly above the falls, it is still a beautiful stream!

The hike out was uphill the entire way but the uphill grade was not noticeable and the trail was in much better shape than the day prior - or at least not as rugged. The total distance for this day when we returned to the trailhead? A little over ten miles.

I think Almost Heaven West Virginia showed itself very well for our visitor!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Looks fun Chris! That's some mighty pretty countryside.

I always carry a small roll of duct tape in my pack. As hotspots develop, put a layer of duct tape there so it doesn't turn into a blister. It usually works pretty well.