Friday, May 24, 2019

Laurel Fork South Wilderness, West Virginia

Not to be confused with a primitive area in Highland County Virginia, West Virginia's Laurel Fork South Wilderness a quintessential wilderness experience in our part of the country.  Once owned by the Laurel River Lumber Company, the company stripped the area of all timber then sold the land to the United States government – the common way for eastern national forests to obtain acreage.  Without road access, and deep within a remote part of the forest, just under 6,000 acres obtained federal wilderness designation in 1983. Only a single forest road separates this wilderness from another 6,000 acres of wilderness to the north.  Along with the Cranberry Wilderness, the Laurel Forks are the oldest federally designated wilderness areas in the state.  The Laurel Fork wildernesses however are much less visited than most other wilderness areas in the state.  As one source stated, this “is not a place you visit on your way to somewhere else.” It take effort to get here, and that makes for a great experience.

Laurel Fork South Wilderness contains 9.5 miles of trails.  This hike follows much of the main trail through the Wilderness, the Laurel Fork Trail, along with the Camp 5 Trail.  This route can be hiked as an out-and-back from either the north or south end of the Wilderness, or it can be completed using a 25 minute car shuttle.  This description will describe the hike north to south as a shuttle, though this hike’s length is short enough for many hikers to complete as an out-and-back day hike.

This route presents much of what is great about this wilderness.  Because it is nearly entirely within federally designated wilderness, we do not recommend that inexperienced hikers attempt this hike. The trails, though generally easy to follow, are unblazed, seldom signed, and can seem to disappear at times.  Cellphone coverage is nonexistent.  The difficulty rating applies more to your remoteness, as there are no hard climbs. It follows two streams for its entire length. Wilderness regulations limit groups to ten or fewer hikers.

Mile 0.0 – Start the hike in the back end of the Laurel Fork Campground. Camping is available here between April 15 and December 1, at a cost of $10.00 per night. There is space in the back of this 15 site campground for a couple of vehicles, behind the campground privy.  Look for the trail sign and map at the back of the campground – this is the start of the trail.  Take a photo of the map if you do not have one with you. 
Parking area, noted from tire tracks.  At back of campground.

Trail starts here.

Mile 0.1 – The trail splits nearly right away, with one path going straight and another trail heading right, a little higher, passing by a piped spring.  The trails rejoin shortly after the spring.

Mile 0.5 – The Forks Trail comes in from the west here.  It is easy to miss this intersection. Down by the river is a grove of hemlocks that create a nice campsite, about 100 yards off trail, with no trail leading to it. We once passed a ranger here, camping with his little girls, who said this is the best campsite in the entire national forest!  From here, the trail varies between looking down at Laurel Fork and coming right next to the streambed always on the west side of Laurel Fork.
Trail looks down on river.

Trail nest to river.

Mile 1.5 – Cross a small stream and come to a trail intersection.  This is the end of the Beulah Trail (T310), which ascends west to FR 14 and then continues to its western terminus at FR 44, about a half mile north of the trailhead for the High Falls of the Cheat.  Continue straight on the Laurel Fork Trail.
Trailhead sign.

Mile 2.7 – The trail enters a level, somewhat swampy area where the trail seems to disappear.  This is the only tough area to follow the route.  Cross through the field, cut through a small area of trees, and come to another field.  Cross that field, and look for a stone cairn in the woods on the other side, which marks the trail.  Do not go upslope, but stay somewhat near the stream.  If you just charge through this area, you should see a defined trail again on the other side of these fields.  Recognize that the fields can get pretty high towards the end of summer, as shown by this photo of the trail here, taken in late July.
May photo.  Trail disappears.

July photo.

Mile 2.9 – Cross a small stream. 
Mile 3.3 – The canopy opens up briefly to provide a view of the nearby countryside before dropping back under cover.  Shortly after this point, at Mile 3.5, the trail reconnects with Laurel Fork and a fine campsite can be seen directly across the stream. The trail is wonderfully dark and mysterious through here, thanks to a large grove of hemlocks that have become a rarity in the past 25 years.

Campsite across Laurel Fork

Mile 4.1 – Travel through a series of fine campsites, located under a grove of hemlocks. In the middle of this grove, the trail crosses Camp Five Run, which can be a somewhat tough crossing in the Spring.  Look for a trail to your right just after the stream crossing.  This is the Camp Five Run Trail.  Leave the Laurel Fork Trail here and turn right onto the Camp Five Run Trail, which follows Camp Five Run.   

Camp Five Run Trail sign.

Campsite at trail intersection.
Mile 5.0 – Encounter the first of a series of four stream crossings within a short amount of time.

