Trail Truthing, Part 2: Another Surprise

By Hugh Rogers

Winter is shrinking.  On President’s Day, the snowdrops popped up, looked around, saw no snow, not even remnants.  We’ve used a few of these warm days to answer questions that came up as we worked on a 9th edition of the Monongahela National Forest (MNF) Hiking Guide.  This month’s installment of Trail Truthing celebrates a little-known trail, thought to be closed, that leads to a spectacular view.

But first, to repeat: you can help.  Please check out trails, especially ones that might have changed in the past ten years.  Let us know what you find, or how you would make the old description clearer.  

We do have help from the pros.  Jack Tribble, District Ranger for the Greenbrier District, and Gray Buckles, North Zone Wilderness/Trails Manager, have corrected old misinformation and pointed to new hiking opportunities.  Since I’m not familiar with the South Zone, we’ll need even more help in Gauley, Marlinton, and White Sulphur Springs Ranger Districts.

Smoke Camp Trail (TR324)

This one came to my attention on a list of trails that had been dropped from the MNF inventory.  I checked the description in the 8th edition: exceptional scenery, moderate difficulty, good condition, a steep hike, just under two miles, from the historic Rothkugel Plantation to a former fire lookout.  Sounded good to me.  Was it worth keeping in the Guide, even without its official status?  We’re doing that, for instance, with the Blackwater Canyon RR Grade, which (because of a dispute with an adjoining property owner) is no longer maintained as TR115, but which will continue to be used, with caution, by hikers and bikers.

The Smoke Camp trailhead is three miles east of Bartow on WV28, north of the junction with US250.   There’s a large sign describing the Rothkugel Plantation, an early (1907) demonstration of scientific forestry, and a smaller sign for the trail.

Parking is a problem.  The best option seems to be the junction of FR54, Buffalo Fork Road, with WV28.  Coming from the fork where US250 turns south, it’s just beyond the bridge over Little River.  There is space for several cars.  From there, it’s a hundred-yard walk along the shoulder.  I wouldn’t do it with a family.  Pull over at the trailhead, let passengers out, and go back to FR54.

TR324 begins as a loop trail, 324A, with informative signs on the history and consequences of the Norway spruce plantation.  Some of the original trees are now well over a hundred feet tall.  The ground is carpeted with clubmoss and spruce seedlings.  Halfway around, TR324 turns off to the left and begins a more serious climb.  Here is the last blue plastic blaze; the remainder of the trail has old paint blazes.

The climb is unrelenting.  For comparison, Flatrock Run Trail has the greatest elevation change of all the trails on the MNF.  It goes up 2200 feet over a course of five miles.  Another trail up the Roaring Plains, Boar’s Nest Trail, climbs 1300 feet in 2.7 miles.  It’s plenty steep.  Smoke Camp Trail does 1300 feet in 1.8 miles.

At the ridgetop, plastic blazes reappear, and the trail joins an old woods road for 0.2mi. It ends at FR58, a smooth, well-graded gravel road.  Ahead is a clearing and a new sign, “Smoke Camp Overlook.”  It has a picnic table, a grill, benches, the concrete bases of the old fire tower – and a view that few places on the MNF can equal, looking toward a line of iconic mountains: dark, blocky Cunningham Knob, seeming to float upon the pale treeless ridge that tops out at Bayard Knob; pointy Pharis Knob; Spruce Mountain, foreshortened but easily recognizable; and North Fork Mountain, from Panther Knob and Kile Knob way off into the distance.  Over in Virginia are The Stamp, Bearcamp Knob, and Red Oak Knob’s distinctive cap of blond grass and black spruce.  Below, in the foreground, an unbroken forest.

There’s no clue to this payoff at the foot of the trail.  A sign is at the beginning of FR57, Long Run Road, which turns off WV28 between Camp Pocahontas and Island Campground, 2 miles from the trailhead.  You can drive three miles up FR57 to the Virginia line, and double back three miles on FR58 to the overlook.  Most people who get there will get there by road.

Hardy hikers – even this old man — want to earn their views.  I’m reminded of Edward Abbey’s famous benediction: “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”  Your trails, your life.  Now, I’m not saying Smoke Camp Trail is dangerous; it’s just steep.  It’s not particularly crooked, either.  But it winds through a varied and beautiful forest on its way to an amazing view.  All the way back down, you’ll feel a renewed zest for this place, these highlands.

At home, a quick email exchange reassured me that Smoke Camp Trail has NOT been dropped from the MNF list.  The interpretive loop trail is new, and that made for a slight reworking of the connection to TR324.  We’ll keep double-checking the notes our late author, Allen de Hart, left us.  And we’re looking forward to trail reports from you.