Spruce Knob stands at the western edge of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. But a visitor standing atop the windswept peak would be excused for thinking they were at the edge of a northern wilderness.
Even in midsummer, the top of this West Virginia mountain is a refreshingly cool escape from the heat and humidity common in a mid-Atlantic summer.
At 4,863 feet, Spruce Knob is the highest point in West Virginia. That elevation also gives visitors a close-to-home look at a red spruce forest ecosystem more typical of Canada than the southern Appalachians.
And it is a harsh climate. Strong winds are common: Spruce trees in exposed areas point with the direction of the prevailing winds. Winter dumps an average of 180 inches of snow on the mountain.
But the views are spectacular. A two-story observation tower stands at the peak, offering views of blue-tinted mountains rising in all directions, like waves in the ocean.
Rain flowing off the ridges to the west eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico, while water flowing off Spruce Knob and the peaks to the East flow to the Potomac River and, eventually the Bay — but only after they feed the many trout streams that drain the surrounding Monongahela National Forest.
The most remarkable part of Spruce Knob is at ground level, where spruce, with dense — sometimes almost impenetrable undergrowth — thrives, along with blueberries, ferns and deep layers off moss. They are all remnants of a boreal forest from the last ice age, but preserved here by the peak’s unique climate.
The observation tower is found along the half-mile Whispering Spruce Trail that circles the mountain top. Openings in the trees yield frequent panoramic views, and scattered boulder fields provide evidence of the harsh mountain conditions. Interpretive signs describe the geology as well as the plant and animal life, from bears and weasels to eagles and rose-breasted grosbeaks that are able to eke out a living here.
The nearby Huckleberry Trail follows the ridge that climbs the shoulder of the mountain. Dense growth of huckleberries and blueberries line much of the trail, as do wildflowers and scattered boulder fields. But in places, the undergrowth gives way to stands of spruce that leave patches of cushioned ground with deep accumulations of spruce needles.
Frequent fire rings show these areas are clearly popular with backpackers seeking ideal sites for pitching their tents in pursuit of a comfortable night’s sleep in the cool maintain air.
Spruce Knob is less visited than nearby Seneca Rocks. No doubt the winding 12-mile uphill drive on narrow — but paved — mountain roads deters some visitors. But those who make the trip will feel as though they’ve made a much greater journey as they explore the summit.
The mountain is part of the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area in Monongahela National Forest.
Start your visit at the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center located at the intersection of Routes 33 and 55 in the tiny town of Seneca Rocks, WV.
The center, operated by the U.S. Forest Service, offers impressive views of Seneca Rocks as well as an overview of the area, including hiking guides and other information about Spruce Knob. To learn more, call 304-567-2827.
From the Discovery Center, take Route 33 about 11 miles south (about 2 miles south of Riverton) to Briery Gap Road (County Route 33/4). Follow it, and Forest roads 112 and 104 about 12 miles to the summit.
The top has picnic tables, grills, hiking trails, vault toilets. But be prepared for frequent windy and wet conditions.