Spruce Knob National Recreation Area
Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia
Still trying to figure out this whole winter backpacking thing
01/2003 - by Christopher Burk
I have to admit that every time I mention going backpacking in the dead of winter I get several odd looks and people start to question my sanity. Why anyone would willingly go sleep in a tent in sub-freezing temperatures is beyond them. Getting up at four in the morning is the part that I always question. Sleep deprivation aside, Mark and I loaded the car and set out for the Spruce Knob area at the crack of dawn.
Our plan was to leave the car at the head of Seneca Creek Trail and do a loop by hiking the road, Huckleberry Trail, Judy Springs Trail and Seneca Creek Trail. For a hike near the highest point in West Virginia, it was a relatively flat hike. The elevation gains we faced were all gradual over a fairly long distance. Never would we face the dreaded 700-foot climb in less than half-a-mile.
A light snow had been falling for most of the morning, more flurries than anything of appreciatable accumulation. Although the last couple of miles of our drive would be on unplowed forest roads, I was not overly concerned about not being able to get through. My only concern was the road from the highway down to Seneca Creek. It was very narrow and cut into the side of the mountain: In other words, if we slid off, it would be a long way down to the bottom.
As it turned out, the road was relatively clear. In fact, the only problem we had on the drive up was the spray from the cars in front of us was freezing on the windshield. The only way we could keep it clear was to turn the defroster on full. It ended up getting so hot in the car that I had to open a window.
One of the easiest parts of the drive was the forest road. Someone else had already driven through in the last day or two so we had nice tracks to follow in. At one point in time I actually tried to see if the car would automatically track in the other car's ruts. It actually worked! (For about three seconds.)
We finally arrived at Seneca Creek Trail head and found one other car there. It was a truck with Florida plates. I wonder what time they had to get up to get to the trail head before us? We loaded the final pieces of gear into our backpacks and set out.
Like every hike I have ever done, the pure excitement of being out takes over and makes you set a blistering pace. At first Mark and I thought we were just out of shape. We were huffing and puffing and we hadn't been hiking more than five minutes. It wasn't until we reached Huckleberry Trail head that we realized we just covered half-a-mile in less than 15 minutes. Once we got off the road and actually on the trail things slowed down considerably.
Although there was fresh snow on the ground it was obvious that the area had gone through several rounds of melting and freezing. The depressions along the trail were frozen but not solid enough to hold your weight. There were several times when the tell-tail sound of ice cracking sent Mark and me scrambling for a rock or high spot along the trail. The water was not necessarily deep but those times when we didn't make it off the ice, the sudden plunge sent water and mud flying. It wasn't a pretty sight. Not to mention the fact that the water would freeze on the bottom of Mark's gaiters creating large chucks of ice in the middle of his foot.
We zigzagged, rock-hopped and gingerly hiked for about an hour before deciding to stop for a snack. We would have stopped earlier but about the time we started getting hungry we were passing through an exposed section of the trail. We both agreed that standing around and letting the wind pummel us was not our idea of fun. We pressed on looking for a more sheltered spot.
We thought we found one in among some pine trees. It was definitely better then nothing at all but we still got cold pretty quick. The worst part was I had taken my gloves off to get stuff out of my pack. I wasn't wearing liners and while hiking my hands had gotten pretty warm. Unfortunately hot hands translated into cold, damp gloves once I put them back on.
Because of how cold we got when we stopped and the fact that we couldn't have more then two miles left before we reach camp we decided to forego lunch until we made camp. Looking back now, that probably was not the best of decisions. We were slightly off on that whole pace thing and how long it would take us to get to camp. What we though would take about another hour or so took us over two. Our pace slowed because the slope of the trail became steeper and snow became deeper, well the snow was deeper for Mark.
As I mentioned earlier, there was a of layer old snow that had melted and froze underneath the new snow. Being only 5'8" and about 175 pounds with pack, the under layer of snow was strong enough to hold my weight; unfortunately Mark is a little bigger than me (ok, ok he's a LOT bigger than me). There were several times I would turn around and see Mark fighting through snow almost up to his knees while it barely covered the soles of my boots. I believe that was about the time that Mark referred to me as a "Bleeping elf."
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached the junction with Judy Springs Trail. This was by far the most scenic part of the hike. Judy Springs Trail cuts through a wide-open meadow and offers a spectacular view of Seneca Creek Valley below and Spruce Knob above. Granted, the wind was whipping through but we were too busy taking in the view to really notice.
