Laurel Fork Special Management Area
George Washington National Forest, Virginia
Administered by the United States Forest Service, Warm Springs Ranger District, Rt. 2, Box 30, Hot Springs, VA 24445 Tel. 540-839-2521. This area is located in Highland County, VA
Write-up assembled by Andy Hiltz
About the Special Management AreaIf ever there was a heaven on earth, it would have to be Highland County, Virginia. This pristine area of the state is sparsely populated with sunny farms surrounded by deep green pastures, ringed by the gentle peaks of the Potomac Highlands. Monterey, Virginia, serves as a town of note in this region, and the Maple Restaurant one block south of State Route 250 is a favorite stopping place for a breakfast of hot flapjacks, freshly cooked bacon, and hot coffee. (Look for the rainbow trout sign!)
The Laurel Fork Special Management Area, located roughly 15 air miles north of Monterey, is a region waiting to be a Wilderness. It's bordered on the east by Middle Mountain, and on the west by a ridge that serves as the dividing line between Highland County, Virginia, and Pendleton County, West Virginia. From the western edge of the area runs a series of small, parallel ridges embracing narrow fern-filled valleys with tumbling streams. The area is bisected by the birch and rhododendron-lined Laurel Fork, an exceptionally beautiful river well known to locals for its good fishing - and therein lies the problem. Some feel the fishing is so good that the area should remain as an undesignated Wilderness. There is general fear that Wilderness designation will bring a host of outsiders, and increased pressure on the prime fishing and camping spots along the river. They may well be right.
This is high, Virginia country. Spruce Knob, the highest peak in West Virginia (4863'), is located not far to the north-west. Elevations vary from 3,000 feet to over 4,000 feet. Even during the tropical heat in Washington, D.C., the Laurel Fork area is wonderfully cool - a great escape in the summer.
The upper reaches of each parallel stream valley have open grassy parks and beaver ponds ringed by evergreens and deciduous trees. And of course, the more deeply shaded areas are chock full of ferns. If you hit the area at the right time, you can also find fields and fields of Ramps, a native wild onion much prized by those in the know who enjoy its gentle, spicy taste. The area does not have the large swimming holes of Dolly Sods and Otter Creek, but some small wading pools can be located along the Laruel Fork.
Recently, the area was threatened by a West Virginia company that owned natural gas leases under the study area. For a while, it looked as though Laurel Fork might be peppered with natural gas wells and the corresponding grassy swaths necessary to maintain a route for the underground pipes. But thanks to the efforts of the Virginia Wilderness Committee, the Nature Conservancy, and Superintendent Will Damon who personally surveyed the area, a deal was worked out whereby the leases were bought, protecting the property from natural gas exploration. While Virginia law restricts the designation of additional Wilderness Areas in the state at this time (if you can believe it), Laurel Fork Special Management Area is at least under a modicum of protection. And it looks destined to be a very special area in the state that's "not quite" official Wilderness for quite some time to come.
Weather and SnowThe local climate varies considerably throughout the year. Summer temperatures are usually in the 70's, but can drop to 40 degrees or less at night. Normal mid-winter daytime temperatures are around 30 degrees, but this can drop to as low as -20. Deep snows can make travel difficult, but only if you're not on snowshoes or cross-country skis.
About the area......This area is a great place to visit. The one drawback is that it is small, and the trail on Laurel Fork requires numerous crossings. The stream (or should I say, river) is large enough to require wading at each crossing. But it rarely flows higher than knee height.
There is ample parking at Locust Springs, with a rather trashed out three sided shelter in a small open field. There are ALWAYS locals either staying in the shelter, or camping in the small, 1/2 acre field in front of the shelter. Weekend evening entertainment is provided by frustrated local youth who enjoy honking horns and peeling out of the gravel parking lot in front of the shelter - not my idea of an ideal camping spot.
Fortunately, even with a late arrival, there are some very nice quiet camping spots a little further down the gated road from the shelter at the top of the Buck Run area, and an exceptionally beautiful beaver pond at the headwaters of Buck Run. It's worth seeing.
Trails worth hiking?Laurel Fork River during late summer drought conditions.
All the trails in this area are worth exploring. A respectable circuit can be arranged by parking at the Locust Spring camping/shelter area, hiking down the Buck Run Trail (#598) to Laurel Fork (#450), heading south on the Laurel Fork to Bearwallow Run Trail (#601), hiking up Bearwallow, then bushwacking across the headwaters of the parallel streams back to the Locust Springs area. It's also possible to zig-zag up and down the parallel trails by bushwacking across the ridges near the stream headwaters. The region, like all the rest of the East Coast of the United States, was clearcut at the turn of the century, so railroad grades are ever-present, and woods are fairly open, except where the ridges near the Laurel Fork, where dense stands of rhododendron exist.
HuntingAllowed. The area is heavily visited during the hunting season. Backpackers/hikers traveling during this season should wear blaze orange or brightly colored clothing.
Mountain BikingStrictly prohibited in ALL USFS Wilderness Areas.
Cross-country SkiingAn excellent area for beginner skiers. The grades are very gentle and easy to traverse. A winter crossing of Laurel Fork could be a rather bracing affair though.
CampfiresLegal, but not recommended. Please protect the Wilderness for future generations and use your backpacking stove and either an oil or candle lantern for light when you're visiting the area. Fires can be dangerous if not properly tended and extinguished, and they leave an ugly fire ring for the next visitor.
AccessFrom Harrisonburg, Virginia (just off I-81 in central Virginia), take Rt. 33 west to Judy Gap, West Virginia. (The stretch of Rt. 33 west of Rawley Springs, VA through the GW National Forest is one of the prettier drives in Virginia in my opinion.) From Judy Gap, WV, head south on WV Route 28. Less than .4 of a mile past the Pocahontas County sign (and less than .3 mile past the Pocahontas County "Welcome" sign), look for a brown FS sign directing you to the "Locust Spring Recreation Site". Turn left onto the dirt road to the Recreation Site. At the first intersection on the dirt road, turn left onto FS 60, then shortly bear right onto FS 142 to the Locust Spring Picnic/Camp Area. (FS signs pointing to the Locust Spring Rec. Site show the way at both turns.) Estimated driving time from I-495 at I-66 is 3 hours and 40 minutes.
GuidebooksHiking Virginia's National Forests by Karen Wurtz-Schaeffer can be securely ordered online from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club store. An excellent topographic map of the area is available from GWNF for $4.00.
The MapHere's a TRAIL MAP (136K) of the Laurel Fork Wilderness Study Area.
Trip ReportsRead this July 4th 1999 trip report on a backpacking trip to the Management Area .
Read this Spring 2001 visit to the Area.