SENECA ROCKS, W.Va. – It is hard to miss Seneca Rocks.
It is a giant slab of bare white sandstone with sheer cliffs, towering 900 feet above the surrounding valley in the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle.
It is one of the most impressive and most visited natural landmarks in West Virginia with its razorback ridges or fins.
The spectacular west-facing hunk of rock sits at U.S. Route 33 and state routes 28 and 55, about 34 miles east of Elkins in Pendleton County.
It is the big attraction in the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area that lies within the Monongahela National Forest, the center of an outdoor vertical playground that is well known to climbers and managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Seneca Rocks also played a key role in training American troops during World War II. That story is not well known, but climbers on Seneca Rocks still come across rusting soft iron pitons that were hammered into the Tuscarora quartzite by cliff-climbing soldiers in training.
But you don’t have to be a climber to get an up-close look at Seneca Rocks, rising above the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River, surrounding farms and Seneca Creek. You can hike to the top via a trail that is 1.5 miles each way.
It begins behind the area’s Discovery Center. It runs past the historical Sites Homestead at the edge of the parking lot. You cross the rock-filled river on a high-arced trail bridge. The stream is popular with fly fishermen and paddlers when the water is high.
At a fork, you will go left (climbers go right). The trail starts getting steep after 0.3 miles. You begin a long upward climb of nearly 1,000 feet on a wide gravel path with switchbacks, steps and benches. The trail winds through hardwood forests of maple, shagbark hickory, oak and redbud.
A few signs offer information on the trail’s geology, trees and vegetation. The trail leads to a small wooden viewing platform on the western edge of Seneca Rocks.
The rocks themselves aren’t visible from the platform. But visitors can gaze over the Potomac River Valley and see nearby Spruce Knob and the Dolly Sods Wilderness, also part of the national forest. It’s a pretty impressive view, and you have earned it.
From the platform, you can hike on rocks that are 10 to 15 feet wide with big drops on both sides to reach the very top of Seneca Rocks. A warning sign is posted, noting that 15 people have died there since 1971 from falls. That extra hike along the mini-ridge is not for everyone.
You can also ride a horse to near the top of Seneca Rocks via a fire road.
The climbers’ trail is steep and gains 500 feet in a short distance. It leads to 400 feet of exposed rock above the scree.
At the base of the rocks, the Discovery Center has exhibits, interpretive displays on West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands and a small gift shop. Admission is free.
Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily from midsummer to mid-October. Out of season, it is open Thursdays through Mondays. For more information, call 304-567-2827 (daily except in winter). You can also contact the Cheat-Potomac Ranger District, 304-257-4488 (weekdays only), www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf.
Outside the center is a small monument to the World War II soldiers who trained at Seneca Rocks.
In mid-1943, 32 officers and men from the Mountain Training Center in Colorado were ordered to West Virginia to run the Army’s only low-altitude assault climbing school, according to author Robert C. Whetsell. The instructors in what became the 10th Mountain Division were world-class mountaineers.
About 180 men and officers went through the climbing school every two weeks to learn alpine combat techniques. Training included easy rock scrambling to extreme tension work with pitons. It included the use of assault ropes and pulleys. Each group made two tactical night climbs on unfamiliar rocks.
Climbing also took place at nearby Nelson Rocks and Champe Rocks, and at Blackwater Canyon near Davis in Tucker County.
The Seneca Rocks climbing school was operated as part of the West Virginia Maneuver Area, directed by the 13th Army Corps. More than 100,000 soldiers were trained in five West Virginia counties. It got about 16,000 fresh troops every eight weeks.
West Virginia was chosen because the terrain was similar to Italy and its Apennine Mountains, where the soldiers were headed.
The soldiers lived in a camp along the river north of Seneca Rocks. Each climbing instructor was assigned 10 men. At the end of the first week, the four weakest climbers were dropped. The remaining six got an additional week of advanced climbing training.
More than 75,000 pitons were reportedly installed on Seneca Rocks by the soldier climbers in 1943-1944. One area at Seneca Rocks has been dubbed the Face of Thousand Pitons. The military training ended July 1, 1944.
Seneca Rocks features nearly 400 routes that range in difficulty from an easy 5.0 to a very hard 5.13. The rock is 440 million years old and erosion-resistant.
There is the North Peak and the South Peak with a central notch in between. It was filled by a rocky feature known as the Gendarme until 1987, when it toppled.
The cliffs provide top-quality climbing. It is a traditional climbing area with few pre-positioned anchors or bolts. You do it on your own. Yes, climbers have died on Seneca Rocks.
The first recorded ascent of Seneca Rocks was in 1935, but in 1939, three climbers found an inscription dating back to 1905.
There is an online history of Seneca Rocks available at www.senecarocksmuseum.org.
Seneca Rocks Climbing School and Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides typically handle up to 600 climbers a year from April to late October.
The three-day classes cover basic knots, equipment, belaying and rappelling techniques, base anchors and setting up top-rope situations. Students progress from short to multipitch climbs.
There are typically three students and one instructor. Instruction costs $225 and up.
For more information, contact Seneca Rocks Climbing School, 304-567-2600, 800-548-0108, www.seneca-rocks.com; or Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides, 304-567-2115, www.senecarocks.com.
There is another climbing area nearby, Nelson Rocks Outdoor Center at Circleville.
The privately owned area of 145 acres includes two imposing rocky fins about 1,200 feet long with 300-foot-high sheer cliffs. It offers rock climbing, Via Ferrata (a fixed rock-climbing route with cables and stainless steel rungs), canopy tours and hiking.
For more information, contact Nelson Rocks at 877-435-4842, www.nelsonrocks.org.
The town of Seneca Rocks is not big, with a few motels and campgrounds. It can fill up on weekends with climbers.
For Pendleton County travel information, go to http://pendletoncounty.net; for Grant County information, go to www.gowv.com.