Roaring Plains / Flatrock Plains / Red Creek Plains
A plea for awareness, concern and conservation for public lands of outstanding value.
By: Jonathan Jessup - Copyright 2004 - All Rights Reserved
On March 30, 2009 President Obama signed the Wild Monongahela Act into law permanently protecting 37,771 acres of the Monongahela National Forest. Championed by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman, and West Virginia Congressman, Nick Rahall, it was sponsored by West Virginia’s entire Congressional delegation. This long-sought legislation will expand 3 existing Wilderness Areas, Cranberry, Dolly Sods and Otter Creek, as well as establish 3 new Areas, Roaring Plains, Spice Run and Big Draft. This is the first Wilderness protection granted federal lands in West Virginia since 1983 when the Cranberry and Laurel Fork Wilderness Areas were designated.
The Roaring Plains and Flatrock Plains area comprises the highest plateaus of their size in the Eastern United States. Combined with Red Creek Plains (hereafter all three referred to as “the Plains”), they are the geologic backbone of West Virginia on Allegheny Front. The Allegheny Front on the Plains is also the Eastern Continental Divide in West Virginia. Area forests and streams have significantly recovered from devastating industrial clear cut logging and many subsequent fires (hereafter called the “tumult event”). By the 1920s, these high plateaus were an extensive barren jumble of rocks called "plains". Since then, logging on these USFS lands have taken place only on a few small tracts. The natural grandeur of the Plains and the steep slopes and valley floors below is returning. Most of the Plains area owned by the USFS (12,376 acres) has been managed as if it were a protected Wilderness area since the most recent Forest Service plan revision of 1985. The Plains are surrounded on all sides by very popular recreation destinations such as Seneca Rocks, Spruce Knob, Dolly Sods, Seneca Creek Back country, Canaan Valley, Canaan Valley State Park, North Fork Valley, Blackwater Canyon, Otter Creek Wilderness, North Fork Mountain, and Smoke Hole Canyon. The natural characteristics of the Plains area are valuable and plentiful. However, they don't receive nearly as much recreational use or public attention. The Plains as a designated wilderness area is compatible and consistent with an established pattern of public land use in the region for low impact recreation, scenic preservation, remote country, and ecological preservation as well as other natural values federally designated Wildernesses seek to protect. If designated, the Plains would be the highest elevation wilderness in West Virginia.
A gas pipeline swath (built around 1960) and forest road 70 dissects the Plains into three areas: North, West and East. A microwave transmitter tower is located on Flatrock Plains and is operated under a 'special use permit' from the US Forest Service by the same natural gas company that manages the pipeline.
Size: approx. 12,376 acres
Location: Randolph, Pendleton, Grant Counties, West Virginia
Watershed: Cheat, South Branch Potomac
USGS Topographic Maps: Laneville, Hopeville
Elevation Range: 2360 – 4770 ft
Dominant Vegetation: Red Spruce, Mixed Hardwoods, Mesic, Open Brush
The weather and climate on the Plains is one of its special attributes. Weather changes are accentuated on the Plains. Allegheny Front is a long mountain ridge over one hundred miles in length that is a great weather modifier along the east coast. The Plains are the highest point along the entire Allegheny front. Here there are winds of a force factor of five, the greatest in West Virginia. Wind in the spruce trees often sounds as loud as a jet airplane taking off right above you. Winter snows average approximately 180 inches (fifteen feet) of snow a year on the high plateaus and lesser amounts on the lower slopes and valley floors.
The Plains create a significant rain shadow on the east side. The plateaus receive roughly twice the annual precipitation as the valley floors to the East. In the Potomac Valley, cacti can be found along fences and grape vineyards are within which require a drier climate. Clouds hover above the Plains more often than surrounding valleys. Days where the valleys are in sunshine and the Plains are enshrouded in cloud and thick fog are not uncommon and can happen in any month of the year. In winter, the mountaintop fog often deposit thick rime ice in the higher forests. The rime builds up and when combined with the high speed winds, breaks many branches off the spruce to create flagged trees where all of the upper branches only point east. There are countless thousands of flagged spruce on the Plains. The flagged spruce is a symbol of pride and beauty for West Virginian’s of their Allegheny Highlands.
Nearby Dolly Sods is well known for abundant snow and extreme winter weather however elevations on the Plains are higher. Weather extremes are somewhat greater on the Plains. Snow can remain until June. Frozen precipitation can happen during any month of the year but generally happens from the months of October through any time in May. Snow storms on the Plains are so common that blizzards happen here when nearby towns and cities get either winter rain or no precipitation at all. Lake effect snows are common on the Plains.
