Trail Truthing, Part 3: Allen’s Trail

By Hugh Rogers

The most vivid trail name on the Monongahela National Forest must be Flame Azalea.  Does it have any rivals?  Of the 200 trails on the Forest’s inventory (still including Flame Azalea, though it is said to have been dropped), nearly all are named for a general location.

Typical examples up here in the Cheat Ranger District: Mountainside Trail; Green Mountain Trail; Middle Point Trail . . .  Bo-r-r-ring.  Dinky Jumpoff is the lone exception.  There’s an explanation, not worth repeating—it’s too simple.  I’d rather imagine my own.  That’s probably why most hikers aren’t bored by trail names: each one will call up a personal experience, or expectation.

You’re looking for the names in a hiking guide, not a poetry chapbook.

But I’m editing the whole list: words, words, words.  One craves a little amusement.  Dinky Jumpoff is a start.  Tumbling Rock offers some action.  Swallow Rock suggests a cautionary tale.  Beulah Siding calls to mind a woman one hoped to see when the train pulled in.  In a class by itself is Two Lick Bottom . . .

OK, enough of that.  Back to Flame Azalea, which I think of as Allen’s Trail.

Flame Azalea Trail (TR414)

            The Hiking Guide provides a tantalizing history: “After a timber harvest in the early 1980’s, it [the concentration of wild azaleas] was discovered, developed, and formerly maintained for 20 years by a group of professors and students from Louisburg College in North Carolina.”

We know that Allen de Hart, the late author of Hiking Guide editions #5 through #8, was a long-time (five decades) professor at Louisburg College who took groups of students to West Virginia on their spring break.  Presumably, they would go out on trails with mileage tracking wheels—this was before GPS apps and software that would do it for you—to check descriptions for the Guide.  We also know that he was a botanist who established a 91-acre garden near his home and donated it to the college.  It has 620 azaleas.  So we can imagine his joy discovering this patch of “orange, yellow, and red hues of the wild Rhododendron calendulaceum.”

But how did he get there?  That chunk of National Forest in Pocahontas County between WV 92 and the Virginia border is practically trailless for forty-five miles.

It wasn’t always so.  In his introduction to the Bird Run area (p. 254 in the 8th ed.), he mentioned two former trails: Bird Run Trail (TR486) climbed four miles from the Bird Run Campground to Paddy Knob (el. 4477ft.), site of a former fire lookout tower; and Sugar Camp Trail (TR406) once made a parallel climb toward the Virginia line.  Those trails had been dropped from the Forest Service system by the time Allen co-authored the Guide’s fifth edition, in 1988.  But he had been coming to West Virginia for some time.  The Appalachian Mountain Club had already published his Hiking the Mountain State: The Trails of West Virginia.

Allen and his students might have camped at Bird Run, which was on WV 84 east of Frost.  Before it was a Forest Service campground, it was the Civilian Conservation Corps’ Camp Copperhead.  Now it’s just a gated clearing in the woods, and the Flame Azalea Trail, like the other two, has been dropped from the Forest Service network.

However, the azaleas are still there, and relatively easy to find.  From Frost, at the junction of WV 84 and WV 92, take 92 north 1.6 miles to Forest Road 1012.  It’s on the east side, just past Twin Hill Farm on the west.  There is a gate (with a well-worn ATV bypass) and space to park.  You must walk up this grassy road—a “linear wildlife opening”—for a mile to reach the trail.

When I was there, the wooden trail signs were down and rotting.  For the time being they’re propped against trees.  In any event, you should be able to recognize the opening on the left to a tangle of old logging roads.  Entering the woods, take the blue-blazed right-hand fork, and after a short descent you’ll see the azaleas.  It’s as if all the rhodies on the mountain had been drawn into one big clump.  I look forward to seeing them in bloom.

The trail loop is only three-tenths of a mile; the mile each way on the forest road provides the exercise.

Hikers, botanists, and others come looking for it, as I know from talking to local residents.  The visitors bring maps and numbers; the residents straighten us out.  According to the 7th and 8th editions of the Guide, the Flame Azalea Trail (misnumbered as TR410) was off a forest road (misnumbered as FR441) which was part of the former Sugar Camp Trail (last shown on the 1970 Monongahela National Forest map).  The most recent map, from 2007, shows two forest roads north of Frost, 1012 and 1013.  1013 is shown just south of Sugar Camp Run; even closer to the run, along the south bank, is a dotted line.  Visitors assume it represents the former Sugar Camp Trail.  That’s how we happen to meet the owner of the property, who assures us there is no forest road or trail here, it’s just her driveway.  One of her guests, who says “I’ve lived here all my life,” then directs us to the forest road well north of Sugar Camp Run; he also informs us that the trail signs are down.  I wonder if he takes advantage of the ATV bypass around the gate.

Some think that trails dropped from the Forest Service system should be dropped from the Guide.  This editor may cut some of Allen’s many references to former trails, when they don’t lead to anything a hiker would otherwise miss.  As I understand him, though, Allen encouraged us to roam as freely as we dared.  We aren’t restricted to numbered paths.  History, botany, and zoology not only inform us, they can lure us to go further.

Drudging over maps and numbers and directions and lists, I come upon sentences like this, describing the Flame Azalea Trail: “The loop trail follows old logging roads in a cove favored by afternoon sunshine.”  That’s Allen.