Hiking West Virginia’s Highest Peak – Spruce Knob

It’s Friday and we are excited!! This isn’t just any Friday. Today starts our first three night backcountry hike…EVER! I’m sure many people could say, been there done that, but this is our first time AND it’s Friday! New usually equals adventure and unknown so therefore it equals exciting! Hopefully by Monday evening we can say “this was just the first of many.”

Posing against the Celestial Sky
Posing against the Celestial Sky

A friend of ours was heading to Spruce Knob to take some night pictures and get away for a weekend. We thought it would be worth going to experience the area. Well we learned lots about night photography, got a really cool picture and decided to come back the following weekend to go backcountry. This is how it went.

Day 1

After work, we leave for the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia with Spruce Knob in our sights. This is West Virginia’s highest peak @ 4,863 feet above sea level. It’s a bit of a drive coming from northern Virginia but well worth it. Lots of great scenery, small towns, and fresh fruits, eggs and veggies for sale along the way. Oh and as you get closer to Seneca Rocks, the winding roads get windier! From Seneca Rocks we took US-33 East for approximately 10 miles to Briery Gap Road (33/4). Briery Gap Road will be a right turn just before the Gateway Restaurant which has some really tasty home cooking. I could eat nothing but side dishes – pears, harvard beets, coleslaw, everything. Drive slowly when heading up the mountain. You’ll want to eventually take Forest Road 112 to the right. This is basically a one and a half lane road that twists and turns all the way up. Lots of potholes to navigate and not much space when passing others. Drive even slower and stay on your side of the road and you’ll be fine. We turned right onto Forest Road 104 to the top of Spruce Knob.

We made it to the Observation Tower. Crazy how the temperature up here is 10° colder at 56°. We didn’t expect this and now wonder if we are prepared for our first cold night. Of course, cold nights just mean bigger fire. Up here we met up with our friend Bob and jumped into one car. We left a car since our plan is to start the hike at Seneca Creek trail and end here at the observation tower. If you have time, hike the short trail Whispering Spruce Trail (TR567). It’s .6 miles and has better view than from the tower. Back in the car, we head down FR104 and then turn right back onto FR112.

Seneca Creek Trail
Seneca Creek Trail

We arrived at Seneca Creek Trailhead (TR515) a bit late at 7:30p so we camped our first night just a mile up the path. We considered going further but getting a campsite and fire going seemed much more fun especially after the long 3 1/2 hour drive. This is a very fun night – nice fire, hammocks, friends and maybe a little something to sip. Temperatures definitely warmed as we left the top of Spruce Knob. It’s night now and 61°. Super dark and quiet out here – love it! We stayed in our tent and Bob slept in his hammock. Morning breakfast was tasty! We boiled water for coffee and had oatmeal with peaches and nuts. I’m already trying to imagine how people pack food for long 1-2 week trips so we have a lot to learn.

Spooky Tunnel of Trees
Spooky Tunnel of Trees

Day 2

Today starts our hike to the intersection of Seneca Creek Trail and Horton Trail (TR530). There is a great looking 30′ waterfall here and many great campsites all along the Seneca Creek Trail.

Large Stone Chairs
Large Stone Chairs

People have put lots of time into these campsites building everything from small to large & short to tall campfires, a variety of stone chairs, and we even passed a site that had a 6 foot stone bench. I guess when you don’t have tv, internet and every other distraction in life, you become more ingenious and creative.

One thing we realized is we didn’t pack as light as we should have. We will have to adjust our “Gear List” when we get home. One thing that has some weight but is really cool is a biolite stove. One amazing thing about this little stove is you need no propane/butane. You only need small sticks. We can quickly boil water and it also generates electricity allowing us to charge our fitbits, lights, or whatever.

We made it to the waterfall and took a break. Next find a unique campsite. It’s labor day weekend and even though it’s not very crowded, many of the spots close to the falls are taken. We went up Horton Trail and found a very remote spot for camping. It’s definitely off the path and look like nobody has ever stayed here. Not level at all but cool for sure.

Hammock Over Stream
Hammock Over Stream

We strung hammocks over a small stream flowing down the mountain. We hung the hammocks so we could use one of the larger rocks to get in and out. Without the rock, we’d get wet each time stepping into the stream. Fired up the biolite and ate well again! It’s amazing how active you stay in the woods – everything requires lots of work compared to being at home. Another first for us, sleeping in a hammock. I was a little concerned about comfort but they are built for two so we decided to give it a try. Hope the temps don’t drop, but then again, does it matter? Nope cause we’re sleeping in hammocks tonight! Right before nightfall Aimee chickened out and decided she couldn’t sleep in the hammock. So up goes the tent. We were in a steep valley so the tent was far from level.

