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 eastern West Virginia.
With its razorback ridges and fins, it is one of the most impressive and most visited natural landmarks in West Virginia.
The spectacular west-facing hunk of rock sits in Pendleton County at U.S. 33 and W.Va. 28 and 55, about 34 miles east of Elkins.
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 in falls there since 1971. 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.