Friday, July 5, 2024

Backpacking the Seneca Creek Backcountry and Spruce Knob

After a hectic month moving from the Adirondacks to West Virginia, I was more than ready to hit the mountains. I was hoping to spend my birthday backpacking, but the weather didn’t cooperate. The weather cleared a couple days later and I headed out May 31st for a short backpacking trip. 

It’s always difficult deciding where to go in a new area. Since it is home to 4,863’ Spruce Knob, the highest peak in West Virginia, I decided to visit the Seneca Creek Backcountry. Besides Spruce Knob, the area offers about 60 miles of trails with plentiful camping opportunities and numerous waterfalls. 

The top of West Virginia

I began my hike about 1045AM at the Horton Trailhead. The weather on my first day was calling for clear skies and a comfortable day in the 60s. With a lot on my plate working on a rehab house and neighborhood drama, I needed some time in the wild. 

My starting point

The Horton Trail starts relatively high at more than 2,800’ and climbs gradually along a small creek. Not too long into the hike, I encountered some fairly thick stinging nettle. The nettle came in waves. I was wearing shorts, so I just dealt with itchy legs for a few minutes. Besides the stinging nettle, the trail was fairly pleasant with a few rock hops across the creek. 

The Horton Trail following closely to the creek

Blowdown blocking the trail

Stinging nettle carpeting the ground 

The Horton Trail tops out just shy of 4,000 feet on Allegheny Mountain after 2.5 miles. The trail looses most of its elevation as it descends on the opposite side of Allegheny Mountain to Seneca Creek in only a mile. After the first of several crossings of Seneca Creek, my route followed the creek. 

The first ford of Seneca Creek

Hiking along Seneca Creek is a real treat. Numerous waterfalls drop along its course. Almost immediately I reached its highlight, Upper Seneca Creek Falls. The pretty, thirty-foot drop plunges quite loudly. There’s also a nice hole below to swim. 

Upper Seneca Creek Falls

Closeup of the falls

After taking in the falls, I continued upstream. A tricky stream crossing took a little creativity to stay dry. I continuously encountered more falls that were smaller but still pretty. 

Smaller falls at the ford

View while fording the creek

Side stream with a waterfall

I followed Seneca Creek less than two miles. I lost track of how many waterfalls and small cascades I passed. Even some of the side streams flowing into Seneca Creek had waterfalls. It seemed like you had a waterfall every time you came close to the creek.  

A small flume

Looking upstream

A nice cascade

I passed a few tents at campsites along Seneca Creek, but only saw one pair of hikers near Upper Seneca Creek Falls. I came to an open meadow and a trail junction. At the meadow I turned onto the Judy Springs Trail. 

Seneca Creek is quite scenic

The falls just kept coming

Another side stream waterfall flowing
into Seneca Creek

A wider shot of the side stream
which is right by a campsite

The last waterfall on Seneca Creek before I left the trail

I stopped at the the bridge that crosses Seneca Creek at the beginning of the Judy Springs Trail. Looking at the map, this was the last good water source for a while and I wanted to rehydrate and fill my bottles. 

Meadow along Seneca Creek

Trail through the meadow

Start of the Judy Springs Trail

Maybe the only bridge in the Seneca Creek Backcountry

Looking back at the meadow at Judy Springs/Seneca
Creek Junction

Although only .7 miles long, the Judy Springs Trail is quite pretty. Much of the way it passes through open meadows with nice views of Allegheny Mountain. The trail climbs much of the way through the meadows, at times steeply. It's easy to overlook the climb however with the nice views. The Judy Springs Trail was one of my favorite parts of the trip. My only complaint with the Judy Springs Trail was that it's too short.

Entering a meadow on the Judy Springs Trail

Allegheny Mountain

Looking back on the Judy Springs Trail

Leaving the Judy Springs Trail, I returned to a different segment of the Horton Trail. This was one of the few junctions without a sign. This stretch of the Horton trail was rocky and wet with horse damage. I lost a fair amount of elevation. I spooked a mother deer with a fawn in this stretch. Soon I reached the start of the High Meadows Trail.

Start of the High Meadows Trail

Given its name, I was hoping the High Meadows Trail passed through meadows with views similar to the Judy Springs Trail. While there were a few meadows, the views weren't nearly as impressive as Judy Springs. Most of the meadow were overgrown. At one point, dense, wild rose encroached the trail.  Like normal roses, wild roses are rather thorny. Luckily the dense and thorny brush was short-lived. Running about two miles, there is more variety on the High Meadows Trail. The trail also passed through nice stretches of forest. I also encountered stretches of stinging nettle. Fortunately, the stinging nettle wasn't as tall and thick as the stretches on the Horton Trail and I only experienced minor itchiness.

