Ancient trees saved by a mistake
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.
There are great views to the west from the Gaudineer picnic area.
Federal officials say the entire 140-acre tract contains at least 1.5 million board feet of timber, but a surveyor omitted the 1,000-acre triangular tract because he failed to correct between true north and magnetic north.
The area around Gaudineer was thoroughly clear-cut between 1900 and 1930. Major wildfires followed. The giant trees survived, although there is extensive evidence of those fires on charred trunks.
The tract was eventually purchased by the Forest Service at the insistence of former Monongahela Forest Supervisor Arthur A. Wood, who believed that future generations should know what an Appalachian spruce forest was like. It was named after a federal ranger, Don Gaudineer, who died in 1936 trying to rescue his children from a house fire.
West Virginia once had about 469,000 acres of red spruce. Those forests produced 100,000 board feet per acre. Most have been logged. Only about 50,000 acres have produced second-growth red spruce forests.
The Gaudineer Scenic Area is part of a larger primitive backcountry that is popular with backpackers, hikers and cross-country skiers. Gaudineer Knob is well known to birders because of the warblers and thrushes that can be found in its boreal woods.
A 1940 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that Gaudineer had the highest concentration of birds per acre in the United States. The birds are at their best from May to July.
You can also access the yellow-blazed cross-West Virginia Allegheny Trail in the scenic area. It will eventually stretch 330 miles from Preston County on the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border south to Monroe County on the West Virginia-Virginia border. About 20 miles are yet to be completed. For information, visit www.wvscenictrails.org/alleghenytrailoverview.aspx.
To get to Gaudineer Scenic Area, take U.S. 250 west from Durbin for 4 miles. Turn right and head north on Forest Service Road No. 27 for 2 miles. The road will fork. The left fork goes to a picnic area; the right fork to the big trees. It's another mile.
Not far away is the site of Summit Cheat Fort, built atop Cheat Mountain by federal troops in 1861 to control the historic Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. The fort is no longer there, but interpretive signs tell the story of the fort, also called Fort Milroy.
For more information, contact the Greenbrier Ranger District at 304-456-3335 or www.fs.usda.gov/mnf.
One of the biggest tourist attractions near Gaudineer Knob is the Cheat Mountain Salamander. The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad offers rides on the historic train, a self-propelled John Deere-powered railcar. The Salamander's 2013 season ended in October when a logging truck crashed into the train.
The Salamander, named for a local amphibian, runs on a onetime lumber and coal route that parallels Shaver's Fork of the Cheat River.
The railroad offers nine-hour, 128-mile trips from the Elkins Depot. The train goes to the old logging town of Spruce on Cheat Mountain with its red spruce forests. Trips are offered from July to October. Tickets are $79 for adults, $68 for children 4-11, $77 for senior citizens and $76 for military. You can also board at Cheat Bridge for a three-hour, 30-mile round trip: $42 for adults, $40 for seniors, $34 for children 4-11 and $39 for military.
The railroad has several other train options too. For reservations and more information, call 304-636-9477 or 877-686-7245 or http://mountainrailwv.com.