Hiking along the Edge: North Fork Mountain Trail and Chimney Top

Honestly, it is nice when all of your hikes are full of clear-blue skies, breathtaking views, and challenging terrain.... but two out of three, in this case, ain't bad at all.


Not too far from the scenic standbys of West Virginia's Potomac Highlands--Dolly Sods, Seneca Rocks, and Spruce Knob--stands the monolithic ridgeline that is North Fork Mountain. 
North Fork Mountain, proper, stretches like a tuscarora sandstone spine some 30 miles. It begins at the North Fork Gap, near Petersburg, WV and heads south to Dry Run Gap. For about 24 of these miles--from the North Fork Gap until the point where US Route 33 crosses the ridge--the North Fork Mountain Trail climbs to and runs along the crest. A solid set of topo maps for the entire trail can be found here.

Think of it as walking along the cusp of one long westbound wave--one side is moderately sloped with a dry yet lively forest and the other, sometimes only a few strides of the trail, is a rocky, windblown face that lets you see miles of rolling Appalachian hills.

It's also relatively secluded: along the whole stretch of trail there are only three access points other than the terminal trailheads. During my four Saturday-hours on the trail I saw only a handful of groups. At Chimney Top I saw no one.
As I mentioned, for much of the North Fork Mountain Trail you are privy to an unusually dry Appalachian ecosystem: the positioning of the taller Allegheny Front directly to the west causes weather systems to drop most of their precipitation before they reach the mountain. As a result, forest fires occasionally occur. Some readily-seen evidence of this are the charred portions of stumps and standing trees periodically found along the trail.

Charred tree trunk surrounded by mountain laurel.
Detailed view of charred tree trunk. Embedded spider web can be seen.
Starting from the northern end there is a small parking lot on the right hand side of Smoke Hole Road (CR 28/11). From there the trail steadily climbs along a handful of switchbacks.

One of the unique things about this stretch of trail is the ability to see the change in forest type as you climb the mountain. Initially the forest is hardwood dominate, oaks and such, and at this time of year very little underbrush. 

I was treated with few splashes of color from some wildflowers. Below are the Shooting Star, Carolina Spring Beauty, and Wild Stonecrop.

Three fully opened blooms of a purple Shooting Star.
Two full blooms of a Carolina Spring Beauty. Petals are soft white with thing lavender stripes.
Three long clusters of small, white, Wild Stonecrop blossums.

Next up is the transition to a mix of pines and hardwoods. Some mountain laurel starts to creep in and take over patches of ground, and, in parts of the higher elevations, fluffy bunches of pale green and white "reindeer" lichen seem to foam up from the ground.

A narrow trail winds through mountain laurel and various kinds of hardwood and pine trees. North Fork Mountain Trail, West Virginia
Narrow, rocky footpath climbs up and to the right through mountain laurel. North Fork Mountain Trial, West Virginia.
Trail climbs over larger, moss and lichen covered rocks. Dense mountain laurel thickets flank the path. North Fork Mountain Trail, West Virginia

After around 1200' of elevation gain from the trailhead, the first expansive, overlook opens up.

Foreground shows rock outcrop with small trees. In the distance is the rocky crest that makes up the northern side of North Fork Gap. North Fork Mountain, West Virginia.
Distant view of cloudy Appalachian hills in the background is framed by small, hardy pine trees and a rocky outcrop. North Fork Mountain, West Virginia

Even before you can see the views, you can hear something up ahead. The wind here, this close to the wide open North Fork Gap, was relentless. Imagine constant highway traffic or the roar of a waterfall. Yet, oddly, you couldn't feel the wind unless you were right out on the overhanging rocks. Just five or ten feet into the tree cover and the air was almost completely still.

From this point, the trail turns south with some rolling climbs and descents. However, in many places you aren't more than a few strides from still more expansive, 180-degree views.

Photo from a rocky outcrop looking south along the crest of North Fork Mountain, West Virginia

As you follow the trail for a bit more, keep an eye out for a sharp rise in elevation on the western edge of the ridge. Around 1/2 mile from first outlook, there will be a trail leading up and to the right. Take this and you will be rewarded with the geologic feature known as Chimney Top.

Small, hardy pines on top of a wall of exposed sandstone. North Fork Mountain, West Virginia
A high wall of exposed sandstone and that ends in the forest slope below. In the background are rolling hills and a partly cloudy sky. North Fork Mountain, West Virginia
Small tree grows out of a crack in a stone overlook. Rolling hills and a cloudy sky in the background. North Fork Mountain, West Virginia.

Looking south here, you can see that the mountain ridge continues on in much the same way: a dramatic wall of exposed sandstone.

Scraggly trees and exposed stone in the foreground. North Fork Mountain extends south into the background with its characteristic wall of exposed sandstone. West Virginia

So, yes, the lighting could have been better, it could have been a little less grey and a little more green, but what are you going to do? This is spring in West Virginia after all--we must expect some clouds. But, I will honestly say that this is one of the more rewarding hikes I've been on in a while. The effort put in to climb up North Fork Mountain is more than paid off by these relentless, expansive, and secluded views.

Keep in mind, too, that on this particular hike I only just scratched the surface of the North Fork Mountain Trail. For those less inclined to tackle the 1000+ foot climb from the northern trailhead, easier access is available on the southern end at US Route 33.

So, as long as your not too terrified of heights (and even if you are, you don't have to go right to the edge, you know) put this one on your to-hike list as the weather starts to turn and you plan your next adventures.

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