Your Adventure Guide to Monongahela National Forest

This massive forest in West Virginia is a multi-sport hub easily accessible from Pittsburgh, Columbus, or Charlottesville, Va.

Though just a few hours’ drive from major U.S. cities in nearly every direction, there’s still a rugged wilderness waiting, ripe for exploration. Tucked into the mountains of eastern West Virginia, the Monongahela National Forest is home to breathtaking landscapes. Boasting thickly forested ridges bordered by lush valleys, small Appalachian mountain towns, crystal-clear mountain brooks, and meandering scenic highways, it’s rightfully a hub for a diverse range of outdoor activities. Within its borders, you’ll find world-class rock climbing, trout fishing, and biking, plus an extensive network of picturesque trails for hiking and backpacking, too. 

Even with its proximity to sprawling metro areas, you can escape the crowds and have a true wilderness experience in Monongahela. Its large size and long list of possible adventures offer a sense of remoteness rarely found in the middle of the Eastern Time Zone.  

Getting There

The Monongahela National Forest comprises more than 919,000 acres of land in the Allegheny Mountains, so deciding where to begin might be the most daunting part of your trip. Coming from the north or east, the twin towns of Thomas and Davis, W.V., are a natural launchpad for adventures into the forest itself. Both are tucked along the Blackwater River and feature beautiful main streets lined with shops, tasty food (don’t miss Hellbender Burritos in Davis), and quaint places to stay. They’re definitely worth a stop before you head further into the mountains.  

Rock Climb at Seneca Rocks

Just down the road from Thomas and Davis, Seneca Rocks rises roughly 900 feet above the confluence of Seneca Creek and the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. The jagged ridgeline formed in the Paleozoic Era when seismic activity pushed a once-horizontal rock layer 90 degrees skyward, forming a tall, thin outcropping reminiscent of a knife blade. Today the crag is a popular destination for rock climbers, featuring trad routes that range from 5.0 to 5.13 on the Yosemite Decimal System. For non-climbers, there is a hiking trail that meanders its way to the top of the Rocks as well. 

If you want to spend a day or two exploring and climbing, use the nearby Seneca Shadows Campground as a home base (open April to Oct.). Its hillside location offers spectacular sunset views of the Rocks. More info:

Backpack in the Cranberry Wilderness

At over 47,000 acres, the Cranberry Wilderness is the largest wilderness area in the eastern U.S., and its size opens up serious adventures. For an overnight backpacking trip, drive the Highland Scenic Highway until you arrive at the trailhead for the North-South Trail (your access point into the wilderness) for an 18.5-mile loop with 2,800 feet of elevation gain along alpine ridges, deep forested valleys and cold, babbling brooks. Follow the North-South Trail as it descends along a ridgeline, passes through hardwood forests, and summits the 4,356-foot Cranberry Peak. After the peak, the trail continues until it meets the Laurelly Branch of the Middle Fork of the Williams River. The trail follows that tributary east and switchbacks down to the Middle Fork itself, crossing abandoned railroad beds along the way. When you arrive at the Middle Fork, turn east to find a campsite right on the water where the Hell-for-Certain Branch tumbles out of a deep ravine. Tucked into this quiet, secluded valley, it’s easy to appreciate the majesty of Monongahela. 

The next day, continue east and climb up the Middle Fork back to the North Fork Trail and your car. More info:

Look for Black Bear at the Cranberry Glades

Located near the southern end of the Monongahela National Forest, the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area consists of a spongy, wet bog at 3,400 feet. It’s filled with muskeg, scraggly pine trees, mosses, a plethora of spectacularly colorful wildflowers, and, as the name implies, plenty of cranberry bushes. Hike the loop trail (about a half-mile long and a nice option for kids), which takes you along wooden boardwalks through the area’s bogs and spruce groves. Keep your eyes peeled for beavers (and their lodges sticking out of the water), and look out for fish in Yew Creek, deer, and the black bears that call this high-elevation ecological hotspot home. 

Fly Fish the Cranberry River

To the west of the Cranberry Wilderness, a web of forest roads travel northeast from the town of Richwood and offer access to the Cranberry River, a haven for brook, brown, and rainbow trout. Access is easy and campgrounds like Cranberry Campground (open mid-March to Nov.) make it a great destination for a weekend fishing trip. If you’re feeling ambitious (and you really want to escape the crowds), hike east along a 25-mile, foot-traffic-only road that follows the river into the “backcountry” portion of the fishery. Once there, you can take advantage of a collection of first-come, first-served shelters to spend the night. More info:

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.