Camping in the Valley
Hi Aimee

She got in the tent, rolled to it’s lowest corner and made her bed. Aimee is a little afraid of the dark, so if there was any noise you could see her flashlight moving from one dark area in the woods to another. One lesson I learned, sleeping above running water means you go to the restroom often.

As for sleeping in a hammock, I can say everyone should try it once even if just in your backyard. Nighttime, hammock over stream, trickling running water sounds = a very surreal, peaceful and relaxing experience! Amazingly dark even at 9p. I’m tired and I peak over the side and Aimee is still working on the fire hoping it stays lit all night. What a night! Didn’t get attacked by monsters so Aimee is very happy today.

Great Scenery
Great Scenery

Day 3

Breakfast coffee and oatmeal again and amazing scenery! Now heading to the waterfall. Bob & I have to conquer it. Aimee decided she wanted to relax in the hammock so she stayed at the camp. We arrived at the base of the waterfall and walked up to our knees – yeah it’s COLD and in less than a minute my feet felt like they were starting to freeze. This mountain spring water is crazy cold. But to conquer a waterfall you must get wet. I attempted to dive in but somehow I caught myself and couldn’t do it. Damn it’s cold and it could permanently hurt “things”. After a quick pep talk – boom I’m in and immediately get out. What’s hard to believe is that, again, in less than a minute standing in the sun I felt great. After this, Bob and I went to the top! Time to get it on – conquer or be conquered!

Reconsidering Jumping
Possibly Reconsidering…

Standing at the top looking down 30 feet, no problem; knowing that the spring is cold, problem. The spring was taunting us saying “Come at me bro!” so we jumped and we got out fast! After drying off we were back at the top jumping again and again. You come here – you gotta jump!

We went back to camp and Aimee has created a small oasis. Crazy what she can do in such a short time. She found a bunch of large flat rocks and made steps from the stream up to the firepit and tent. Packed moss around the stones giving it a hobbitty kind of feel.

Now leaving our second camp in search of our final location. We take a right and head back up Horton trail. This trail went up and up and then leveled then up and up some more. Yeah we were tired and considering how to shed bag weight for the next time we do this. Found some chicken mushrooms but they were a bit dry so not worth collecting and eating, but we collected and ate them anyway. We made it to the intersection of Horton trial and Judy Springs Trail TR512. Down to Judy Springs we went. We passed through some wide open fields with amazing views.

Love the Scenery
Even Better Scenery
Judy Springs Trail
Judy Springs Trail

Next time we camp right there. We are running low on water and we come around the corner and there’s a woman just enjoying the view. She said there was drinkable spring water at Judy Springs. This is good luck! There were no signs of drinkable mountain spring water – without her we likely wouldn’t have found it. There is a short dirt path leading to the spring. Not hard to find but you have to be looking for it. The water is amazing, clean, cold and perfect!

Cool people! Everyone is just happy and enjoying nature. Set up our last campsite just down from the spring. We built two additional stone chairs, got a nice fire going and sat around telling stories. Amazing dark sky tonight and a wide open area to see all the stars. Another great location!

Day 4

Got up late this morning and just relaxed with some coffee and camp talk. Bob and I had more oatmeal and coffee. Aimee slept another two hours. Today is a lazy day knowing at some point we have to break down and start the hike out. We decided to explore around the area and followed the stream up hill. Very remote and untouched area. The land seems to go on and on.

Hammock Resting
Time to Rest

Back at camp we loaded up all our gear and started the hike out. Nearly back to our car and two runners come up behind us asking if the jacket they were holding was ours. Sure was…another sign of people just being helpful and thoughtful. We arrived at the car. Sad we didn’t have a few more days but happy to be removing the weight of our backpacks. We purposely skipped lunch so we could eat dinner at the Gateway at the bottom of the mountain.

If you decide to continue following FR112 up the mountain, you’ll arrive at Spruce Knob Lake. This is a small lake that has a one mile trail going around it. This is definitely worth the short hike with lots of nice views.

Photo op before leaving camp
Jim, Aimee & Bob

Our approx miles hiked according to fitbit, which include the trail, exploring, gathering wood and everything else:

  • Friday: 3.6 miles
  • Saturday: 11.5 miles
  • Sunday: 4.1 miles
  • Saturday: 4.7 miles

Lessons Learned
Learn what you require for a single day then multiply by days of trip
Charging wires and power packs – if you want a useful fitbit or something during the entire trip
Book when you want to relax
Notepad when you want to jot your thoughts down
Take time to talk to people, look at the stars, close your eyes and just listen to what you never hear in the city – silence or crickets.

More Area Information
Read about Seneca Creek Backcountry Brochure and Map.

Other places worth visiting (miles from Gateway Restaurant – intersection of 33/4 and Briery Gap Road):

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  1. Mignon

    Nice! Good read!!love the stories too!!! Keep it flowing!!! Cant wait to read about your adventures in the Philippines!!! Specially the chicken ass:-) enjoy!