The southern terminus is five miles east of Judy Gap and 9 miles west of Franklin. There is space for a few cars at the edge of the road at the mountain's crest. There is a small building with a radio tower and a gate. Signs warn "no trespassing," but you access the blue-blazed trail here.
The trail follows an old road grade along the ridge crest. It is generally flat and easy to follow. Later it becomes a footpath and includes small saddles and moderately difficult knobs to climb.
The vistas are everywhere. You just have to walk a few yards off the trail to reach outcroppings and cliffs. You can find them by the wind whistling and roaring at the cliff edge and the gnarled pines at the western rim.
The trail cuts through hardwood forests with patches of Virginia pine, red oak and red pine and lots of mountain laurel, flaming azaleas and wintergreen. There are extensive fern beds and lots of wildflowers. The trail generally runs on the eastern or leeward slope.
You are likely to encounter white-tailed deer and wild turkey and maybe wild goats. Be aware that timber rattlesnakes are around.
In the fall, North Fork Mountain is a great place to observe migrating raptors, including bald eagles and golden eagles soaring on thermals. Chimney Top at 21.0 miles is one of the best vistas on the trail.
There have been access issues along the southern part of the trail over the years because parts are privately owned. Check with the ranger district office. There is a gravel road access at 11.0 miles and side trails at 16 and 19.9 miles that lead to W.Va. 28 /11.
The U.S. Forest Service has proposed a wilderness designation for 6,000-plus acres in Grant County at the northern end of North Fork Mountain. That would affect seven miles of the trail and would ban mountain bikes.
You can get information on North Fork Mountain and its trail from the U.S. Forest Service at 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.
North Fork Mountain is known as the driest high mountain in the Appalachians, and that has created special habitats for plants and animals. Storms moving from the Midwest drop most of their precipitation on the mountains to the west before they get to North Fork Mountain.
North Fork Mountain also is home to a range of rare and threatened plants.
The Nature Conservancy, a national land conservation group, has been active on and around North Fork Mountain since the early 1980s, especially on the southern part of the mountain.
It has created preserves at Pike Knob and Panther Knob. It owns or manages 1,635 acres at Pike Knob and has acquired an adjoining 2,000 acres for the national forest. It owns or manages 2,469 acres at Panther Knob.
At present, only the Pike Knob Preserve is open to the public. Trails lead to the 4,300-foot summit of Pike Knob in Pendleton County. A mountaintop meadow, Nelson Sods, offers spectacular vistas of the surrounding high country.
Pike Knob sits in the middle of 3,600 protected acres that stretch more than five miles along the southern end of North Fork Mountain.
The largest pine barren is found atop 4,508-foot Panther Knob, also in Pendleton County. The preserve stretches along four miles of ridge tops.
For more information, contact the West Virginia Nature Conservancy, 304-637-0584, http://bit.ly/Z7whVP.