Laurel Fork wilderness in West Virginia a remote bit of almost heaven

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WYMER, W.Va. - The Laurel Fork Wilderness is more than a little out of the way.

The 12,052-acre tract lies 17 miles southeast of Elkins, tucked between long narrow ridges in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains.

The two-tract wilderness is in one of the most inaccessible areas of West Virginia, almost roadless, a primitive backcountry.

The Laurel Forks - as they together are known - are not a place you visit on your way to somewhere else. They are the least-visited federal wilderness in the sprawling 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest. Nearby wild areas, including Dolly Sods, Otter Creek and Spruce Knob, all get more visitors.

The Laurel Forks are a land of narrow valleys, first-rate hiking trails, cold mountain streams and exceptional northern hardwood forests of beech, birch, cherry and maple with some young red spruce.

The wilderness is drained by the fast-flowing and pristine Laurel Fork of the Cheat River with native brook and brown trout. You will find the stream's headwaters at the southern end of the 20-mile-long valley on Burner Mountain.

The stream is marked by its rocky bottom and pools. At its midpoint, the riffle-filled stream is up to 30 feet wide and the water is amazingly crystal clear, as I learned on a recent visit.

Wildlife is abundant: black bear, white-tailed deer, turkey, bobcat and especially beaver.

The Laurel Forks are wild and very picturesque. The area is known for its solitude. The Laurel Fork North is larger with 6,055 acres. The Laurel Fork South has 5,997 acres.

The wilderness lies between Middle and Rich mountains in Randolph County. Elevations range from 2,900 feet to more than 3,700 feet.

The Laurel Forks area was heavily logged in the early 1900s. Initially, logs were hauled by teams of horses and then floated down the Laurel Fork at high water. Once the railroad came into the mountains, logging became a year-round activity.

The Laurel River Lumber Co. had cleared the narrow valleys and ridges by 1921, and sold the cut-over land to the federal government. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps. operated a camp in the valley.

For decades, the area was used by hunters and foresters but few others. In 1983, Congress designated the two as wilderness areas.

The two tracts together have 18.5 miles of trails, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Many follow old railroad grades and logging roads. The North wilderness has 9.5 miles; the South, 9 miles. Several trails extend beyond the wilderness borders.

The trails are not signed or blazed, but most are clearly defined. You may lose the trail, especially in the summer, when weeds obscure it, and in late fall, when fallen leaves cover it.

Hikers will have to cross the Laurel Fork and smaller streams. That can be risky at high water but rock hopping is usually an option.

The main Laurel River Trail runs north-south along the stream. You can get to it from the Forest Service campground between the two wilderness tracts or from trailheads and short spur trails off Middle Mountain Road, which runs along the west side of the wilderness.

The primitive Laurel Fork Campground at elevation 3,100 feet sits between the two wilderness areas. There are 16 spots, including several sweet sites by the stream. The fee is $8 per night.

The campground makes a great base to explore the Laurel Forks Wilderness. It is open from April 15 through November.

Signs at the campground indicate that the main trail runs 11 miles to the north and eight miles to the south, though sources disagree on the total mileage.

There are also side hiking options: 1.5-mile Stone Camp Run, the 4.2-mile Beulah, the 1.6-mile Camp Five and the 1-mile Forks Trail. They frequently connect with Forest Service roads. The Beulah Trail leads to nearby Shavers Mountain.

Loop options are limited by the topography. But you can create loops if you are willing to hike one way on Middle Mountain Road. Traffic is, obviously, light.

Laurel Fork hiking is easy to strenuous. It is generally easy in the bottom lands along the stream, steep and rugged away from it. The glades can be wet and soggy.

From the campground, you can hike the Laurel River Trail south and then loop back via Middle Mountain Road, or double back on the trail.

The trail generally follows the stream, running through hardwood forests heavy with ferns, grassy meadows and wide-open glades. Signs of beaver abound.

The southern section of the trail offers a cathedral-like feeling among the big, old trees. There are hemlock, spruce, red pine and yellow birch and overflowing beds of club moss.

You can also hike north from the campground into the northern tract. You will hike through streamside meadows and find large islands, especially where side streams enter.

There are fewer crossings on this section of the trail. The stream is bigger, more defined.

There are numerous hemlock and spruce thickets and lots of rhododendrons. It is dark and shady, the home of West Virginia's Great Woods of beech, maple, cherry and birch.

The northern section follows the stream more than the southern trail section. The trail north and south generally follows old railroad grades and footpaths, but it is mainly an old woods road that is very, very pretty.

You can get to the federal wilderness from the north off U.S. 33 east of Elkins or from the south via Harman off state Route 28. From Elkins, take U.S. 33 east for 12.6 miles to Alpena Gap and the hamlet of Alpena. Turn right on Forest Road No. 143. From the south, take state Route 28 from Barstow to Forest Service Road 14. Follow it to the wilderness area.

The wilderness is open year-round, but the unplowed access roads may be impassable during the winter.

Backcountry camping is permitted. The Forest Service also offers rustic rental cabins at the south end of the southern tract off Middle Mountain Road.

The three cabins can sleep 11, with a hand-powered pump for drinking water and pit toilets. You must rent all three cabins. They are available April 15 to Dec. 15; call 304-456-3335.

For Laurel Fork information, contact the Greenbrier Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service, 304-456-3335, http://www.fs.usda.gov/mnf. For Monongahela National Forest information, call 304-636-1800.

There is a more civilized trail option not far from Laurel Fork: the West Fork Trail. The 22-mile rail trail is over the ridge to the west in the national forest. It runs from Durbin in Pocahontas County north to Glady in Randolph County.

There is a slight descent from north to south but it is barely noticeable. It is popular with bicyclists and, in winter, with cross-country skiers.

The trail is rough and has virtually no amenities, such as toilets or drinking water.

The old rail line was built in the early 1900s by the Coal and Iron Railway Co. and was later sold to the Western Maryland Railway Co. Coal and timber were the main commodities shipped. The corridor was purchased in 1986 by the Trust for Public Land and then sold to the U.S. Forest Service.

The trail parallels two rivers: the north-flowing West Fork of the Glady Fork and the south-flowing West Fork of the Greenbrier River.

From Durbin, you can also board the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad's tourist trains. For info: 877-MTNRAIL or http://mountainrailwv.com.

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Bob Downing: bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com

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