(Biology/Geology: vegetation, wildlife, streams, other geologic features)
The highest point on Roaring Plains, Mount Porte Crayon (MPC), is also the sixth highest mountain in West Virginia and is worthy of special attention due to its outstanding scenic, natural, and ecological attributes. The only mountain higher than MPC in the vicinity is Spruce Knob, 16 miles to the south. The summit area of MPC is presently set aside as an 8.11 prescribed management area, and is a Research Natural Area, for a native mountaintop red spruce forest that is home to endangered northern flying squirrel and endangered cheat mountain salamander. Mount Porte Crayon is remote headwaters to three drainages and is the highest point on the Eastern Continental Divide in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Of special note is that Roaring Plains towers 3,100 feet (twice the height of the Sears Tower building*) above the Potomac River at the east base of the mountain. This is the greatest vertical difference in West Virginia. Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state, has somewhat less vertical. Red Creek Plains has similar vertical difference on its east slope to Potomac River.
In these proposed Wilderness areas, on and around the Plains, four points reach or exceed an elevation of forty-seven hundred feet and eight areas exceed forty-five hundred feet, which is exceptional for the entire mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Not only can many cliff areas be found on the Plains, but also at least seven known high elevation wetlands (sphagnum/cranberry bogs), the highest in the state, reside here that are home to rare northern plants and animals such as the snowshoe hare, bog lemming, bobcats, and fisher. These bogs serve to regulate stream flow at the headwaters for both sides of the eastern continental divide.
Even after many decades of ecological recovery from the tumult on the Plains, the surface is unusually rocky and several dozen areas remain barren and rocky. What soils remain are often thin (almost always less than one foot) and comprise mainly of peat, which is the result of very slow buildup of primarily of spruce needles from the native conifer (red spruce) forest. Before the tumult event, this peat layer was reported to be as deep as eight feet. Locals report that the Plains’ plateaus had no rocks exposed before the tumult event, which is difficult to fathom today because as you walk across Roaring/Flatrock/Red Creek Plains, you get the feeling that the plateaus are a never ending and contiguous jumble of millions of large rocks of one to two feet across and still larger. No matter how remote a location you bushwhack to on the plateaus, you’ll find rocks protruding from thin to non-existent soils. Locals report that there was an economic crash after the original forest was removed in the 1920s and this was a primary reason the USFS was able to purchase so much land in the area. The rocky, unproductive and snowy high country was sold while more productive lower lands still remain mostly in private ownership. Hard economic times were also a cause for locals to repeatedly burn the plateaus in the 1920's and 30's to promote blueberries for food. The berries can still be found in abundance to this day.
In addition to the native spruce forest on top of the Plains, there are extensive and virtually impenetrable laurel and rhododendron thickets. They help to maintain a sense of mystery for the area and also keep people on the designated trails. The state DNR has rescued at least one disoriented hunter in the laurels. Incidents of people taking hours to go a relatively short distance are reported regularly. In late June the laurels bloom and there is a spectacular show of countless acres of pink and white blossoms. The rhododendrons typically bloom in July and add to the grandeur of spring on the Plains. Spring may technically end on June 21st, but because of the high elevation on the Plains, spring arrives late.
Plains area forests have suffered greater pressures and threat of extermination in the past hundred and twenty years, than in the past ten thousand or so years. The greatest single event in the past ten thousand years to affect the Plains was between the 1880’s and late 1920’s, which culminated in a virtual total removal of the great ancient virgin forest (the tumult event) in the form of logging by steam powered railroad. To this day, additional threats are applying pressure on these forests in the form of biological infestation of alien species as well as pollution and extractive desires. Said pressures have already and in the future will further threaten to place yet more ecological stress on the Plains. Threat specifics include acid rain, gypsy moth, balsam wooly adelgid, hemlock wooly adelgid, beech bark disease and many other invasive species, of which many rely and/or thrive on disturbance and overall weakening of remaining native forest ecosystems. Since the Plains are enshrouded in clouds many days of the year, the forests are especially vulnerable to acid precipitation.
Wilderness designation would help avert these present day, as well as future unforeseen (i.e. climate change) and serious threats by minimizing human caused disturbances such as logging and road building. These threat factors have combined with depleted acidic soils in the unusually rocky terrain. Special consideration needs to be given to permanent conservation of these lands. The continued survival of the natural state of the Plains area is imperative and is compatible with established scenic, ecological and low impact recreational interests.
Haystack Knob and Green Knob are within the proposed area but are south of the Plains. These are exceptional features. Haystack Knob is unusual and special. It has historic value as well as affording one of the best mountaintop views in the state.
The USFS lands in Long Run valley host an apparently healthy hardwood forest of exceptional scenic and ecological value. These slopes are perhaps the most remote USFS lands in the proposed area. They are of great value for persons seeking solitude and for wildlife. They are also an important forest ecosystem that must be considered as a single forest system that spans from top to the bottom of the mountain. Fauna that live in the spruce forests on top also rely on lower elevation forests for habitat and vice-versa.
ACTION ALERT: What you can do - Visit this page to learn how to help conserve the Plains.
* not including antennae on Sears Tower Building.
Note: This document omits much information about the Plains area including much history nor does it cover the pressing ski resort development issue.
The Plains are of unusual and exceptional scenic value and offer outstanding wild and remote country experiences for many people. They are within a day’s drive of a large percentage of the U.S. population. The Plains are less visited than the adjacent Dolly Sods Wilderness area to the north primarily due to lesser road access as well as offering fewer miles of designated trails. The area offers many opportunities for solitude of unusually good quality.
