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West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest

Classic eastern mountain scenery along West Virginia's skyline pathway.

Little-Known Fact: The famous Seneca Trail in the Monogahela National Forest followed the Potomac River, once linking the Algonquin, Tuscarora, and Seneca Native American tribes.

I first walked the crest of West Virginia’s North Fork Mountain Trail 20 years ago as part of a college lark. In all its autumn grandeur, I thought it was the most beautiful place on Earth, so wild, remote, untrammeled, diverse, and pulsating with foliage that it overloaded the senses.

Now, one fine October day two decades later, I have returned, cringing at the possibility that the high-mountain pathway has been spoiled or that my memories had greatly exaggerated reality.

I can happily report that this mountaintop trail in the Monongahela National Forest is still as good as mountain country gets in the East. (By the way, if you’re wondering how to pronounce Monongahela — and who isn’t? — it’s moh-NON-ga-HEE-la, with the accent on the second and fourth syllables.)

The fairly flat trail is ideal for those seeking the perfect overlook, because each tabletop rock outcropping provides an even more stunning vista than the last. Linger at sunset and you can watch as the horizon fades to soft pink.

Don’t get caught up in all the viewpoints and miss what’s under your nose, though. North Fork Mountain, along with the Smoke Hole Canyon on the eastern spine of the mountain, was recently highlighted by the Nature Conservancy as one of the most remarkable natural areas in the eastern United States. The mountain plays host to a dizzying assemblage of rare plants and animals.

The trail winds along the lee side of the mountain rim cliffs. But wander 100 yards or less from the rim and the world becomes one of roaring wind and gnarled pines that are missing branches on their windward sides. They scent the air with the sweet, slightly dry smell of fallen needles. Except for the lack of water, the entire length of the 24-mile North Fork Mountain Trail is ideal for a two- or three-day backpacking trip. Elevation ranges between 3,000 and 3,795 feet, with some small saddles and moderately difficult knobs. For those with cars to shuttle, the blue-blazed trail can be broken up into two roughly equal 12-mile sections, thanks to a dirt Forest Service road that meets the trail midway. The road is recommended for four-wheel-drive vehicles only.

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