Spruce Knob – Seneca Creek
This 16.5 mile overnight backpacking trip has cooler temperatures in the summer, beautiful streams and waterfalls, high mountain meadows, abundant berry bushes, and even an old plane wreck to explore. It’s a great change of pace from hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Initially, we planned on doing very little hiking in July this year. Our goal was to stay out of the heat and to rest up a bit so we wouldn’t overdo things before we tackle our trip to New Hampshire later this summer. But the weather was too nice and we had lots of invitations to go hiking. Over the 4th of July weekend, our friends Anthony and Suzanne suggested we go on a backpacking trip together. We always enjoy hiking with them, so plans were made to hike in the Spruce Knob area. This was actually the second 4th of July weekend we’ve spent on the trail with Anthony and Suzanne. A couple years ago, we did a trip to Dolly Sods.
Our friends came down and spent the night before the trip at our house. We divided up some group gear and then packed the car and headed out fairly early to start our trip. We arrived at the trailhead mid-morning. We saw the short trail to the Spruce Knob summit fire tower, but we decided to visit that at the end of the loop the next day to feel like we had truly earned it. Spruce Knob is the highest peak in West Virginia.
The printed maps we have found of this area are fairly outdated and online maps also don’t have the trails completely accurate. The best map I have found of the entire area has been from Mid-Atlantic Hikes and it may be helpful to bring that along since there are lots of trail options here.
We started off our first day of the hike on the Huckleberry Trail (TR533). The trail starts off with a little bit of crushed gravel on the trail, but that goes away in a short distance. This first section of the trail was fairly flat or downhill and alternates from going from dense Spruce forests to more open fields. There are numerous dry campsites along the trail. In the fields, we found tons of blueberries that were just starting to ripen. We stopped along the way for a few handfuls before pressing on. At 3.4 miles, you will reach a campsite and a sign that points to the trail going right. Follow this trail and in another short distance, you’ll come to another sign pointing you to go left as the trail winds around a dense forest area. You’ll soon reach another sign that shows that the Lumberjack Trail is .4 miles away. The last .4 miles of the Huckleberry trail drops rather steeply to the large trail junction at 4.7 miles. Take a right at this junction to join the Lumberjack Trail (TR534).
The Lumberjack Trail is a relatively flat trail. We were warned that it can be very muddy and wet, but we found that even after some recent heavy rains there were only a few 20-foot sections that had mud to slog through. Most of the trail had rocks or logs placed that saved us from having to get our shoes wet or muddy. Around mile 5.8, we saw a plane door hung on a tree and a short, yet steep trail that led down to plane wreckage (a Piper PA-23 that crashed here in 1973 with two casualties). Be respectful if you decide to visit this site. We stayed on the Lumberjack Trail until it came to a junction with the High Meadows Trail at mile 6.7. Take a left to join the High Meadows Trail (TR564).
The High Meadows Trail was the most overgrown trail we came across. There were times that it felt like we were bushwhacking. There are stinging nettles everywhere along the trail and grass was up to our knees in some portions. The High Meadows Trail also has alternating landscapes; you will go from dense forests to large open meadows several times. Keep an eye out for blue blazes on posts or trees as you navigate through these high grass areas. The trail descended through these gorgeous meadows and it is not surprising that we were thinking of the Sound of Music when we were walking through these fields surrounded by mountains.
Eventually, you will enter into the woods again and cross a small creek. At 8.6 miles, you will reach another trail junction. Take a right here and you will descend even more as you make your way through a scenic forest landscape. You will soon hear water flowing from Seneca Creek below you. The trail crosses the creek and comes to a junction with the Seneca Creek Trail at 9.1 miles. At this point, you will cross Seneca Creek to reach the trail on the other side. The water was flowing to make a nice small waterfall. Before we crossed, we ventured just a short distance (about 75 yards) to the right down the Seneca Creek Trail and came across one of the most beautiful waterfalls/swimming holes I’ve seen – Seneca Falls. We dropped our bags on the trail and scrambled down to reach the base of the falls. There was a large cavernous rock overhang to the right of the falls. In the water, we could see brook trout swimming around, occasionally breaching the water to catch flies that were dancing along the water surface. Once we climbed back up from the basin, another group came down to the falls jumped into the swimming hole at the base of the falls. From the screams when they jumped in, we could tell the water was extremely cold. We made our way back to our original junction and then determined the best place to cross the creek was at the very top of the small waterfall. We all made it across safely.
Christine hit a wall with her energy level, so we stopped a few minutes to eat a snack on the opposite side of the creek at a nice campsite. Knowing we still had a distance to go, we pressed on further. The Seneca Creek Trail went to the side of Seneca Creek for the entire way. We crossed the creek in a couple of places. Around mile 10.4, we began to see a ton of campsites. We were surprised to see that there were so many people that were camped here overnight. When we kept passing people on the trail, we felt that we would have our picks of campsites, but we didn’t realize how many people come here a different way (mostly from the lower Spruce Knob parking lot and taking the Seneca Creek Trail to these campsites). Anthony and Suzanne hurried ahead, while I waited a while for Christine to try and regain her strength.