As we made our way down Mark even got a little carried away. As a joke he jumped into a crouch position imitating a downhill skier. Of course he didn't go anywhere until he stood back up. He proceeded to take one step and tumble to the ground. Looking back now it doesn't seem that funny, but at the time we laughed our asses off.
We arrived at Judy Springs Campground about twenty minutes later. The name Judy Springs Campground conjures up images of trailer hook-ups, large fire rings and grilles. To be honest, about the only thing missing is the trailer hook-ups. Mark and I counted about five fire rings with stone chairs around them and believe it or not, every one had a small grill top next to it. During the warmer seasons, Judy Springs is a popular spot. Being level and open, only about three miles downhill from the road and having Seneca Creek run right through it makes it a popular spot for hikers and fishermen alike. On this day however, Mark and I had it all to ourselves.
After setting up camp in an area well sheltered by the trees, we set out to explore the surrounding areas. From past experience I knew that Seneca Falls was about another mile or so down the trail and getting there required wading across the creek three times. But that was in the springtime, after all the snow had melted. Maybe the creek was lower and we could rock hop instead of wading. Our first crossing proved us wrong. The water was just as high and the thought of getting wet in sub-freezing temperatures was not a pleasant one. We headed back to camp and started our next task, gathering wood in an attempt to build a fire.
Mark gathered the wood while I broke it up into useable pieces. If my past hiking trips have taught me anything it is how to pile wood for the fire. I don't know how many times I have started with the small twigs and worked my way up to the large limbs. The problem with this method is when all is said and done; the pieces I need to start the fire are on the bottom of the pile.
With the wood correctly separated, we commenced to starting the fireyeah, right! We must have spent about two hours trying to get a good blaze going. Wood that appeared to be bone-dry was actually frozen. As it thawed, it became wet. The small pieces would dry quick enough to burn but the larger pieces never did. The best we ever got was a fire barely large enough to warm our faces. We were reduced to doing the equivalent of a Mexican hat dance around the fire ring to keep warm as we continued our attempts in vain.
We probably would have continued to try if it weren't for two things; it was getting dark and it occurred to us that we never did eat lunch. We gave up on the fire, finished our cigars, and piled into the tent for the evening. As we enjoyed our black bean and rice soup along with what we brought for lunch, we laughed at the fact that it was actually warmer in the tent than it ever was around the so-called fire. We also agreed that although we froze outside, we would have probably killed each other had we spent 16 plus hours in the tent together.
After dinner we discovered we made a miscalculation. Each of us had two water bottles. The round ones we insulated with golf club head covers. (Hey, use whatever you've got.) The other two were not insulated. Instead of alternating from each bottle, we drank exclusively from the insulated ones. It turned out to be a mistake. The un-insulated ones had frozen and were still full, leaving no room to add boiling water to. We were down to one bottle each. We finished the evening with a couple cups of red wine that I nicknamed sludge wine and called it a night.
Even in the cold, there is a reason why you want to keep your tent well ventilated. You would be amazed how much moisture breathing adds to the air. Mark and I awoke to a lovely coat of ice on the walls. Not a big deal until we started breakfast. Between our own body heat and the heat of the stove in the vestibule the ice started to melt. In no time at all, our tent became a sauna. Fortunately we had a couple of towels we used to keep our gear dry.
We now faced my least favorite part of backpacking: Breaking camp. Actually, the only part I dislike is taking down the tent. I don't know why. Maybe it's the obsessive-compulsive part of me that hates the constant struggle of trying to get a damp tent rolled up neatly without taking half the forest with it. Who knows? It just isn't my favorite part.
Of course, in the winter, cold, frozen poles make the task is even more challenging. I have yet to find a pair of gloves that will keep my hands warm and still afford me the dexterity to unclip and pull apart tent poles. I am forced to freeze my hands off and then get them warm again by putting on gloves that have been sitting in the cold for 20 minutes. Mark did come up with a way to solve half the problem though; he put his gloves inside his coat. That way they stayed warm while we packed everything up.
