JUDY GAP, W.Va. - North Fork Mountain is special.
It ranks right up there with other iconic West Virginia landmarks: Blackwater Falls, Dolly Sods, New River Gorge and Gauley River.
Peregrine falcons nest here and hikers can look down on vultures and other raptors from high on a ridge atop the 34-mile-long mountain in Pendleton and Grant counties in eastern West Virginia.
The 23.8-mile trail along the east slope of the mountain lies within the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area. It is part of the Monongahela National Forest.
North Fork Mountain with its high point of 3,894 feet is known for its vistas, rocky outcroppings and long cliffs. Elevations along the trail range from 1,300 feet to 3,800 feet.
The Nature Conservancy and its partners consider North Fork Mountain to be one of the most ecologically and biologically significant areas in the Central Appalachian Forest ecosystem.
The trail has been called one of the Best in the East by Backpacker magazine and by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, and the best trail in West Virginia by Outside magazine.
The north-south trail is a narrow footpath, generally listed as moderate to strenuous. Backpackers must carry their own water. The trail is marked by blue blazes and easy to follow.
Chances are you will see few people. It is remote and loop options are limited.
The scenery is what draws hikers, backpackers and even some mountain bikers. North Fork Mountain features rocky sandstone outcroppings and cliffs that offer stunning vistas for anyone willing to get to the top - about 2,600 feet above the surrounding valleys.
To the east lies the forested Smoke Hole Canyon, where the South Branch of the Potomac River has carved a 20-mile long canyon with nearly vertical walls. It got its name from the misty fogs that are often found along the river. It is one of the wildest corners of West Virginia.
To the west, you can see Germany Valley, the North Fork, Seneca Rocks and Spruce Mountain.
From the trail's highest points, you can see nearby Cave Mountain and the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west.
The southern terminus of the trail is at the crest of U.S. 33 between Judy Gap and Franklin at an elevation of 3,580 feet. The northern terminus is where Smoke Hole Road meets state Route 28 near Petersburg.
The 23.8-mile trail makes a great two-to-three-day backpack. I did the northern end of the trail years ago. I hiked the southern end near Judy Gap on a recent trip.
Most visitors start at the southern end because you access the trail up high and eliminate a long climb required at the northern end. The elevation at the northern terminus is 1,300 feet; at the southern end the elevation is 3,592 feet.
The southern terminus is five miles east of Judy Gap and 9 miles west of Franklin. There is space for a few cars at the edge of the road at the mountain's crest. There is a small building with a radio tower and a gate. Signs warn: No trespassing. But you access the blue-blazed trail here.
The trail follows an old road grade along the ridge crest. It is generally flat and easy to follow. Later it becomes a footpath and includes small saddles and moderately difficult knobs to climb.
The vistas are everywhere. You just have to walk a few yards off the trail to reach outcroppings and cliffs. You can find them by the wind whistling and roaring at the cliff edge and the gnarled pines at the western rim.
The trail cuts through hardwood forests with patches of Virginia pine, red oak and red pine and lots of mountain laurel, flaming azaleas and wintergreen. There are extensive fern beds and lots of wildflowers. The trail generally runs on the eastern or leeward slope.