Wild & Wonderful: The North Fork Mountain Trail
Bike it, backpack it or simply day hike it- either way just do it! The North Fork Mountain Trail (NFMT) extends 24.7 miles through sections of the Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area and Monongahela National Forest and has been noted as one of the best trails in West Virginia by Outside Magazine and a top trail on the east coast by Backpacker Magazine. With credentials like that, we had to find out for ourselves!
A note about outdoor recreation in West Virginia
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the NFMT, we recognize that many of you reading this may not be familiar with recreation options in the state of West Virginia. Perhaps the state’s slogan, “wild & wonderful,” summarizes it best, however, we would go one step further and declare it as one of the most underrated, outdoor destinations along the entire east coast! The razorback ridge of Seneca Rocks rises 900 vertical feet from the valley floor and offers extensive rock climbing options. The Gauley and Cheat Rivers have been dubbed as some of the most adventurous white water rafting rivers in the world by paddling enthusiasts. Those looking for solitude can hike through the Dolly Sods Wilderness to experience unique environments similar to those of southern Canada. So brush aside those outdated assumptions you may have about West Virginia and experience it for what it really is- incredibly wild and unbelievably wonderful.
Backpacking the NFMT
There are so many ways to experience the NFMT. Mountain bikers looking for a rugged and challenging adventure can attempt this incredibly technical trail on two wheels. Day hikers can choose one of three trailheads to access one of the many viewpoints. We decided to move slowly and experience this trail in all its glory during a 3-day, 2-night backpacking trip. Below is a brief description of each day during our November 2020 backpacking adventure on the NFMT. For more detailed planning, skip to the bottom "Logistics" section.
Day 1: Departing from the southern trailhead
The first day was spent setting up a shuttle by dropping our car off at the northern trailhead and starting the trek from the southern trailhead (see details in the "Logistics" section below). Traveling in this direction would have us starting at 3,589 ft and ending the hike at just over 1,189 ft. This would cut out significant elevation gain, not to mention, it would save the best view for last! We began our hike mid-week in November which meant the majority of leaves had already fallen and no other cars were at the trailheads. The views began almost immediately as we skirted the sandstone ridgeline that rises above the historic German Valley. With only a few miles slated for today, we were in no rush and meandered along several of the short footpaths that led to stunning vistas on the west side of the mountain range. The rainy day created a dramatic scene as the dense clouds rested in the surrounding valleys and along the farmlands scattered below. Established campsites were visible throughout and others before us had utilized the rocky terrain to build a wonderful firepit for the night.
Day 2: More views, fire roads & cold winds
After several hours of storms the night before, we woke to dense fog and limited visibility. We knew the weather was due to improve that afternoon and enjoyed the closer details of the trail including neon green lichen, varieties of moss and a juvenile eastern newt. Just as we approached a view of the backside of Seneca Rocks, the clouds disappeared and remained clear for the remainder of our trip. The bare trees gave way to 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains as we continued along the narrow and rocky trail. We eventually met up with a lackluster 2-mile section of fire road 79 that diverted us from the epic ridgeline views. This would mark the official halfway point of the hike and would typically be the camping spot for those hiking it in two days. This is also the only area that can be reached by a vehicle if anyone was looking for a shorter hike or an area to cache water (see logistics below). The trail eventually returned to a single path and continued along the ridgeline. Tonight we opted for an incredibly scenic camping spot that was perched above the low lying clouds and would provide us with views to the east and west- sunset and sunrise views- yes, please! We would soon learn that frigid winds would be the cost for those epic views.
Day 3: Blue skies, panoramic views & exiting the trail
The air was noticeably colder as the temperatures dipped into the mid 30's this morning. The good news was that the sun was shining and hiking is the perfect activity to warm up! After a morning fire, we set out for our final day on the NFMT. Around mid-morning, we were greeted by a 12 point buck no more than 20 yards away that would eventually cross the trail. The hunters we passed the day before would have been thrilled with this discovery, we simply enjoyed watching him move effortlessly along the ridge (wear orange). As we continued north, the rock outcroppings became noticeably more pronounced and created features that had us wishing we had our rock climbing gear in tow. Stands of Table Mountain pine, moss draped across fallen timber and scars from a previous fire left us feeling as though we were on a hiking trail in the western United States and not the Appalachians. After navigating through a few confusing sections of trail (see logistics section below) we finally arrived at Chimney Top. A short scramble over the sandstone boulders would lead us to panoramic views that rival any on the east coast. A true grand finale to our backpacking journey, Chimney Top towered over the surrounding valleys and river below and provided us with several nooks and crannies to explore, climb on and reflect on the miles gone by. Only 2.2 miles from the parking area and we basically had the entire lookout to ourselves on this beautiful Friday. After soaking in the views, we departed down a steep spur trail before reconnecting with the NFMT. The final 2 miles would drop significant elevation through the forest before arriving at the northern trailhead where we parked our shuttle car just days before.
As outdoor enthusiasts that enjoy hiking the western mountains far more than the east coast Appalachians, we were genuinely impressed by the North Fork Mountain Trail. With relentless views throughout, dramatic cliffsides, epic campsites and interesting rock formations, flora and fauna- this ranks at the top of our east coast backpacking trips. Not to mention, the trail is short enough for a weekend backpack, close enough to other activities for an extended trip and remote enough to escape the crowds. The elevation changes are gradual enough for various fitness levels but also pack a punch of heart-pounding, short but steep ascents. If you can coordinate a shuttle and water (see logistics below) then this trail is a must-do and warrants travel to get there.
Parking: This is a point-to-point trail, that if done in its entirety, will require a shuttle or some major hitchhiking skills. We recommend dropping a vehicle off at the northern trailhead along County Road 28 (38.9814, -79.2316).
Here you will find a small parking area and a map of the trail and surrounding area. This is also a popular parking area for those looking to day hike to the beautiful Chimney Top overlook. From there, a 35-40 minute drive will lead you past Seneca Rocks and a handful of small markets and diners before climbing up Route 33 to the southern trailhead (38.711122, -79.401978). This trailhead is much less obvious with roadside parking next to a radio tower. The trail begins behind the radio tower and is well marked by blue blazes throughout.
Water: The North Fork Mountain ridge is said to be the driest high mountain in the Appalachians. This characteristic creates a unique environment unlike most of the surrounding landscapes, yet, also creates a challenge for those looking to backpack the NFMT. The options to ensure that you have enough water are the following:
1) Drive to Forest Road 79 and cache water (38.843949, -79.327486). The trail joins this forest road for 2 miles (between miles 10-12 roughly). The forest road is packed gravel with plenty of places to hide/cache water for mid-way through your hike. Pros: guaranteed water mid-way through the hike, cons: adds roughly an hour to the shuttle as you travel on twisting forest roads (1 hr 40 mins total from North parking to water cache to south parking according to Google Maps).
2) A spring is located midway throughout the trail that can be filtered. We did not locate or rely on this spring as the area had a historically dry summer season. For more information check out this page. We often choose to filter water while backpacking since 1L of water weighs 2.2 lbs. (aka its heavy!), however, due to the shorter mileage of this hike and unreliable water supply, we chose not to filter water and opted for option three instead.
3) We chose to carry extra water. I personally carried 7L of water for a 3-day hike. The water was used to rehydrate meals, I shared some with other hikers and did not drink as much due to the colder weather. I finished with 1L to spare. This was a personal decision for me to carry the extra weight as I had other lightweight backpacking gear and felt physically comfortable carrying a heavy pack for the relatively short and easier trip. If I was concerned about my physical ability to carry my backpack, I would have opted for option one.
Navigation: The trail is marked very well with blue diamond blazes throughout most of the singletrack areas and sometimes not much at all along the fire road sections of the trail. Very few trails intersect the NFMT, however, there were a few instances that required basic map reading and navigation skills. I recommend downloading the offline maps on Alltrails and to have an extra battery for your phone if that is your primary source of navigation.
There were three major sections where the trail forks, two of which had identical blue blazes visible on the opposing trail. While the majority of the trail is easy to follow, these specific sections were a tad confusing and required the use of our map to verify the direction. The first takes place around mile 10 when the trail T’s with a fire road- head to the right (northeast) on the gravel road until you begin to see blue blazes and a radio tower. The next split takes place at 16.5 miles where the Redman Trail splits to the right (east) and the NFMT goes to the left (west)- both trails show blue blazes. The third one takes place at mile 20.6 where the NFMT splits to the left (west) and the Landis trail goes to the right (east)- again, both trails show blue blazes. When in doubt, stay close to the western ridgeline. The final note about navigation is in regards to accessing Chimney Top towards the very end of the hike. Around mile 21.5 there will be an unmarked, narrow trail just as the actual trail begins to descend. If you feel comfortable, take this unmarked trail as it follows the ridgeline for 0.1-0.2 miles until you reach Chimney Top overlook. This route requires a bit of bushwhacking but will save you from a steep climb. After enjoying Chimney Top, look for a steep but well-worn path to the right of a fire ring that descends back to the NFMT. During peak seasons, you will likely see day hikers in this area. If you choose to skip the unmarked path noted above, you will eventually reach an intersection around 22.2 miles with a cairn. From here you can turn left (west) and follow the steep path up to Chimney Top and return the same way back to the NFMT.
Maps: We recommend downloading the offline Alltrails map on your phone as well.
Camping: Several established campsites exist throughout the entirety of the trail. Most, not if all of them, have stone fire pits and room for at least 2-3 tents and are visible from the trail. Some campsites have side trails to get to and have room for many more tents. Some areas have several spots within the same general proximity. That being said, much of this trail has dense areas of sharp rocks and steep cliffsides that would prevent easy camping. Those comfortable with hammock camping would have many more options to hang a hammock throughout this entire trail.
Difficulty: Hiking south to north greatly reduces the difficulty of this trail. The majority of the trail consists of gently graded elevation changes and is relatively flat. Where elevation changes do occur, they are often steep but short. Much of this trail consists of sharp rocks that could be an issue for those with stability issues or poor footwear.
Rating: 9/10 for continuous views, accessibility and low traffic (it's east coast epic!)