Non-Caving Activities

— MORE EAST of Convention —


Dolly Sods, Flat Rock Plains, Roaring Plains, and Red Rock Plains are found in an area above 4,500 feet in elevation located at the junction of Pendleton, Tucker, Grant, and Randolph Counties. The extensive Red Spruce forests that were once located here were logged very early in the 20th Century, and lightning-caused fires broke out and the slash and high-altitude soils burned for several decades. This timbering, the fires, the high altitude, and the underlying sandstones of the Pottsville Group have produced a large subalpine plateau with a more-northern plant life than is typical of West Virginia. Freezing temperatures can occur any time during the year, and snow can be expected any time between October and April.

Dolly is thought to be a corruption of the German surname “Dahle,” and ”sods” is an old German word meaning plains or open spaces. There are lots of great views within the high plains, and there are grass plateaus, hiking trails, one campground, two “official” overlooks, and a dirt road that makes most of Dolly Sods easily accessible by car. This road was once a Shay railroad grade, and it is not plowed in winter. The area was used by the U.S. Army for training during World War Il and artillery shells are still sometimes found (report these to the Forest Service if you find one). The troops who trained here were later formed into the 10th Mountain Division and went on to fight in northern Italy in 1945.

The actual Dolly Sods Wilderness is located not on Dolly Sods, but rather on Red Creek, a tributary of the Dry Fork of the Cheat River. The Wilderness is 10,215 acres in size and is one of the most popular backpacking destinations in West Virginia. There are many miles of trails, one Forest Service campground, and a myriad of campsites located up and down the creek. There are no bridges across Red Creek— wading is thus required.

The Sods are located about one hour east of Elkins. Follow U.S. 33 to Harman, take State Route 32 north for about five miles to the Red Creek Road, and follow this road east (taking a second right turn) to the small community of Laneville. The Dolly Sods Wilderness is located north of Laneville, and the Sods (as well as Flat Rock, Roaring, and Red Rock Plains) are located up the mountain to the east. The USGS 7.5-minute topographic maps required when hiking in the area are Laneville, Hopeville, Blackbird Knob, and Blackwater Falls.

GPS: 38.97306,-79.39944 (Start of Red Creek Trail)


Germany Valley is located about one hour east of Elkins on U.S. 33. It is south of Seneca Rocks, and is between North Fork Mountain and the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. The valley is best viewed either by driving the dirt road that traverses its long axis or from the U.S. 33 overlook on the west side of North Fork Mountain.

Germany Valley is the structural center of the Wills Mountain Anticline. This is a large, asymmetrical anticline that dominates the geology of western Pendleton County. The anticline is 185 miles in length and extends from southern Pennsylvania south through Maryland and West Virginia and into Virginia. The resistant Tuscarora Sandstone is exposed along the sides of the anticline and has been eroded completely through in the Germany Valley area. This has allowed the less resistant Middle Ordovician limestones and shales to be exposed on the surface, and the result is a large karst valley with virtually no surface drainage.

The elongated outcrop ‘ring’ of Tuscarora Sandstone (that surrounds Germany Valley) extends for 60 miles from Smoke Hole Caverns south into Highland County, Virginia. East of the valley, the eastern limb of the anticline is displayed by the eastward-dipping sandstone that forms the long line of cliffs along the crest of North Fork Mountain. The western limb of the anticline is displayed by the River Knobs (such as Nelson Rocks, Seneca Rocks, and Champe Rocks) that are vertically bedded and located west of the valley.

Germany Valley was the site of Hinkle Fort, the only French and Indian War fort in Pendleton County to survive that conflict. Germany Valley is also home to Hellhole and Schoolhouse Cave, two caves where the proto-NSS first learned its vertical techniques. Hellhole’s entrance drop is about 155 feet deep and provides access to one of the largest and most spectacular rooms in West Virginia. The cave is over 40 miles long and is the second longest cave in West Virginia. Schoolhouse is a short cave that contains many vertical pitches and several airy traverses and pendulums. It was at one time considered the most dangerous cave in the United States. Both caves are now closed and gated year-round, predominantly because of endangered bats.

