16. West Virginia

Highpoint # 16
Spruce Knob, 4,861 feet (24th highest)

November 22, 2004

West Virginia is an odd state. It has a terrible rap for being backwards and poor. It was a Democratic stronghold until 2000, and then voted for Bush. Twice. It’s famous for a John Denver song, coalmines, and being so lame that Virginia begged them to secede. However, my family used to vacation here when I was little, and I always enjoyed it. Blackwater Falls, Canaan Valley, Seneca Rocks, Dolly Sods… Exactly where we were planning on visiting on our Spruce Knob summit day!

I’m not sure why, but I had it in my head that the Dolly Sods Wilderness area was really cool and worth the extra effort to check it out again as an adult. I remember artsy moonscapes, arctic vegetation, carnivorous plants, flagged trees, and an otherworldly experience. The bartender at our resort the previous night gave us directions and wished us well. She left out a few very important details, however. One, the road to the “cool” area was horrible. I guess if I was like everyone else in the state and drove a four-wheel drive truck, I would have been fine. Unfortunately, the endless potholes, rocks, and ruts on this never-ending, mountain climbing dirt road was not what a Jetta is made for.

Stupidly, I never found out beforehand just how long this road was (it turned out to be about 15 miles or so), or I’d have never bothered with it. Much more stupidly was the fact that this was opening day for West Virginia’s deer hunters. And let me tell you, these people love their deer hunting. For all 15 miles, every available parking space alongside the “road” was occupied with a giant pick up truck. It hit me that exploring the woods around here would quite possibly be one of the dumbest things I could ever do. Not only that, once we finally reached the supposedly cool area, we came upon this sign:

So if we didn’t get shot by some trigger happy drunken hunter, we might step on a mine and blow up. And since I quickly decided against any sort of nature walk up there, now we had to worry about a flat tire or broken axle or something. Yup, I realized I may had just surpassed the “Hollywood and Vine” side trip in South Carolina as the most idiotic waste of time on a highpointing trip ever.

Although, the drive did afford many humorous moments as we passed hunters at their trucks. One point, almost off the mountain to the asphalt again, we crept past a huge gathering of hunters by the road. First of all, seeing a German sedan on this road was certainly a rarity for them, I’m sure. As we neared the camo crew, we (ok, my wife) received double… Triple… Quadruple takes. Attractive, young, Asian women, I now know, don’t often frequent dirt back roads in the mountains of West Virginia on the biggest hunting day of the year. She smiled at them, leaving them all with completely dumbfounded looks on their faces. Even more dumbfounded looks, that is. (*Rimshot*)

After what seemed like forever, we finally reached pavement and turned south towards Seneca Rocks on our way to Spruce Knob. Seneca Rocks was another natural wonder I fondly recall from my youth. Well, maybe after seeing the Alps, Pyrenees, Cascades, Rockies, and Hawaii, perhaps I’ve become a bit jaded… Because it didn’t live up to my fond memories. It was much, much smaller than I’d remembered and the visitor center was closed.

What a let down! At least it was right on our way to the highpoint access road. At this point, Hoang was silently thinking that her husband had lost his mind. I have come to the realization that you can convince a 7-year-old kid that wherever you take him is the greatest place on earth. I loved this area as a kid. I thought I’d love it again this time around… And I was a bit bummed that I didn’t.

No matter, we had better things to attend to, namely, Spruce Knob. Before the turnoff road for the climb, I stopped to get gas. At the same time, an Amish mother with two toddlers was there in her minivan. I didn’t pay her any attention until 5 minutes later down the road, my rear view mirror was filled with this simple woman of the Lord in her minivan. I was already 20 mph over the speed limit on the twisting Route 33 and I simply couldn’t believe anyone was tailgating me, let alone an Amish (or Menonite… whatever) mother of two in a minivan! I stored this story away in the “Had to see it to believe it,” file in my head.

The well-paved road quickly became a not-so-well paved road as it climbed. In short order, it became a very bumpy, rocky, pitted dirt road. Initially, I was concerned because it was in pretty bad condition on the lower slopes and I figured it could only get worse. Fortunately, I was wrong as after about a mile, it got decidedly better. All the way up the climb, we passed now-familiar pick-up trucks whose owners were combing the woods in an effort to shoot things. About half way up, I stopped the car to take this picture:

The picture was intended to show the bad road conditions. (I know, it doesn’t). While walking a few feet off the road to the edge of the woods, I heard something crash behind me. Turning around, there was Bambi about 15 feet away looking at me warily. My laughter finally scared her away… Stupid hunters.

Just before the parking lot on top, I saw the dirt ahead changed back over to asphalt and so I hit the gas. Bad move… Ironically, the worst bump I drove over after 25 miles or so of WV’s finest “Country Rooooooads,” was due to pavement. I really thought I got a flat tire or did some damage. Luckily, I didn’t. The parking area is rather large, and there were a few other cars up there. Cars, not pick-up trucks!

The “hike” portion to summit Spruce Knob is only a few hundred meters through some stunted, um, spruces, I guess. It’s well marked and maintained. The lookout tower is pretty small, but offered panoramic views of the countryside. Of course, the view wasn’t too great due to the cloud cover, which we were used to by now. We asked an older couple at the tower to snap our picture and they were happy to do so. Once again, Hoang asked the wife, “Are you guys highpointers too?” I think this was a valid question, even though the answer was, “No.” I really wanted to ask, “Then why in the world did you guys bother to drive up 12 miles of sketchy road in the middle of nowhere on a cloudy day?” But I didn’t. Maybe the husband is a highpointer and is tricking his wife to tag along? Then again, who in the world would do such a deceitful thing? (Please see the “Bonus DC highpoint” report for my opinion on this terrible tactic.)

We climbed the flight of stairs to the roof of the stone lookout tower and Hoang zoomed in for some headshots of me. I need to work on my pores… Thanks, Hoang, for allowing me to see that. We soaked in the views for a short while and it occurred to me that, if I’m to complete my realistic goal of 48 US State highpoints, I was now 1/3 complete. (Seriously, I did think about this).

We descended without incident and made our way east on Route 33 towards civilization: Harrisonburg, VA and Interstate 81. We had survived the back roads and hunters of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia with nary a scratch (or many interesting stories, as you now know).

Two last notes on driving around West Virginia: There are a ton of dogs just wandering the streets. I don’t know if they were strays or that is just how it’s done down there. Also, who knew my man Mean Gene Okerland was in the burger business? Anyway, It was onward to Washington DC with us and the many pleasures of staying in a posh city hotel along Embassy Row. If anyone feels defensive in response to my poking fun at the boonies and its denizens in these last few write-ups, please don’t. Take solace in the $28 parking fee (plus $5 tip!) for the night in DC. Take solace in the $11 tab (plus $2 tip!) for two pints in Georgetown. Take solace in the $7+ tally (all out of tip money) for the two single scoop cones at Ben and Jerry’s – quickly becoming a post-highpoint tradition – we enjoyed after dinner. That’s more than fifty bucks for a parking spot, a couple beers and a couple scoops of ice cream.

Yeah, city livin’ is where it’s at!

Next Highpoint, Washington DC


Highpoint Difficulty Rating: 2 (owing to the drive up)
Hike Distance: 900 feet
Distance from Current Residence (West Hartford, CT): 500 miles
Number of guys seen in camouflage: 2,479

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