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Wild and Wonderful Seneca Creek
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by Matt Keller | 2006

The proposed 24,000 acre Seneca Creek Wilderness Area offers great recreational value to West Virginians, but evidently the US Forest Service thinks otherwise!

Covering nearly 24,000 acres of contiguous Forest Service land, the proposed Seneca Creek Wilderness Area is our largest Wilderness candidate, and if designated, would be the second largest Wilderness Area in West Virginia.  Located in Randolph and Pendleton Counties, the area covers most of Spruce Mountain north of Spruce Knob, west to Seneca Creek, and up and over Allegheny Mountain to Gandy Creek.  It is bordered on the south mainly by FR 112 and on the north by private land and a natural-gas pipeline.  The area drains into two major watersheds: Seneca Creek into the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac, and Gandy Creek into the Dry Fork of the Cheat. 

Outstanding scenic vistas abound throughout the area. The central feature is the sharply-defined, forested valley of Seneca Creek, which is easily viewed from the Spruce Knob lookout tower, or the ridge-top or high meadows of Spruce Mountain.  Hiking along the backbone of the area, Seneca Creek Trail, one is continually treated with exceptional and highly varied waterfalls, pools and riffles.  The stream’s water quality is pristine (and cold!), making it home to wild and wary trout, seen swimming and rising if one takes great care in approaching.

The Seneca Creek Area is situated along the Allegheny Front, where the Appalachian Plateau transitions into the Ridge and Valley Province of West Virginia.  Seneca Creek’s erosional valley sits between the Horton Anticline and the Stoney River Syncline.  Most of the rock and soils come from the Devonian-aged Hampshire formation characterized by non-marine shales and micaceous sandstones, with lesser amounts of siltstone and conglomerates.  Greenbrier limestone and Mississippian Mauch Chunk occur higher up the hillside.

The vegetation of the area is diverse. High elevations on Spruce Mountain support red spruce, balsam fir and mountain ash as well as heath barren plants such as blueberries, huckleberries, and reindeer and sphagnum mosses.  This sub alpine ecosystem transitions to mixed northern hardwoods as one proceeds west.  The high open meadows originally cleared for pastures in the mid 1800’s abound with wildflowers and grasses.  The Seneca Creek area provides exceptional habitat for black bear, wild turkey and other wildlife species that prefer low levels of human disturbance.  Deer, raccoon, fox and a variety of birds are among the many other species present.  The federally-endangered northern flying squirrel is also found in the area.

Approximately 9 ½ miles of Seneca Creek, including its headwaters and numerous springs and side tributaries that feed it, lay within the proposed wilderness area.  This section drops approximately 1,400 ft. in elevation, or nearly 150 ft. per mile, thus the numerous waterfalls that characterize this stretch.  From the relatively open land defining its headwaters, the river canyon becomes much steeper as one travels downstream to the northern boundary near the Lower Falls of Seneca (which is on private land).  Seneca Creek and its tributaries boast excellent water quality.  In fact, the Seneca Creek watershed and the eastern side of the Gandy Creek watershed contain fourteen Tier 2.5-designated streams (special streams whose high water quality and topography support reproducing trout populations). 

The U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Attribute study of the late 1970’s rated the opportunity for solitude in the Seneca Creek area as “Very High,” and gave the area its highest rating on the Scenic Value scale.  The high degree of naturalness of the area increased even more after the 1985 flood which washed out the several footbridges along Seneca Creek Trail, as well as the Seneca Creek Campground just north of the area.  Only the Judy Springs footbridge was replaced with a similar rustic version, and the other developments at the former Judy Springs Campground (pit toilets and drinking water well) have been closed.  Furthermore, from 1986 on, the area has been managed specifically for semi-primitive, non-motorized recreation and remote wildlife habitat, with no road construction or timber harvesting allowed.  Thus, its degree of naturalness today can be rated near the top of Eastern wilderness areas.

Currently known as the Seneca Creek Backcountry, ready access to the area is provided by FR112 and FR104 (at Spruce Knob) on the southern side and CO29 on the western side, off of which numerous trailheads with parking exist.  There is an excellent system of hiking trails penetrating the area, with varied loop possibilities.  Many follow old railroad beds dating to the early 1900’s.  The Horton Trail beginning in Whitmer follows a portion of the historic Horton-Riverton (also called Whitmer-Riverton) Trail.  Major recreational activities in the area include backpacking, hiking, fishing and hunting.

Seneca Creek provides some of the best trout fishing in the Mid-Atlantic states.  The lower reaches are characterized by deep pools with riffles.  The upper portion is a series of falls and cascades with deep plunge pools.  Native brook trout and wild rainbow trout inhabit Seneca Creek and are willing to take the fly of a wary angler.  While Seneca Creek is not a designated Catch and Release stream, there is a pervasive ethic among most anglers to return trout to this stream after they are landed.

The US Forest Service recommended this area in their Management Plan’s Alternative 3 but not in Alternative 2, which they have indicated they prefer.  It is perhaps more qualified than any other area to be included in the National Wilderness Preservation System.  To make sure this area is permanently protected, contact Congresswoman Shelley Moore-Capito (202-225-2711) as well as Senator Byrd (202-224-3954) and Senator Rockefeller (202-224-6472) and ask them to sponsor legislation that will designate Seneca Creek at a Wilderness.

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