GPS: 38.70897, -79.40818 (U.S. 33 overlook (approx.)) 38.81140, -79.39360 (Turn on U.S. 33 to northern end of valley)


Jordan Run is the stream that flows into the North Fork River at Smoke Hole Caverns. Ask the landowner of the commercial cave if you can hike up the stream, and the waterfall is about a half mile upstream. This is one of the most spectacular waterfalls within West Virginia and is relatively unknown. The hike is arduous, as you have to wade in the creek following the axis of a small, unnamed syncline, with the resistant Oriskany Sandstone on both sides of the narrow valley

GPS: 38.98590, -79.26589 (Caverns parking lot)


Nelson Rocks is located about 90 minutes east of Elkins, and are about ten miles southwest of Seneca Rocks on State Route 28. They are accessed via the dirt Nelson Gap Road, which intersects Route 28 about one mile southwest of Judy Gap.

Both Seneca Rocks and Nelson Rocks are formed of the basal-Silurian Tuscarora Sandstone, which are a part of the vertical-dipping western limb of the Wills Mountain Anticline. Both sets of rocks have also been broken in two by a reverse fault, which has resulted in one sandstone bed moving laterally and into a position parallel to the first. While this fault is not that obvious at Seneca Rocks, it is very noticeable at Nelson Rocks because the two sandstone beds are about 100 feet apart.

Nelson Rocks are privately owned, and there is both a Via Ferrata and a canopy tour. The Via Ferrata is a mile-long trail of fixed anchors, cables, and a swinging bridge. Heights of up to 200 feet are reached, offering a unique physical challenge. It is open year-round, weather permitting. Children under 13 years in age are not allowed. The canopy tour includes 12 zip lines, three sky bridges, and a 40-foot rappel. The zip lines together are almost a mile long, vary between 150 and 680 feet in length, and are up to 80 feet above the floor. Both the Via Ferrata and the canopy tour require about three hours to do, and waivers are required. Call 877-435-4842 or visit for more information.

GPS: 38.70055, -79.47222 (Nelson Rocks office)


Seneca Caverns is located about one hour east of Elkins on U.S. 33. Turn left (east) in Riverton and follow a side road for about five miles to the northeast. The cave is within Germany Valley, and although its tour is designed for the non-caver, it does contain some nice formations, including two very impressive flowstone mounds. The cave is 1,875 feet long, and the tour exits through a second entrance. There is also picnicking and “mineral panning” at the caverns. The cost to visit Seneca is $10 for kids and $15 for adults. For more information call 304-567-2691 or visit

GPS: 38.76327, -79.38865 (Caverns parking lot)


Seneca Rocks are located about one hour east of Elkins on U.S. 33. They are one of the most-popular rock-climbing areas east of the Mississippi River, and are a traditional climbing area with over 440 documented routes, ranging from 5.0 to 5.13 difficulty. The Rocks are a vertical, 900-foot high, double exposure of the Tuscarora Sandstone, and are a part of the western limb of the Wills Mountain Anticline. They are faulted, with one rock unit pushed up and into a position parallel to the other. The cliffs along the top of North Fork Mountain are also the Tuscarora Sandstone, and are the eastern limb of the anticline.

There is a Forest Service Visitors Center nearby, a climbing shop and two guiding companies in the small community of Seneca Rocks, and a swinging bridge leads to the Rocks themselves. In addition, a 1.3-milelong switchback trail provides access to the Northern Peak, and a far less formal trail allows hikers to descend the backside of the rocks.

Seneca Rocks are as vertical on its back as on its front, and the Southern Peak can be reached only by rock climbing. No one is sure who first reached the top of this peak, but when three men reached the summit in 1938, they found the inscription, “D. B., September 16, 1908.” This may have been D. Bittenger, a civil engineer who surveyed in the area for the U.S. Forest Service. The rocks were used by the U.S. Army to train during World War Il, and many of the older routes still contain the pitons left by the Army. The troops who trained here were later formed into the 10th Mountain Division and were deployed to northern Italy in 1945.

