DURBIN, W.Va. -- The Gaudineer Scenic Area is what West Virginia's mountain highlands originally looked like.
The 140-acre tract is dominated by virgin and second-growth red spruce, the tree that once flourished on West Virginia's mountaintops.
Red spruce thrives at elevations of 3,800 feet and higher. The result: dark green ridge tops and northern islands through the West Virginia Highlands.
The Gaudineer red spruce are big: up to 40 inches in diameter at breast height and 250 years old. There are also yellow birch, beech, red and sugar maple and other hardwoods. It is a touch of New England or Canada on the West Virginia slopes.
The area is to be managed in an undisturbed condition for study and enjoyment. The forest only survived because of a surveying mistake decades ago. Today, the Gaudineer is one of the few old-growth forests in West Virginia easily accessible to visitors.
It sits atop Shavers Mountain in West Virginia's sprawling 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest. It's just north of Gaudineer Knob on the border between Randolph and Pocahontas counties. The 4,432-foot peak is the highest spot on Shavers Mountain, a ridge in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains.
It is about 5 1/2 miles from Durbin off U.S. 250 and U.S. Forest Service roads.
The Greenbrier River lies to the east. Shavers Fork of the Cheat River lies to the west. The scenic area is the headwaters of Glade Run and Old Road Run, tributaries of the Cheat and the West Fork of the Greenbrier, respectively.
The Gaudineer Scenic Area was designated in October 1964 by the U.S. Forest Service. It has also been designated a National Natural Landmark, one of 15 in West Virginia. In 1983, the Society of American Foresters honored the scenic area as an outstanding example of a vegetative community in near-natural condition dedicated for scientific and educational purposes.
It includes 50 acres of virgin and second-growth red spruce and 90 acres where selective timber has been cut in salvage operations over the years after storm blowdowns. Most of the original growth in the 90-acre tract is still standing.
Today you can explore the area on the half-mile loop of the Virgin Spruce Trail off Forest Service Road No. 27. The yellow-blazed trail is an easy hike with interpretive signs into a world of green: needles, moss-covered trunks, leafy green understory.
There are thick-trunked 100-foot-high giants, plus birch, ash, cherry and maples. The understory and ground cover include rhododendron, moosewood, new-growth spruce and birch, ferns, wood sorrel, mosses, wood shamrock, trilliums and foamflowers.
The trees, standing and downed, are big, very big. The downed trees have massive root systems that may stand 10 to 12 feet tall off the ground, twisted into grotesque shapes.
The giants are starting to come down from old age, disease and winds. New trees are springing up from the rotting, moss-covered trunks of old trees that were toppled earlier. There are huge gaps in the canopy above where the giants have fallen.
Signs are posted warning visitors against hiking the Virgin Spruce Trail (Trail No. 374) on windy days because of danger from falling branches and thin-rooted trees.