Wild rose

Dense wild rose blocking the trail

One of the nicer views on the High Meadows Trail

Stinging nettle

At the end of the High Meadows Trail, I reached the Lumberjack Trail. The Lumberjack Trail follows an old road bed from logging days. Even though, I didn't encounter any flowing streams, the Lumberjack Trail has a reputation as a soggy trail. Indeed it was soggy for the two miles I followed it. The trail is also fairly rocky, so you can avoid getting too wet by walking on the rocks. I encountered a group of horseback riders on the Lumberjack Trail. As horses often do, they left a mess of the wet trail. Although the Lumberjack Trail travels about six miles, I left it after two miles for the Huckleberry Trail.

Starting the Lumberjack Trail

Start of the Huckleberry Trail

The Huckleberry Trail travels about five miles from the Lumberjack Trail to the summit of Spruce Knob, the highest mountain in West Virginia. Even though I was making my way to the highest mountain in the state and entire Allegheny Range, the climbing never seems too difficult on the Huckleberry Trail. Much of the way, the trail seems flat. The northern end of the Huckleberry Trail begins at over 4,000 feet, so the trail only gains 800 feet or so along its five miles.

Spruce forest

Clearing on the Huckleberry Trail

Rocky stretch

The Huckleberry Trail travels through long sections of black spruce forest. This is Spruce Mountain after all. Hiking along the high ridge, the trail is rather dry. While I encountered some rocky stretches, the trail is relatively easy considering I was approaching a state high point. Despite its elevation, there are only a few peekaboo views along the Huckleberry Trail. I also encountered some nice flowers including wild azalea and pink lady slippers.

View along the Huckleberry Trail

Pink Lady Slipper


Like many state high points, 4,863-foot Spruce Knob has a road to its summit. The Huckleberry Trail ends at a paved road at the summit of Spruce Knob. Given that it was a beautiful day, I encountered a handful of cars at the summit. There are toilets, an observation tower, and picnic tables. A short trail circles the summit that visits the observation tower and another view point.

Highest point of West Virginia and the Alleghenies

Observation tower

Obscured view from the observation tower

By the time I reached the summit, it was after 5PM. My original plan was to backtrack on the Huckleberry Trail and hike south on the Lumberjack Trail. By this time I was starting to go through my water. I didn't have a solid source since Seneca Creek, more than ten miles earlier. On the map, I couldn't confirm there was a good source on the Lumberjack Trail. Using the Lumberjack Trail, it was possibly another 10 miles until I reached Seneca Creek and a sure water source. I decided to hike down the Forest Service Roads to Seneca Creek. This provided easier travel and half the distance before I reached water. This also eliminated the need to retrace the five miles of the Huckleberry Trail. Ultimately I wanted to camp along Seneca Creek anyway.

A viewpoint just past the observation tower

On Spruce Knob, I walked the short loop around the summit and stopped by the observation tower. The view from the tower was somewhat disappointing.  The trees block most of the view giving a limited vista. There's a nice view on the south side of the summit loop that's more open.

After going around the summit loop, I had a quick snack and water before heading down the road. The first half-mile or so is paved. I didn't have high expectations hiking down the road, but I was pleasantly surprised. The best views on Spruce Knob are from the road just below the summit. I followed the road to the south end of the Seneca Creek Trail. I passed a few cars and a couple cyclists. The road walk was rather pleasant.

Nice views from the road

Another nice roadside view

Hiking down the road (FS 112)

Over its 5 1/2 miles, the road drops about 1,000 feet enroute to the Seneca Creek Trail. It was Friday night, and the trailhead for Seneca Creek was pretty full. By now it was after 7PM. I wanted to hike a couple miles before camping somewhere along the creek. The Seneca Creek Trail was an old logging road and is well-worn and rather flat allowing for a good pace. Over the first couple miles, most of the established campsites were occupied.

Back on the Seneca Creek Trail

The miles went by quickly on the Seneca Creek Trail

A straight and flat stretch of the Seneca Creek Trail

After passing a few groups camped within the first couple miles, I found a large, unoccupied site right along the creek. There was a nice little riffle to provide ambiance for the night. The rocks around the campsite were even set up as benches and chairs.

I went about my nightly backpacking chores; setting up my tent, filtering water, cooking, and hanging a bear bag. While most of these tasks are routine, my tent setup wasn't looking right. My tent was unstable and struggling to stay taut. Over the years I have had several backpacking tents. I realized I was staking out my tent at the wrong spots- like a previous tent. I wasn't on my A game on this hike. I was dealing with some drama in life the day before I hit the trail that had my mind stirring. After taking a moment, I realized my mistake and set up the tent properly.

