The lure of the wild runs especially deep in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest, where well-known wilderness areas like Cranberry, Otter Creek, and Dolly Sods attract backpackers like honey does bees. Just as wild and significantly less crowded is the other 90 percent of "the Mon's" 900,000 acres, a land known only to local nature lovers, some hunters, and a few solitude-hungry hikers. Consider the 12-mile portion of the Allegheny Trail from Gaudineer Scenic Area to High Falls in the vicinity of Durbin, for instance. Songbirds and white-tailed deer were our only company as my husband and I passed through stands of old-growth trees along the spine of Shavers Mountain.
We started at the Gaudineer Scenic Area, a 140-acre, mountain-top preserve, where we pitched our tent the first night beneath towering red spruce atop 4,309-foot Gaudineer Knob. From there we followed the yellow-blazed Allegheny Trail's strenuous course north, alternating between 4,000-foot knobs and 3,000-foot saddlebacks a half dozen times.
At 11.7 miles, the Allegheny intersects with blue-blazed High Falls Trail. Two miles west are the falls of Shavers Fork, one of the state's most beautiful streams. An east turn onto High Falls Trail leads to the West Fork Trail, an easy rail-trail along the west fork of the Greenbrier River. Another diverse habitat of wetlands, wildflowers, and field birds unfolds along this trail. In time, you pass through Wildell, a former logging town marked only by an eerie signpost.
At the end of West Fork Trail you can either have a car waiting, or take the flagged but as yet unfinished trail back to the Allegheny and go north to Gaudineer for a challenging 31-mile loop. To customize a shorter loop, take any of the connecting trails that lead from the Allegheny Trail east to the West Fork Trail.
QUICK TAKE: Allegheny Trail, WV
DRIVE TIME: Gaudineer Scenic Area is in eastern West Virginia, about 180 miles (31/2 hours) southwest of Washington, D.C., and 175 miles (31/2 hours) west of Richmond.
THE WAY: From I-81 in Virginia, exit onto US 250 at Staunton and head west into the Mountain State. Four miles after passing through the town of Durbin, turn right on Forest Road 27 and into Gaudineer Scenic Area. Trailhead parking is about 2 miles in at the interpretive sign.
TRAILS: The yellow-blazed Allegheny Trail (#701) runs for roughly 330 miles from southern West Virginia into Pennsylvania. For the trip mentioned here, follow the Allegheny for 10 miles from Gaudineer Scenic Area to High Falls Trail (#345), which you follow west for 2 miles for a spectacular view of the falls. Backtrack and continue east on High Falls Trail to the West Fork Trail (#312), a 25-mile, scenic rail-trail that will take you south along the West Fork of the Greenbrier River. Several connector options take you back to the Allegheny and Gaudineer.
ELEVATION: Ranges from 2,700 feet at High Falls to 4,309 feet on Gaudineer Knob.
CAN'T MISS: For a tour of Gaudineer Knob, where snow may linger into May and 300-year-old spruce tower 100 feet overhead, follow the gentle, 1-mile Gaudineer Scenic Area Loop Trail (#373).
CROWD CONTROL: Don't worry, there are no crowds. Wear something bright during hunting seasons, which run from late October to mid-December, and late April to late May.
PIT STOP: When you leave Gaudineer, you'll practically drive into Tom and Nancy Jones' place, The Last Frontier. The fare is American, the portions hearty, the view unparalleled.
WALK SOFTLY: Red blazes and yellow survey markers usually denote private property. Camp only on public land. Avoid grazing allotments.
MAPS AND GUIDES: A visitor's map to Monongahela National Forest and USGS 7.5-minute quads Beverly East, Wildell, and Durbin are available for $4 apiece (plus $3.50 handling per order) from: USDA Forest Service, Monongahela National Forest, 200 Sycamore St., Elkins, WV 26241-3962; (304) 636-1800. Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide ($12.95, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, P.O. Box 306, Charleston, WV 25321) is an indispensable resource.
MORE INFORMATION: Greenbrier Ranger District, Monongahela National Forest, Route 250, P.O. Box 67, Bartow, WV 24920; (304) 456-3335.