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.
You are likely to encounter white-tailed deer and wild turkey and maybe wild goats. Be aware that timber rattlesnakes are around.
In the fall, North Fork Mountain is a great place to observe migrating raptors, including bald eagles and golden eagles soaring on thermals. Chimney Top at 21.0 miles is one of the best vistas on the trail.
There have been access issues along the southern part of the trail over the years because parts are privately owned. Check with the ranger district office. There is a gravel road access at 11.0 miles and side trails at 16 and 19.9 miles that lead to state Route 28/11.
The U.S. Forest Service has proposed a wilderness designation for 6,000-plus acres in Grant County at the northern end of North Fork Mountain. That would affect seven miles of the trail and would ban mountain bikes.
You can get information on North Fork Mountain and its trail from the U.S. Forest Service at 304-567-2827 (daily except in winter). You can also contact the Cheat-Potomac Ranger District, 304-257-4488 (weekdays only), http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf.
North Fork Mountain is known as the driest high mountain in the Appalachians and that has created special habitats for plants and animals. Storms moving from the Midwest drop most of their precipitation on the mountains to the west before they get to North Fork Mountain.
North Fork Mountain is also home to a range of rare and threatened plants.
The Nature Conservancy, a national land conservation group, has been active on and around North Fork Mountain since the early 1980s, especially on the southern part of the mountain.
It has created preserves at Pike Knob and Panther Knob. It owns or manages 1,635 acres at Pike Knob and has acquired an adjoining 2,000 acres for the national forest. It owns or manages 2,469 acres at Panther Knob.
At present, only the Pike Knob Preserve is open to the public. Trails lead to the 4,300-foot summit of Pike Knob in Pendleton County. A mountaintop meadow, Nelson Sods, offers spectacular vistas of the surrounding high country.
Pike Knob sits in the middle of 3,600 protected acres that stretch more than five miles along the southern end of North Fork Mountain.
The largest pine barren is found atop 4,508-foot Panther Knob, also in Pendleton County. The preserve stretches along four miles of ridge tops.
For more information, contact the West Virginia Nature Conservancy, 304-637-0584, http://bit.ly/Z7whVP.
Bob Downing: email@example.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun