North Fork Mountain Trail
Published: April 17, 2017
In 1996, Outside magazine named this the best hiking/backpacking trail in West Virginia, and having traversed it three times, I can definitely vouch for that bold statement.
Often described as a trail with “relentless views,” the North Fork Mountain Trail is truly a crown jewel in this state’s vast volume of trail mileage, and being just 24.7 miles in length it makes for a very manageable two or three-day backpacking trip.
Located in Eastern West Virginia, about 56 miles northeast of Elkins, the NFMT is a bit over a five-hour drive from the Akron-Cleveland area.
Now this little beauty is a point-to-point trail which has its northern trailhead on County Road 28/11, Smoke Hole Road and its southern trailhead on Route 33 next to a tall radio tower. Between those two parking areas is an amazing long and sinuous mountaintop that reaches 3,000 -plus feet in elevation and provides uncountable spectacular vistas of the western front of Monongahela National Forest and the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River.
Now keep in mind that this is a 24-mile “shuttle” hike, which means you’ll either need two vehicles, one parked at each of the trailheads, or you’ll have to hire a shuttle service (Eagle’s Nest Outfitters) so you can park at one end and get shuttled to the other for your start.
You also need to know that since the entire hike is along a mountaintop, there are no creek or stream crossings, so you’ll either have to carry enough water for your entire trip, or you’ll have to cache water at the trail’s midpoint along a Forest Service road crossing. I’ve always done the cache method by stashing a 5-gallon nalgene container close to the service road.
Now let’s get back to the hiking trail itself.
I recommend beginning at the south trailhead. Simply walk towards a gate at the back of the radio tower complex and to your left is a discernible trail marked with blue blazes.
Shortly thereafter the NFMT is tagged with blue diamond markers on the trees. Proceed up a short climb to the top of the trail and there’s where the actual route begins.
Within a half mile’s hiking you’ll discover some pretty amazing views from atop the myriad of quartzite cliffs that accompany much of the trail.
It’s interesting to note that North Fork Mountain’s most prominent morphological feature is its gradually sloping eastern edge contrasted against the dramatic 200-foot precipices along its western edge.
Thus, most of the phenomenal views of the surrounding West Virginia countryside lie on the west side.
Some of these cliff-side vantage points are analogous to massive stone diving boards, where you can literally walk into thin air and gaze out at Germany Valley, the North Fork, Seneca Rocks and Spruce Mountain. And most of those vistas are only a couple of strides off the main trail.
The hiking varies from pretty easy to moderately strenuous. When it’s traversing small saddles and knobs there’s a fair bit of maneuvering up through loose rock and steep slopes, and when it’s meandering along gentle ups and downs, it cuts through hardwood forests that are interspersed with patches of Virginia pine, red oak, red pine and acre upon acre of mountain laurel, flaming azalea and wintergreen. There’s also extensive tracts of ferns and wildflowers.
Now as far as camping goes, there are many overnighting spots, but my favorites occur at miles eight and 16. The latter is one of the finest campsites I’ve ever experienced, holding vistas, which during sunset, are straight off the pages of a coffee table picture book. Steer clear of the mile 12 campsite which is well used and messy due to its easy access via the service road. I guarantee those extra four miles between 12 and 16 is the difference between deal-breaker and dealmaker.
Once you hit a steep descent down to the northern terminus you’ll be a happy camper at having made the decision to end the trip on a down-hike rather than start the trip with a pretty gnarly climb.
You can get more detailed information on the North Fork Mountain Trail from the U.S. Forest Service at 304-567-2827, or you can contact the Cheat-Potomac Ranger District at 304-257-4488.