Designated Wilderness areas in West Virginia have not suffered from the so-called “loved to death” affect that other states may have experienced. Additional designated Wilderness acreage that includes the Plains would however reduce recreational pressure from nearby designated Wilderness areas as well as more distant ones.
Backpacking: Backpacking is a popular and perhaps the best way people enjoy the Plains. Area trails have been well designed to provide several circuit route opportunities within the area as well as connecting to Dolly Sods and even further north to Canaan Valley. Some trail expansions need to be considered such as a designated route to Haystack Knob, Green Knob and the north cliff rim of Long Run Canyon.
Running: In 2003 a forty mile mountaintop marathon held by the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners traversed the Plains to eventually end in Canaan Valley. Future events seem likely.
Fishing: Streams within the proposed areas are reported to host an abundance of native trout populations. Fishing is one of the most popular outdoor recreational sports in West Virginia.
Hunting: Dear, turkey, bear, grouse and other native faunal populations are abundant and already provide outstanding hunting opportunities. Wilderness designation is compatible with hunting interests on the Plains.
Exploration: Roaring Plains is unique and ripe for exploration and there are many rewards for it. A retired couple and has dedicated ten years to hiking and exploring the area with high tech tools including a GPS. They are still finding areas they’ve never visited. They are still being rewarded in discovering great views as well as outstanding back country exploration on and below the Plateaus. On all sides of the Plains, there are many rocky outcrops and other areas affording spectacular and unparalleled views of the surrounding mountainous countryside. To date, at least forty two viewpoints have been located while only three of them are on designated trails. Each of these viewpoints offers a different view from the other. Unlike many mountains in the region, these are not viewpoints along a single ridge where the view only changes slightly from one to the next, but rather they are around the very curvy perimeter of these dissected plateaus. A popular exploration destination is Mt. Porte Crayon (MPC). MPC is so remote and dense in vegetation that the far greater majority of attempts at reaching the top fail. The very scenic summit of Haystack Knob also has no USFS designated trail leading to it and is much farther from one than Mt. Porte Crayon. Green Knob is even more remote, and would take a serious effort to reach via bushwhack, only across USFS lands from the closest public access point on FR19 or Bonner Mountain Road.
Cross country skiing: The Plains receive plenty of snow. An average of about 180 inches (fifteen feet) of snow every year falls on the Plains. Trails and other routes on the Plains offer outstanding remote skiing opportunities. Nearby Whitegrass resort has hosted outings to Roaring Plains and people venture in small groups every year to ski the Plains.
Snowshoeing: The Plains receive plenty of snow. An average of about 180 inches (fifteen feet) of snow every year falls on the Plains. The Plains offer outstanding opportunities for snowshoeing and low impact winter recreation.
(Visit the Plains)
We urge you to consider visiting the Plains. A backpack outing is probably the best way to experience the area. The Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide by Bruce Sundquist and Allen DeHart is recommended. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy hosts outings to the Plains. Check the web site Outings page. Designated trails exist but skip the most scenic areas. If you are looking for a more remote off trail experience consider the long rock cliffs on the south edge of the Roaring Plains on the north rim of Long Run Canyon. Haystack Knob offers an outstanding view, too. Search the Internet for “roaring plains map” and see what you find. Be responsible for your self and safety. Don’t under estimate how rugged and dangerous this wild country can be, especially off designated trails! Getting lost off trail in the laurels and thick spruce forest presents a real danger. This is not a place for the uninitiated. While on the flattish plateaus you may not be able to see any distant landmarks.
Public access to Roaring Plains is from Forest Road 19 to South Prong Trail. Bonner Mountain Road offers public access to Flatrock Run Trail.
From Canaan Valley, West Virginia: Take 32 south. Stay on 32 past the state park intersection then begin your descent out of the valley. Take a hard left onto Laneville Road. Laneville Road is very curvy and precarious in spots and ends at Laneville and Forest Road 19. Before Laneville turn right onto Bonner Mountain Road to reach the Flatrock Run Trail head on the left (not far after the bridge over Red Creek at a small gas pumping station). At Laneville, Forest Road 19 starts up the mountain. There are two trail heads on FR19 for South Prong Trail on the right hand side. The first trail head is closer to the bottom of the mountain where the parking is off the road. The second trail head is near the top of the mountain just beyond the FS70 (FS70 is gated) intersection. There will be a signed trail head with roughly eight parking spaces.
From the east: From Petersburg, West Virginia take 55 West. Pass Smoke Hole Caverns on your right, and then pass a small gas station on your left. Soon after you’ll reach Jordan Run Road, a right-only turn. Turn right onto Jordan Run Road. Go 1 mile up the mountain and then turn left onto FR19. Go about six more miles to the top of the mountain. You are almost there. At the top stay left and then pass the picnic area on your left. There will be a signed trail head with roughly eight parking spaces on the left hand side for the first trail head for South Prong Trail. Another trail head for South Prong Trail is further down the mountain on the left hand side before Laneville.
By: Jonathan Jessup - Copyright 2004 - All Rights Reserved
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