Backpacking North Fork Mountain (24 miles) and Climbing at Seneca

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I finally got out to North Fork Mountain with a small crew from DC UL Backpacking… This one has been on my to-do list for awhile now, since I have seen some cool photos from friends that have done it in the past and just because I always notice it while climbing at Seneca (it is the long ridgeline to the east).

North Fork Mountain is a 24 mile shuttle hike along a prominent and exposed 3,000+ foot ridgeline which features exquisite views of the surrounding West Virginia countryside and some awesome hiking. It makes for a nice and scenic weekend backpacking outing.

It should be noted though that there is not water available on the ridge, you should carry whatever you need or you can cache water at the midpoint via the Forest Service road.

I met up with Doug and Tony in DC on Saturday morning for the three-hour drive out to Seneca Rocks, WV where we would be meeting up with our hiking compatriot Max.

Obviously to make a shuttle hike feasible you’ll need two vehicles… Max was our second and would be driving down from Pennsylvania. He was already waiting in the parking lot of Harpers/Yokums in “downtown” Seneca Rocks when we arrived after 11 am.

We put our convoy together and headed down to the southern terminus of the North Fork Mountain trail on US33 near Judy Gap/Franklin so we could stow his car and then pile in for the drive back up to the northern terminus near Smoke Hole Caverns.

The drive takes at least half an hour between the two points. As mentioned earlier, one could cache water via the Forest Service road (FS79) on the east, but we elected to just carry whatever we needed.

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We finally hit the trail sometime after noon… Starting from the north is certainly more “sporting” as it offers a 2,000+ foot climb out of the valley (start at the south, and you begin at the apex of the ridge).

After a good, steady climb to get the blood flowing, you arrive to some outstanding vistas…

North Fork Mountain is generally a gradually sloping hillside to the east and a dramatic and sudden cliff dropping off to the west, which offers absolutely phenomenal views of the surrounding West Virginia landscape, down to Smoke Hole, Champe Rock, and everything else.

There are numerous vistas that are only a couple strides off the primary trail, and innumerable others that you could walk out to at just about any other moment.

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Once you gain the ridge proper the hiking is generally pretty easy going with moderate ups and downs along the crest of the ridge.

It was good catching up with some of fellow hiking buddies from DC UL—it has been awhile since I saw any of them with my long time away in Washington State during August.

Tony had been down to Florida, Doug had been to the Sierras, and Max… Well, Max—he had just returned from hiking across the country of Iceland. 400+ miles through blizzards, heinous wind, and numerous days without seeing other people.

Pretty awesome stuff… Check out the video he put together here and read a trip report that another buddy Michael put together here.

We continued our hike along the crest of the North Fork Mountain and eventually hit the Forest Service road that intersects the trail at roughly mid-point. This is where one has the opportunity to cache additional water if desired, but is mostly where you have to dodge trucks and other local yahoos.

A few miles along the road and you finally return to the relative solitude of the woods. On the first day we covered roughly 14 miles, I expect, making camp just after the road.

Our camp wasn’t that great—rocky ground and no vista, there was actually a much better site just before the road (when headed south-bound). We had a roaring fire and a good time, as always, hanging out and catching up.

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Sunday morning we were up by 7am and on the trail by 8am in order to cover our last remaining 10 or so miles. The views along the southern end aren’t as numerous as the northern end, but they are still outstanding—what particularly stood out to me was the extraordinary view of Seneca Rocks, a full 1,000+ feet above the summit.

Seneca, my regular climbing crag, seemed downright small in comparison. Someone rightly pointed out that seeing Seneca from this perspective and from the seldom seen east-side was akin to seeing the dark side of the moon. An apt description, if I ever heard one.

The North Fork Mountain hike was an exceptionally awesome hike with outstanding vista after outstanding vista… In fact, at one point we saw three bald eagles flying overhead, something I have never seen on the east coast, and something I have rarely even seen out west.

I’d love to do this trip in winter with snow on the ground, though it probably won’t happen before I leave. I think the leafless trees and ability to melt snow for water would be cool.

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Our crew of hikers from DC UL were pretty fast. We covered the remaining 10 or so miles by about 11:30 that morning.

My climbing buddy Doug (from Mount Shuksan) had actually reached out about climbing on Sunday and Monday, not knowing that I’d already be in the area, so I took Monday off and agreed to meet up to climb at 1pm on Sunday.

Max dropped me off back down in Seneca by noon on Sunday and I hung out on the front porch of the Gendarme talking to folks, eating lunch, and killing time. I was a little paranoid that something might happen and Doug might not show and I’d be stranded in West Virginia, but thankfully he showed up right on the dot.

We regrouped for climbing in the parking lot below Seneca Rocks. I had just hiked 24 miles and was now going to jump on some multipitch rock, haha, what was I thinking?

Doug is a pretty good climber though and thankfully I could just follow him on some slightly harder stuff and not worry about leading. That Sunday afternoon we hit up Ecstasy Jr (5.4, 2 pitches), Le Gourmet (5.4, 1 pitch), Front C (5.6, 1 pitch), Critter Crack (5.7, 1 pitch). Critter Crack was definitely the highlight of the day, and a climb that I hadn’t been on before.

I’m no good at crack climbs, and the 15+ minutes I spent fiddling with a hex at the base certainly didn’t help, but I made it to the top, albeit in an ugly manner! By that point the sun was about to set on us and we rapped down as fast as we could, and then hiked out in the dark.

The restaurants were unfortunately closed so we had to settle for terrible canned/packaged products from the gas station.

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Monday morning we got off to a leisurely start, not too worried about having to fight for routes on a quiet day. We hopped on the first pitch of Skyline (5.3, 1 pitch), to Kaufmann-Cardon (5.4, 2 pitches), Lady Elaine (5.5, 1 pitch), Old Ladies Traverse (5.2, 1 pitch), Windy Corner (5.4, 1 pitch).

Doug led all of the day’s pitches again, except the mini Old Ladies Traverse which I have memorized like the back of my hand. The Kaufmann-Cardon, Lady Elaine, and Windy Corner pitches were all new to me and were lots of fun.

Lady Elaine was quite a bit different from a normal Seneca pitch with a lot of face-like stuff and lichen covered faces. The Windy Corner pitch ended up being a bit of a nightmare with a cam getting stuck at the base of the route. It is probably fixed gear on the route now.

All-in-all it was a really awesome three day weekend. I think that North Fork is a must do in the area.

It is important, in my opinion, to stress the benefits of light and fast on this trail… While it is 24 miles without water, just pack less/lighter gear and bring adequate water instead… I left my stove at home and brought a no-cook dinner (cold pizza) along with three and a half liters of water.

I have seen other groups making this a three-day affair, which is totally unnecessary, I think.

It is easily done in less than 24-hours total, perhaps even be done as a long day hike, if you like driving that much in one day. Check out my guide on day hiking essentials for more details about what to bring along.

Even better, I think, is linking this backpacking objective up with a good day or two of climbing at Seneca—it’s good to replicate those big approaches and long alpine pushes combined with some technical climbing.

Indeed, my Sunday was a 12+ hour day combining 10 miles of hiking and 5-pitches of climbing; it felt just a little bit reminiscent of some of my recent sufferfests in Washington State.

North Fork Mountain Resources


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Head Writer and Adventurer at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West, and then across all of Central America and South America. When he isn't on the move, you can find him living as an expat in Colombia. He is also the author of the best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget that will help you travel more for less. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

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