Magic in the Monongahela

“I frequently found myself driving with a rocky mountainside to my left, a sheer drop-off into a gaping abyss to my right, and no guardrails to stop me from plunging to a fiery death below.”

-Tony Urban, West Virginia’s Dark Tourism

Tony was spot-on with his description of the West Virginia roads, particularly in the Monongahela Forest.  The tongue-twisting name originates from a native Lenape word for “falling banks.”  But in my experience what lay down those steep slopes was not a “fiery death” so much as a foggy unknown.  Much of my first few days there, the region was engulfed in a thick rolling fog, giving my hikes a mysterious, otherworldly quality.

To experience the Monongahela in person is something completely different than to see it in photographs.  The forest stretches across close to 1 million acres, an unfathomably large tract of land.  I only visited the Northeastern tip, and yet even that was large enough to leave me dumbfounded.  I drove for hours and hours on steep winding roads, passing through tunnels of brightly-colored leaves and emerging to astonishing vistas.  I was brought to tears by the unbelievable natural beauty around me.  

And it just stretched on seemingly forever.  It wasn’t one nice view or one pretty stretch of road – it was every corner I rounded, every direction I turned my head.  The bright leaves stretched into the distance across the hills, on and on as far as the eye could see – so immense I couldn’t wrap my head around it.  I have simply never been anywhere like this.  

A Susquehanna legend tells of a group of star-maidens that descended from the heavens to this forest each fall to dance and sing in the moonlight.  A hunter by the name of Monongahela fell in love at first sight and camped in the same valley for a full year, awaiting the maidens’ return.  

There are also tales of monsters and witches lurking in the Monongahela.  It’s known for being one of the most ecologically diverse places in the country, so it’s not too far-fetched to imagine mythical beings living here undetected.  They’d have plenty of places to hide, behind the mysterious mist and within the depths of dark mountain caverns.

I can’t even remember the last time I’d seen fog before this trip.  I don’t know the science behind it, but that natural phenomenon doesn’t happen in many parts of the country.  Hiking in the Dolly Sods wilderness, I felt like I was in a fairy tale.  The other hikers I passed commented on their annoyance at the fog blocking their view of the surrounding hills.  I think the locals are probably used to it and for them it isn’t so romantic or exciting.  But that didn’t stop me from reveling in the hazy, magical mystery around me. 

I completely lost myself and hiked eight miles without even noticing the time or distance.  The Rohrbaugh and Wildlife Trail was deliciously muddy, mossy, and mysterious.  I sat on a ledge watching the clouds drift over the hills in the distance, and it was hard to tear myself away.  

The hike is located in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, which is the highest plateau east of the Mississippi. The area was used as a WWII artillery training ground and there are still live mortar shells on and below the ground. Despite this, it is a popular destination for back-country adventures. Crossing paths with backpackers, I felt a pang of jealousy that they got to stay the night out there. But I had already planned to camp at a nearby campground with a shower, since I needed to smell decent for my plans the next day.

I camped at Seneca Shadows campground, with the towering cliffs of the Seneca Rocks visible from my tent.  The campground was crowded with children, but it didn’t even bother me.  I woke in the middle of the night and walked around, catching sight of a rabbit with glowing eyes and then, more interestingly, a large white possum.  When I shone my flashlight it turned its head to briefly regard me. It sniffed the air and must have decided I wasn’t a threat, then continued to sniff the ground while I watched from just a few feet away.  I am a huge possum fan, so this was an exciting event for me.

2 thoughts on “Magic in the Monongahela

  1. What a beautiful area … the closest I can typically get my wife and daughter to going camping with my son and me is when we rent an air-conditioned, Wi-Fi’d cabin that’s roughly in that part of WV. Great pictures; thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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