The Crown of The Mid Atlantic

“Almost Heaven,” as immortalized by John Denver, is an accurate description of the mountains and forests of the Allegheny Highlands of West Virginia.  Yes, the area is that beautiful/special.  Yet, for the life of me I can’t understand why the area doesn’t attract more visitors.  Even on a “busy” summer weekend it’s easy to find a spectacular mountain vista where you’re the only one there…not complaining, after all the remoteness is part of the area’s charm. Last weekend I had the opportunity to spend the whole weekend taking pictures of some of the most fantastic scenery on the East Coast.  Spruce Knob – Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, basically a national park administered by the US Forest Service, encompasses some of the “crown jewels” of the Mid Atlantic: Spruce Knob (WV’s highest point), Seneca Rocks (a large out cropping), and North Fork Mountain.  Each of these places on there own are easily “national park quality” scenery. I arrived to my campsite early on Friday evening, then after setting up drove up to the top of Spruce Knob to catch the last of the sun’s rays highlighting the highest point in “The Mountain State.”

The following morning, I awoke early to shoot some sunrise pics from the other side of the mountain.  However, I noticed part way up the mountain that the sky was cloudy and thought, “How great would that be if the mountain was socked in with fog?”  To my delight, the mountain was covered with such dense fog that I had to turn off my headlights in order to see better.  For months, I had been wanting to photograph a mountain forest in fog, and the spruce forests here are some of the prettiest this side of the Pacific Coast.

After spending all morning shooting, it was time to descend back to camp, which is located right next to another gem of the Mid Atlantic: Spruce Mountain Lake.  A sparkling clear lake, surrounded by dark spruce forests and mountain meadows.  The lake was busy with families and fishermen, but never felt crowded.  As an added bonus, the sun was finally out.  I strolled around the lake, scouting out locations tonight’s shots and photographed the many wildflowers and butterflies I spotted along the way.

Later that night, I came back to Spruce Knob Lake to catch the sunset, which I wasn’t sure was going to happen due to the clouds that had come back to cover the sky.  As soon as I arrived, the clouds broke to the West, creating an opening for the perfect sunset.

The clouds eventually cleared out completely after sunset, creating the perfect environment for astrophotography.  Did I mention that the area is sparsely populated?  – Situated deep within the Monongahela National Forest, this area of West Virginia enjoys some of the darkest skies in the Mid Atlantic.

Milky Way - Spruce Knob Lake
Milky Way – Spruce Knob Lake

After a late night up shooting the dark skies, I really needed some sleep, so I slept in.  After all, it would be really hard to top the spectacular sunset of last night.  The previous day had been one of the best/most dynamic days for photography that I’d ever experienced. I broke camp to head home, but wasn’t done yet, there was one more stop that I wanted to make.  North Fork Mountain, is equally as unique as nearby Spruce Knob.  Sitting in the rain shadow of the higher mountains (Spruce Mountain, Allegheny Front, Mount Porte Crayon), North Fork Mountain has one of the driest and most unique forests of the East Coast.  That and it also boasts steep rock outcroppings that are a rock climber’s and hiker’s delight.  My quest for the morning was to reach the top of Chimney Top, which is one of the largest rock outcroppings on the mountain’s long rocky spine.

The rugged spine of cliffs runs the length of North Fork Mountain
Rugged cliffs run down the  spine of North Fork Mountain

Arguably this is one of the best hikes in the Eastern US.  However, no one seems to know about it… the route/scenery is like an “Eastern Version” of Angels Landing in Zion National Park, but with 1/100,000 of the hikers.  The climb is steep (1800’ elev. gain in 3.0 miles) and the breeze less East side of the Mountain is stifling in the summer heat (bring lots of water!).  Just when you think that you’re near the top, the trail gets steeper for the next 1 mile.  Then when you get to the summit trail (denoted by a small rock cairn), the “trail” (more like a bushwhack through the undergrowth) gets even steeper for the last 200’ climb to the summit.

One of the large rock outcroppings of Chimney Rock -
One of the large rock outcroppings of Chimney Top – “Angels Landing of the East”

All your efforts are paid off by one of the most amazing views East of the Mississippi.  You can see the cliff face running down the spine of North Fork Mountain, along with the massive rock out cropping known as Chimney Top.  If you’re not afraid of heights, you can climb to the top of one of the Chimneys without climbing gear.  Sure its not as high as Dolly Sods, Spruce Knob, or the Roaring Plains, but you’ll  feel like you’re on top of West Virginia.  If you’re lucky, you’ll see Peregrine Falcons, as they like to nest on the cliff faces.  Be careful, Timber Rattle Snakes also like the dry rocky outcroppings.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a beautiful “National Park like” setting on the East Coast and you want solitude, come to the Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area in Monongahela National Forest.  For an even more unique experience, come here when the mountains are cloaked in the white of winter, you can hike all day without seeing anyone.

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