Since I was running low on water, I drank a lot when I hit camp. This had me up several times through the night to relieve myself. While this is annoying, it allowed me to see the brilliant night sky. The forest is quite dark here with no light interference for miles and the stars were impressive. 

My home for the night

Seneca Creek by my campsite

In the morning as I began breaking down my camp, I ran into a little problem. My bear hang was stuck in the tree. When I hang my food, I use a bear hang called the PCT Method. I never had a problem with it in the past. When I pulled my rope, the line didn't slide as it's supposed to. I couldn't get the bag to drop. When I hung the bag the previous evening, it was getting dark and I didn't realized the line crossed onto itself before I hoisted it. This caused too much friction. Since I was on an overnight trip, the bag was light and wouldn't slide. I had to hang my full bodyweight on the rope and lower the branch. Luckily it was a long flexible branch. When I reached my carabiner, I stepped on the line to free my hands to pull the line out of the carabiner and allowing me to undo the rope. Like I said, I wasn't on my A Game.

After my bear hang situation, I broke camp and began hiking. Within a half-hour I passed the Judy Springs Trail that I hike the day before. Within a minute or two, l I turned onto the Bear Hunter Trail.

An easy crossing of Seneca Creek

Muddy stretch of trail

Pretty creek dropping in to Seneca Creek

Start of the Bear Hunter Trail

The Bear Hunter Trail climbs gently up to the long crest of Allegheny Mountain, eventually topping out  at over 4,000'. The trail starts out along a pretty little creek. Along this trail I heard something rustling in the brush. A mother grouse came out of the brush to distract me from its nest. It charged me, getting pretty close before wandering off cackling and putting on a display. I thought it was going to attack me as it came within a few feet of me initially.

Nice cascade on the Bear Hunter Trail

I reached the Allegheny Mountain Trail after a mile. Like many of the trails in the area, the Allegheny Mountain Trail is an old road from the logging days that has slowly reverted back to nature. Now it looks like a grassy doubletrack. The grass was higher than my knees in early June. Since the grass consistently covered the trail, I applied Picaridin to hopefully keep any ticks. Running nearly 13 miles, the Allegheny Mountain Trail is the longest in the area. It follows the long ridge of Allegheny Mountain and sees little in elevation change despite staying above 4,000' much of its length. I followed it for only a mile before turning off on the Spring Ridge Trail.

Starting a stretch along the Allegheny
Mountain Trail

Knee high grass on the Allegheny Mountain Trail

Starting the Spring Ridge Trail

The Spring Ridge Trail is another old logging route. The upper reaches are quite grassy. It descends gradually over three miles to Gandy Creek and Route 29. The trail passes through a couple open meadows higher up that were overgrown without a visible trail. Trampled grass marks the route. As I lost elevation, the trail passes through some nice, open hardwood forest. Since the trail is rather gentle and downhill, the miles went by quickly and I soon reached the road. Once on the road, I had an easy mile hike back to my starting point at the Horton Trailhead. I reached the trailhead at 1045AM. My total trip was 24 hours start to finish. 

Brushy start to Spring Ridge Trail

Meadow where trail disappears

Still some signs it was an old road

This was my first backpacking experience in West Virginia apart from a very short stretch of the AT near Harpers Ferry 25 year ago. This trip was a nice intro to the Mountain State backpacking. My total distance covered around 30-32 miles. Generally the terrain was pretty easy considering I climbed the highest mountain in the state. Many of the trails follow old logging grades and the elevation change is gradual for the most part. All of the steeper climbs are relatively short-lived. 

Judy Springs Trail

I think this trip would be appropriate for backpackers of all abilities. The gradual terrain and well-marked trails make this trip attainable for a newer backpacker. There is enough variety on this trip with nice forests, waterfalls, and a state highpoint to entertain experienced backpackers looking for a laid back trip or a quick escape. Most of the camping opportunities are located along Seneca Creek. The Huckleberry Trail approaching Spruce Knob also had quite a few established sites, but they were all dry.

My route in red

Living in the Adirondacks the past five years and Maine for eight, I have hiked and backpacked extensively in the Northeast. One thing that was missing on this trip that would be unavoidable this time of year in the Northeast was biting insects. I didn't see a single mosquito or blackfly. This was a nice change from New England and Adirondack camping this tie of year. I did pass through some grassy and brushy sections, and expected ticks. I applied Picaridin on the worst stretches. I found one tick on me at the end of my hike crawling on my leg

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