With warm gloves on our hands and the tent stuffed in my backpack, we set off for the final three miles of our hike. Because we now were hiking down in the valley, the wind was no longer a factor so I decided to forego the outer shell. It seemed to be a good idea at the time since the temperatures were warmer and the weather forecast had called for mostly sunny skies. Unfortunately, they weren't even close. About ten minutes into our hike it started snowing. And it snowed, and snowed, and snowed some more. The only thing that kept me from being totally soaked was the fact that it was a fairly dry snow so I could brush most of it off.
The first challenge of our hike out was our first stream crossing. There were enough rocks in the right places to rock hop across. The only problem was it was difficult to tell if they were just wet or covered in ice. I don't know about Mark but during the crossing I probably had more weight on my poles than on my feet. I'm just glad the poles were one-piece, non-adjustable poles. I don't want to think what would have happened if one of my poles collapsed mid-way across. We made it across without incident and continued on.
Our next challenge actually happened twice. Because of the heavy snows in past couple of weeks, one of the pine trees adjacent to the trail had fallen across it. The first one we encountered was easy to get across because it was relatively small and had fallen completely to the ground. We simply climbed over it. The second one presented a much more difficult ordeal.
Not only was the second tree larger than the first but also it hadn't fallen all the way to the ground. The trunk was about chest high and the branches made crawling underneath difficult. Mark had to lift it up high enough for me to get to the other side and then I helped him lift up higher so he could make it under as well.
We were just about spent after our ordeal so we decided to take a break. Mark opted for a Balance bar. I, on the other hand, went with the apple I had left over from yesterday's lunch. And it was a good thing too. You never realize how much water you loose when winter hiking. I had finished off the last of my water and needed every drop of moisture I could get. Fortunately, we only had one more mile to go. And it seemed like the longest mile. The snow was still coming down, each footstep got heavier and heavier and the trail became more and more uphill. The official description of how we felt that final mile is, "We bonked." I thought we'd never get back to the car. Of course we finally did and sure enough, the truck with the Florida plates was still there surrounded by pristine snow. Amazingly, we did an entire hike without seeing another person. Then again, being the dead of winter in West Virginia, I guess that shouldn't be such a surprise.
Trail Hiked: (In) Lumberjack Trail, Judy Springs Trail, (Out) Seneca Creek Trail
Distance: 8 miles
Outdoor Travels Rating: 4 out of 5 Backpacks
- Not another hiker around
- Very scenic mountain meadows
- Not any to really speak of
- Golf club head covers work well as water bottle insulators. As long as your water bottle is the correct shape and size.
- If you have more than one water bottle, drink from both of them. Don't wait until the first one is empty before you start on the next one. This will create space inside the water bottle to add hot water in case it freezes.
- If you must take off your gloves for some reason, stuff them inside your coat. You won't misplace them and they'll be warm when you put them back on.
Nuts & Bolts
Location: Grant and Pendleton counties, West Virginia
Of Note: At 4,863 feet above sea level, Spruce Knob is West Virginia's highest peak
Directions: From the north: Take Whitmer Road (CO29) south from US33 (one mile west of Harman) to Whitmer for 8.3 miles. From Whitmer continue south on Whitmer Road for 10.3 miles and turn left on Forest Road 1 for 2.5 miles to the campground and lake. Trailheads are nearby this area.
Trails: Approximately 70 miles of hiking trails offer splendid panoramic views in the Spruce Knob area.
Activities: Hiking, Fishing, Rock Climbing
Contact: Potomac Ranger District, HC 59, Box 240, Petersburg, WV 26847
- Spruce Knob observation tower: A stone and steel observation tower sits atop the Knob, providing visitors with a vantage point from which to enjoy a 360 degree view. The half-mile Whispering Spruce Trail circles the knob and provides panoramic views. Interpretive signs along the gentle, graveled trail describe the high country vegetation, geology and animal life. Vault toilets, picnic tables and vehicle parking complete the facilities available at the tower.
- Tiny Gatewood campground, and Spruce Knob Lake campground: Tiny Gatewood Campground has only six sites, while Spruce Knob Lake Campground contains 43 sites. You may choose to "rough it" and camp away from these designated campgrounds as long as you are careful to leave no trace of your campsite and pack out all garbage. For more information click here.
- Picnic Area: The picnic area lies one and a half miles south of the observation tower. A well, vault toilets, picnic tables and barbecue grills are nestled among a dense stand of spruce trees.
Maps & Stuff
Lots of great photos to give you a good idea of what the area is like!