Mile 5.7 – Exit the wilderness between a pair of signs and come into an open area with a pond on your right.  This pond is popular with fishermen.  Turn around here if this hike is an out-and-back.

Mile 5.8 – Pass the Middle Mountain Cabins on your left. These are depression-era cabins originally built for forest service workers. The end of the Camp Five Run Trail goes right through the parking lot and access road for these cabins.  Respect the privacy of anyone staying there and continue out to FR 14.  You can leave a car on the opposite side of FR 14 from the access to the cabins, leaving the lot you walk through for renters.  The Camp Five Run Trail is marked at FR 14. 

Mile 6.0 – Cross FR 14 to your vehicle.

This is a pretty easy trail with little elevation gain, but an inexperienced hiker could get lost here. The trail never crosses Laurel Fork.  The length as described is 6.0 miles with a total elevation gain of about 900 feet.  It takes 2.5-3.5 hours to complete.

Trailhead Map:

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Smoke Camp Trail, Monongahela NF, WV

Just off of US 250, just west of the Virginia/West Virginia border, is the Smoke Camp Trail.  Drive by the trailhead 50 times and it is possible you will never notice a trail.  But a trail is here, and it leads to a great overlook that few people know exist.

Hike Length: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1300’
Hike Time: 3.0 hours.
The Smoke Camp Trail climbs from West Virginia Route 28 to the site of an old fire tower via a loop interpretive trail called the Rothkugel Loop.  Though parking is nonexistent on site requiring a short road walk, the hike’s lone vista makes this hike worth the trouble.

Mile 0.0 – Park at a wide spot on the road to Lake Buffalo (Forest Service Road 54), a little off of WV 28 just north of where 28 splits with US 250.  There is parking for 2 or 3 cars here.  Walk from here back to WV 28 and turn right (north), taking care to watch for traffic on the highway.

Mile 0.2 – This blue blazed trail starts 0.2 miles north on 28 from FS 54, behind a large sign and across from a yellow house.
The sign discusses the history of the tract where the hike starts. Trees were planted here in 1907 on land that later became one of the first tracts of the Monongahela National Forest.  Interpretive signs on the Rothkugel Loop, which is the start of the hike, discuss the history of the land, discuss forestry concepts, and illuminate the life of the man who planted the trees, Max Rothkugel.  The signs are informative and interesting, and it is curious that the National Forest created such an interesting exhibit without including even a small parking lot off of the road in front.  Stay to the left at the intersection just inside the forest; you will return via the trail on the right.

Mile 0.6 – After passing multiple exhibits about the forest, come to a trail intersection.  Take a left onto the Smoke Camp Trail and leave the tract of planted trees for a forest of natives.  The trail begins to climb here, and some claim that this trail is among the steepest in the Monongahela National Forest.  It climbed at about a 15% grade, however, which is not unusual in the Appalachians.
Mile 1.0 – Cross a small stream and continue to ascend.  Stinging Nettle can be found among the forest undergrowth uphill from this point.  The nettle does not grow in the trail, and its hollow stems means that a hiking pole can easily take it down, but any hiker who has experienced this plant can tell you that it is well named.  Hiking this trail in mid-May presented no nettle issues, but later in the Summer may be different.  Bring poles if you have them. 
Mile 1.9 – Reach an old woods road and turn left, continuing uphill.  Remember to be alert on your return, so you do not continue past this intersection on the woods road.
Mile 2.1 – The Smoke Camp Trail officially ends at an open, but lightly used forest road (FR 58).  Take a right on this road and continue uphill. 

Mile 2.2 – The road ends at a circle, which encloses a small picnic area with grill and picnic table. The concrete posts that once supported the fire tower are still visible.   There are wonderful views of nearby mountains in the Laurel Fork Roadless Area to the east.  This is the Smokecamp Overlook, which a worker at the National Forest’s nearby Greenbrier Ranger District said was only recently cleared – in 2018 – and few people know about.  After soaking in the views, return via the road to the Smoke Camp Trail.  Take care to follow the route you took up to the overlook.

One of the exhibits at the bottom of the mountain shows a photo of the first and second fire towers, and states that the larger tower was built in 1928 and lasted until the 1950s.
Mile 3.8 – Return to the intersection you passed on the way up, and reenter the Rothkugle Plantation tract.  Continue straight this time, to complete the Rothkugle Loop and read about what happened to forester Max Rothkugle.   
Mile 4.3 – Arrive at the end of the Rothkugle Loop.  Exit the forest and return to WV 28, taking care to watch for traffic on this road.  Take a left (south) back toward your vehicle, taking another left when you return to the Lake Buffalo road.
Mile 4.5 – Return to your vehicle.

Trailhead Parking Location: