Standing in a drizzle atop Spruce Knob on a windy summer afternoon, it is hard to imagine any place that could have less to do with the Chesapeake Bay.
The highest point in West Virginia looks like a transplant from Canada, where remnants of thick red spruce forests still thrive and dense carpets of moss and thickets of blueberries cover the boulder-strewn summit.
Yet the raindrops falling here will eventually flow into Seneca Creek, which flows into the North Fork of the South Branch Potomac River and, ultimately, will reach the Bay.
If anyone were to erect a sign saying “The Bay starts here,” there might be no more appropriate place.
And, the Spruce Knob–Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, which recently joined the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, is about to do just that.
The recreation area, part of Monongahela National Forest, attracts more than 110,000 visitors a year, largely from the Washington, D.C. metro area. They come to marvel at the 900-foot-high Seneca Rocks, hike, backpack, mountain bike, rock climb or — in the fall — leaf peep.
Most of those people, though, have only a hazy — if any — recognition that this area has any connection to the Chesapeake. As the crow flies, the Bay is about 150 miles away, and even farther if one were to follow the windy course taken by the raindrops falling atop Spruce Knob.
“When people hear about the Chesapeake Bay, you think salt water, crabs and boats and all that. But we are part of the Bay up here, too,” said Julie Fosbender, director of the Forest Service’s Seneca Rocks Discovery Center. “We’re all connected. That’s part of the story we’re trying to get out.”
Soon, interpretive signs on Spruce Knob and other locations within the recreation area will tell people about watersheds, and how the water here will eventually reach the Chesapeake — along with the sediment, nutrients and other pollutants picked up along the way.
Other signs will tell both local residents and visitors coming from the west that they are entering the Bay watershed. “It will be such a hoot for people coming over the mountain to see the ‘entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed’ sign,’” Fosbender said. “It will be an eye-opener not only for our visitors, but also our local residents.”
Actually, though, it is something of an accident that the recreation area still has free-flowing streams leading to the Bay. When, in 1965, Spruce Knob–Seneca Rocks became the first National Recreation Area designated on National Forest land, it was envisioned as a much different place.
Planners had hoped to dam the rivers and create a series of reservoirs for recreational use. But they hadn’t done their homework. The region’s karst geology, underlined with porous limestone, sinkholes and caves, won’t hold water — it all seeps through. Today, the rivers still run free.
Instead of man-made lakes, the recreation area’s Discovery Center has displays touting the value of riparian, or streamside, forests which help to filter rain running off the land and keep streams clean. Indeed, in early colonial times, the vast forests of the region were stingy with nutrients and sediment, leading to a much cleaner Chesapeake.
But, as displays in the Discovery Center show, that changed. By 1910, 90 percent of the original forests in the area had been cut, resulting in huge firestorms and devastating floods. Monongahela National Forest was founded in 1920 to help protect the headwaters of the region’s rivers, although the action was a bit late — hardly any forests remained by that time.
In later years, the area was replanted, with lots of help from the Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps. By the 1950s, the once-denuded hills were reforested.
People have been visiting the area for thousands of years. Archaeology conducted before the construction of the Discovery Center showed that Native Americans began using the area for hunting about 12,000 years ago and established two settlements around 800 years ago.
It was something of a shock. Before the find, Fosbender said, archaeologists believed that native communities were confined mostly to the main branch of the Potomac. “Our villages here have rewritten the thought of where those pre-contact people were at,” she said.
Archaeologists believe the communities supported about 150 people, who grew crops, fished, hunted, gathered nuts and traded — evidence of stone pieces from as far away as North Dakota were found at the site.
Settlers began moving into the mountain valleys in the late 1700s and early 1800s as farmland to the East was staked out by others. To illustrate their lives, the Forest Service is restoring the Jacob Sites homestead near the Discovery Center, a home originally constructed around 1830.
At the farm, Kaila St. Louis maintains a garden much like those grown by early settlers. Using seeds donated by area residents and by securing “heirloom” seeds, she has created a patch that forsakes modern gardening techniques and plant varieties for those used decades ago — some of which have nearly vanished.
Beans are planted so they grow up the adjacent corn stalks. The garden includes such things as deer tongue lettuce, chipmunk beans, wren’s egg beans and broom corn — a variety grown not for eating, but for the making of brooms. There are turnips, which were as popular among the settlers as tomatoes are today, and radishes, which settlers often ate for breakfast.
Sites had an eye for the spectacular in choosing his homesite. The backdrop to his home is Seneca Rocks, a craggy quartzite formation that rises nearly 900 feet from the valley — the remnants of ancient mountains that once rose more than 15,000 feet but have largely eroded.
The rocks, purchased by the federal government in 1969, have drawn sightseers for decades, and are recognized by rock climbers as one of the best climbing sites in the East. Two rock climbing schools are in the small town of Seneca Rocks.
The first documented climb of the rocks was in 1939, but the climbers may have been disappointed to find, at the top, an inscription that read “D.B. Sept. 16, 1908.”
Many of the early climbs were less recreational, though. The Army’s 10th Mountain Division used the rocks for training during World War II.
Today, people who don’t want to use ropes can hike a 1.3-mile trail that winds through the forest — sometimes steeply — to an overlook near the top of the rocks, which offers a spectacular view of the valley below, the surrounding mountains and the Potomac headwaters.
While many forms of recreation are the primary activities today, visitors will notice the Forest Service’s multiple-use philosophy, such as cattle and sheep grazing in open areas, and some natural gas drilling. Still, the vast majority of the area is dominated by forests, with small farms in the valleys.
It is not difficult to envision a time when Native Americans traveled the Seneca Trail, which once extended from Niagara Falls through modern day Pittsburgh and into West Virginia, where it followed Potomac tributaries.
Today, the recreation area offers more than 70 miles of trails for hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers and horseback riders; miles of clean rivers for canoeists, kayakers and anglers; wildlife for photographers and hunters; rocks for climbers; and caves for spelunkers. Its winding back roads offer scenic drives, punctuated by spectacular vistas.
The greatest view, though, comes after the 12-mile drive up a windy, bumpy dirt road to Spruce Knob, the highest point in the Bay watershed. The knob is covered with thickets of blueberries, thick stands of spruce, all in an area pockmarked with boulder fields.
Its climate, standing at 4,861 feet, along with its climate and vegetation, is more reminiscent of Newfoundland.
The altitude makes enough of a difference that, as the Bay broils in summertime heat, the peak remains about 15 degrees cooler, the temperature dropping roughly 3 degrees with every 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
While this area was never covered with ice, remnant populations of the cold-loving plants that thrived during the last ice age are found here. The southern boundary for the northern plant, dwarf cornel, is at Spruce Knob.
Much of the vegetation on Spruce Knob is stunted because of the severe climate, and many of the trees have branches only on one side — testimony to the power of the winds.
An observation tower at the top allows for spectacular views in all directions.
This western edge of the recreation area is also the edge of the Bay watershed. Unlike the raindrops that fell around the observation tower and will eventually reach the Bay, those landing on the small ridge just a few miles to the west were beginning a much different journey: through Laurel Fork or
Dry Fork, then into Black Fork, then the Cheat River, on a path that leads through the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers and into the Gulf of Mexico.
Waters that start here take different paths but have similar fates — both end up in highly degraded coastal waters. Restoration of the coastal waters will ultimately depend on what happens in coming years on the land within the watersheds which begin here, with a few drops of rain, high in the mountains.
Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreational Area
Spruce Knob–Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area covers more than 100,000 acres of Monongahela National Forest southwest of Petersburg, WV, along Routes 28/33.
The Seneca Rocks Discovery Center is located near the base of Seneca Rocks, and is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m daily from April 1 through Oct. 31. It is only open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends from Nov. 1 to March 31. The center includes a bookstore and displays on forest history and ecology, rock climbing and archaeology.
Spruce Knob is reached via a 12-mile drive by following signs from State Routes 28/33. One can also get directions from the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center. An observation tower at the top provides a 360-degree view. A nature trail circles the top of the mountain and many other trails start at the top.
The National Forest Service maintains several campgrounds in the recreation area, the largest of which is Seneca Shadows, near Seneca Rocks, which has 38 drive-in campsites, and 40 walk-in sites. Commercial lodging is also available in the vicinity.
For information, contact the Discovery Center at 304-567-2827, or visit the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network web site at www.baygateways.net