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Suggested Trip

Exploring the Soaring Cliffs of Seneca Rocks

 

A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

Author Angela Blount once quipped “Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.” Indeed, my most memorable adventures are rarely the outcome of meticulous planning, but instead the serendipitous result of curiously wondering where in the world that road might go, or where that path might lead. It was on just such a journey that I stumbled onto an unexpected adventure.

I had just spent two days wandering the jaw-droppingly-gorgeous Blackwater Falls State Park in Davis, West Virginia, hiking from one stunning waterfall to the next in a color-drenched panorama of blazing fall foliage when I decided to take the scenic route home. Honestly, it would have been a struggle to find a non-scenic route in this neck of the woods.

Repeatedly gasping “Wow!” at the sprawling fields and forests clothed in a thousand shades of red, orange and gold, I was suddenly struck speechless as I rounded a bend and appeared to have inexplicably landed in the mountainous wildlands of the American West.  Looming ahead was Seneca Rocks, an absolutely stunning rock formation towering impossibly high, its sheer face of gray rock painted here and there with a crayon box of trees in such full autumn glory, it struck me more as a happy Bob Ross painting than a real-life panorama.

Rising over 900’ above the North Fork River in the Monongahela National Forest, Seneca Rocks is a mecca for hikers, campers and rock climbers. The soaring cliffs of Seneca Rocks (and nearby Champe Rocks) consist of 250’-thick Tuscarora sandstone/quartzite laid down approximately 440 million years ago in an extensive sheet at the edge of an ancient ocean. Years of geologic activity followed, as the ocean receded and the underlying rock uplifted and folded. Millions of years of erosion stripped away the overlaying rock and left remnants of the arching folds in formations such as Seneca Rocks.

Due to the hardness of the Tuscarora sandstone formation, and the degree of climbing difficulty, Seneca Rocks offers rock climbers a unique opportunity found nowhere else in the East. The historic ascent of Brandt, Hubbard, and Moore in 1939 found an inscription of "D.B. Sept. 16, 1908" attributed to a surveyor named Bittenger who was known to be working in the area, but the documented climbing history of the rocks officially began in 1935 with a roped ascent of the North Peak by Paul Brandt and Florence Perry. In the 1930's and 40's only a few climbers – mostly from D.C. and Pittsburgh – attempted to climb Seneca Rocks. In 1943-44 the U.S. Army used the rocks to train mountain troops for action in the Apennines of Italy.

Today, Seneca Rocks offers climbers over 450 mapped routes varying in degree from the easiest (5.0) to the most difficult (5.12). Only trained and experienced rock climbers should attempt to scale the rocks. There are, however, two climbing schools that train prospective climbers in beginning and advanced rock climbing and there is a rock climbing shop is located just across the road from the Discovery Center.

For the non-rock climbing crowd, there are also plenty of opportunities for exploration.  Seneca Rocks Discovery Center is open from late March through late October and not only provides plenty of fascinating background information about the history of the rock formations and surrounding area, but visitors who may be hesitant about a steep hike can enjoy a magnificent view of the vertical rock wall from the comfort of the Discovery Center deck.

Just a short jaunt from the Discovery Center on the way to the trailhead, lies the historic Sites Homestead. Originally constructed in 1839 by Jacob Sites,as a single room log cabin, the homestead was expanded into a two-story frame structure by his son William in the 1860s. Following his death, various descendants remodeled the house until it was purchased by the U.S. Forest Service in 1969. In 1989 reconstruction began and replicated much of the original architectural detail and stabilized the structure, completed in 1990. A typical Appalachian home in German Blockbau-style exterior (squared logs spaced apart with stone and clay), it features English Tudor fireplaces and a French-influenced front porch and summer kitchen – all  a testament to the melting pot heritage of the valley’s inhabitants. The grounds are a gorgeous mix of herb, vegetable, and flower gardens – historically accurate replicas of their 1800’s counterparts.  

Just a few yards from the Sites Homestead, the Seneca Rocks Trail begins. The trail is 1.3 miles (2.6 round-trip), featuring steps and switchbacks to gain over 800’ in elevation. Although steep, the trail can be enjoyed by visitors of all ages. It was a comfortable hike, but took much longer than expected, so keep that in mind and be sure to bring water and a snack. The observation platform high atop Seneca Rocks offers spectacular views of the surrounding North Fork River valley. Fall is an especially beautiful time for a birds-eye view of the vast expanse of turning leaves, but any time of year truly offers a breathtaking vista. Just above the observation platform, more adventurous hikers can climb out onto a narrow rock formation at the peak for a stunning 360-degree panorama of the surrounding valley (Note: At Your Own Risk).

Once you’ve returned to lower ground, just across the way a grocery store and deli offer souvenirs, snacks, and meals. The adventure doesn’t have to end here though! Miles of hiking trails await you at adjacent Spruce Knob, and Blackwater Falls State Park is a mere 33 miles away, featuring a slew of gorgeous forest trails, waterfalls, camping and a lodge. Just a few minutes from Seneca Rocks, the incomparable 17,000 acre Dolly Sods Wilderness features rocky plains, upland bogs, blueberry and huckleberry bushes as far as the eye can see, unparallelled sweeping vistas and 47 miles of gorgeous hiking trails.

Seneca Rocks is open year-round; Seneca Rocks Discovery Center is open late March through late October. For more information, contact the Discovery Center at (304) 567-2827 or the Cheat Potomac Ranger District at (304) 257-4488 or visit the U.S. Forest Service Seneca Rocks website

Spruce Knob - Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area

Spruce Knob--Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area is located in Monongahela National Forest found in Central East West Virginia. Here you can enjoy spectacular scenery and outstanding outdoor recreation at the headwaters of the Potomac River.

Julie Dieguez

A lifelong Marylander who grew up “gunkholing” around the Chesapeake Bay with her family, Julie Dieguez has worked for nearly two decades in environmental education with a variety of organizations including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Chesapeake Bay Program, No Child Left Inside, and more. She now specializes in developing outdoor classrooms, nature play and learning areas, and therapeutic outdoor spaces for kids. Julie enjoys exploring, writing, kayaking and camping with her family including two rescue dogs.

November 19, 2021

Main image: Seneca Rocks, all photos by Julie Dieguez
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