We caught back up with our friends soon and they had claimed a gorgeous campsite (even though it was hard to imagine a bad one here) at 10.6 miles that was near a waterfall that plunged into the creek. While there were lots of larger groups out here, we found a nice, secluded campsite that had a nice waterslide that created a babbling brook sound throughout the night. We set up camp and started to make some dinner. I always enjoy bringing a card game with us when we do an overnight backpack and this time I brought the game Hike. It was pretty brainless fun and plays similar to Uno with specialty cards that create twists in the game. It was starting to get dark, so we created a small, but nice fire in the pit. Once the sun set and the fire died out, we retired to our tents. It may have been the sound of the brook, but I probably slept the best I have ever slept backpacking that night. What a great first day!
As usual on backpacking trips, we both woke up right around first light. We spent a little while longer in our sleeping bags, chatting and stretching. It was a chilly morning, so we weren’t quite ready to climb out into the cold.
Eventually we emerged from our tent to start the day. I put on gloves and a light jacket and headed downstream to take a few photos of the big waterfall at the next campsite over. The folks camping there had packed up and departed very early. Adam went to get the bear bags down while I took photos.
We got everything out for breakfast and started taking down our tent, rolling up sleeping pads and stuffing our sleeping bags back into compression sacks. I decided that I was going to eat a huge breakfast, so I wouldn’t bonk again on our second day of hiking. Adam didn’t go into much detail in his day one post, but right around mile ten of our hike the day before, I hit a wall – HARD! It was right after we visited Seneca Falls and crossed the stream. I sat on the ground and told everyone that I was feeling really lightheaded and sick. I didn’t feel hungry. I had been drinking water all day. Regardless, my legs just felt like jelly and I just didn’t want to walk another single step. Adam, Suzanne and Anthony all told me that they thought I needed to eat. Turns out they were right – I had been hiking for ten miles with a 25 lb. pack on under 700 calories. I guess I just didn’t realize how little I had eaten until I did the calorie math. My appetite always goes away when I’m doing strenuous activities. Usually, it doesn’t cause problems and I just eat when I get to camp. I guess this time I just expended all my short term energy before we finished for the day. I need to do a better job forcing myself to eat enough.
Alright… off that tangent and back to breakfast! As promised, I ate a large breakfast – oatmeal, cheese, a honeybun and coffee. It was about 600 calories of food and much more in line with my energy needs for a tough uphill and 6 miles of hiking. Everyone had eaten and packed up camp by around 9:45 and we were on our way again.
We had a short distance left to walk along Seneca Creek. Within about a quarter mile, we reached a small wooden footbridge across the stream. We crossed and continued uphill on the Seneca Creek Trail. The steepest climbing was across a beautiful, expansive meadow. We got great views of the valley and our last glimpse into the Seneca Creek watershed. The high meadows on this hike are truly majestic and are definitely one of the trip’s highlights.
After crossing out of the meadow, we continued uphill through the woods back to the four-way junction of Seneca Creek/Lumberjack/Huckleberry. Staying straight took us back onto the Huckleberry Trail. From there, we retraced our steps from the day before. It was a little slower going and felt longer on the second pass. It was all uphill and everyone was a little tired. It’s always funny how different the same four miles can feel under different circumstances.
We enjoyed the sunny, unseasonably cool July weather. We stopped and picked many blueberries along the walk back. I also took a little side trail from one of the meadows and found a talus slope with nice views across the mountains.
We got back to the car around noon. We threw our packs into the back of the car and took the short, flat walk to check out views from the observation tower atop Spruce Knob. It’s just a short quarter mile walk and well-worth the extra time and steps. We spent some time enjoying the lofty views and cool breezes. Anthony, Adam and Suzanne decided to walk to one more nearby viewpoint on the Whispering Spruce Trail. It was just a tenth of a mile down the trail and provided even more spectacular views. I headed back to the car to eat some more candy and switch my trail shoes for flip flops.
After a few minutes, everyone was back at the car and we were on our way back to Harrisonburg for a celebratory meal and beer. We all decided that Jack Brown’s was the best spot for lunch. They have fantastic gourmet burgers and a great beer list. It’s a perfect post-hike indulgence.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather, scenery, or company for this 4th of July weekend backpacking trip. After lunch, we bid farewell to Anthony and Suzanne. They’re such great hiking buddies and we always feel lucky when we get to hit the trail together.
- Distance – 16.5 miles [Day One] [Day Two]
- Elevation Change – About 2300 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. The distance makes it fairly tough and the second day has a lot of uphill on the trail.
- Trail Conditions – 3. Most of the trail was well-maintained. The High Meadows Trail was quite overgrown. There are some rocky, loose sections on this trail too, which can be a little rough on the feet.
- Views – 5. The best views are from the Spruce Knob trail near the fire tower. The fire tower has wonderful views, but once you take the .5 mile trail around the fire tower, you will have gorgeous, breathtaking views from the highest point in West Virginia. The views along the main backpacking trip were mostly during the High Meadows Trail. There are gorgeous mountain views and no sign of civilization.
- Wildlife – 3. There were lots of birds to be found on the High Meadows Trail. We did have a deer visit us several times at camp.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. The Huckleberry Trail and High Meadows Trail could use more signage. I would suggest printing out our step-by-step desciption and bringing the midatlantichikes map to help guide your way.
- Solitude – 2. This is a popular spot for people to do overnight camping. Expect to see lots at the campsites, but you will have more solitude until you get to Seneca Creek.
Directions to trailhead: Directions vary so greatly depending on the direction you’re coming from. Please refer to the trailhead marked on the map below to determine your best route.