GPS: 38.83264, -79.37548 (Visitor Center parking lot)


Smoke Hole Caverns is located about 90 minutes east of Elkins on U.S. 33 and State Route 28 (travel northeast on Route 28). They are not within the Smoke Hole gorge, but are rather in the North Fork Mountain Gap, which is about five miles west of Petersburg. The caverns are relatively short, but are profusely decorated. The entrance area was reportedly used by Native Americans to smoke meat and as a hiding place for whiskey stills during Prohibition.

Smoke Hole Caverns are formed in the Tonoloway Limestone, the uppermost Silurian rock unit in West Virginia, within the western limb of the Wills Mountain Anticline. In fact, the entrance passage emulates this anticline and has east-dipping bedding on its east side and vertical bedding on its west side—and the largest formation room is then located more to the west within an area of vertical bedding. The cost to visit the cave is $10 for kids and $15 for adults. For more information call 800-828-8478, or visit

GPS: 38.98591, -79.26583 (Caverns parking lot)


The Smoke Hole Gorge is located south of Petersburg on U.S. 220, about two hours east of Elkins. Here, the South Branch of the Potomac River has cut through the Cave Mountain Anticline and there are repeated exposures of the Oriskany Sandstone and the Helderberg limestone. The Smoke Hole Gorge is about 16 miles in length, and it can be as deep as 2,000 feet. The upper third, southern part of the gorge contains a narrow state highway. As you enter the Smoke Hole by this road, you first drive past the eroded face of Cave Mountain on the right, with Cave Mountain Cave near its top, followed by the impressive Eagle Rocks. Downstream are more cliffs and spectacular scenery, and then a fork in the road is reached. A left turn, followed by a right turn, leads to the North Fork Mountain Gap and Smoke Hole Caverns; straight and downstream leads to a Forest Service Campground, Big Bend, and an outcrop of Tuscarora Sandstone. The river below the campground is accessible only by foot, canoe, and kayak, and the trip through the gorge is very popular and scenic. The Forest Service maintains 30 miles of trails within the Smoke Hole, and these are marked with blue blazes. The required USGS 7.5-minute topographic maps for the Smoke Hole are Upper Tract, Hopeville, and Petersburg West.

GPS: 38.98520, -79.23392 (Western end on Route 28/55)
38.80529, -79.27684 (Eastern end on U.S. 220)


At 4,832 feet above sea level, Spruce Knob is the highest point in West Virginia. East of the mountaintop it is possible to see the North Fork River Valley, Germany Valley, North Fork Mountain, and the long wall of Shenandoah Mountain. To the west, the Seneca Creek Valley and the Appalachian Plateau are visible. To the northeast are Roaring Plains and Dolly Sods, and to the southwest is the upper North Fork Valley.

Spruce Knob is located entirely within the drainage of the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. However, the first ridge to the west, less than two away, is the Eastern Continental Divide, where the water flows to the Monongahela and Ohio rivers via Gandy Creek and the Dry Fork of the Cheat River. Six to the southwest, the East Fork of the Greenbrier River carries that water southward to the New, Kanawha, and Ohio Rivers. There is a Forest Service campground and lake located just a few miles south of the mountaintop. In addition, the Forest Service maintains nearly 70 miles of trails in the Seneca Creek Backcountry, which is located northeast of this campground. These trails are open to hunters, hikers, fishermen, and mountain bikers, and provide access to Spruce Knob, Allegheny Mountain, Seneca Creek, Glady Creek, and Whites Run. The required USGS 7.5-minute topographic maps are Spruce Knob, Onego, Whitmer, Circleville, and Snowy Mountain.

Spruce Knob is located about 1.5 hours east-southeast of Elkins. For an enjoyable scenic drive, travel east from Elkins on U.S. 33, and turn south at Alpena or at the top of Middle Mountain (at Wymer). Both routes lead southeast, with some zig-zagging, to the Laurel Fork Campground. From here it is possible to continue east, past the Sinks of Gandy, and visit Spruce Knob. Traveling north from Spruce Knob leads down the Dry Fork Valley (which is karst) and back to U.S. 33 at Harman, while traveling east and then north will lead to Germany Valley, Nelson Rocks, and Seneca Rocks.

GPS: 38.54524, -79.82331 (Observation platform)