Far Over the Spruce Mountains Cold – LM: Spruce Knob/Seneca Creek Backcountry (~17 miles)

Aerial shot of Spruce Mountain and the Seneca Creek Backcountry, October 30th, 2022.

I’m quite fond of the Seneca Creek Backcountry; it’s the location of some of my first real backpacking trips when I started dipping my toes into the world of Meetup a decade ago. It’s also an area where, thanks to an unexpected snowstorm, I learned the painful lesson that weather in the mountains is hard to predict. In recent years, it’s been one of my go-to spots to lead DC UL trips.

In 2021, I lead a trip to Seneca Creek the first weekend of October but we were too early for peak autumn leaf colors. For the 2022 edition, I decided to schedule the expedition for the end of the month to see if conditions would be better then. My plan was for a 17-mile, fall-color photo trip, where we would camp on top of Spruce Mountain Friday night, catch the Saturday morning sunrise for some photos, and then proceed on our way down into the valley.

Seneca Creek Backcountry, October 2nd, 2021

As the date of the trip grew closer, I watched the weather forecast and became wary of having applicants, many of who were new to backpacking, camp on Spruce Mountain in potentially sub-freezing winter conditions. A tough thing about backpacking during shoulder season is the weather can go either way. Deciding to err on the side of caution, I booked a group campsite at Seneca Shadows to spare us all a frigid night at 4863′ above sea level. This was the first trip I had led in a while on which I was the sole Assitant Organizer and had never backpacked with any of the attendees, which added to my apprehension.

Jenny, Marianne, Christinia, Shayna, Bess, and I opted to camp at Seneca Shadows Friday night and had a nice campfire and dinner. We woke up to a gorgeous sunrise over Seneca Rocks and then drove the remaining 40 minutes to Spruce Knob where we met up with Vince, John, and Joe who had driven out Saturday morning. My plans for any Saturday morning photos were dashed by a thick fog and temperatures hovering in the upper 30s. Everyone was eager to start and get warm and so after reviewing the route, we booked it down the Huckleberry Trail towards Judy Springs, stopping briefly at intersections to regroup and snack.

After a group photo at the bridge, Joe and I were the last two to leave Judy Springs heading up the Seneca Creek Trail, and we had some brief drama as Joe discovered his phone had slipped out of his pocket. I gave him permission to double back to look for it alone, a decision I regretted almost immediately. As I reached the rest of the group who had stopped for lunch, my bad decision weighed heavily on me. Bess graciously offered to go back down the trail to help Joe locate his iPhone using hers (I didn’t know this was possible) and I agreed with the plan since she had experience as an outdoor club leader in college and was a WFR. A few minutes later, much to my relief, Joe and Bess came walking up the trail; his phone had been found and the group was reunited.

After lunch, we continued up the Seneca Creek Trail, past nice campsites and through tunnels of pine trees.

By the time we reached the Tom Lick Trail, I was concerned that my watch was already reading 7.5 miles since the day was only supposed to be 11 miles and we still had quite a distance to go until reaching our intended camp at Upper Seneca Falls. As we crested the Allegheny Mountain Trail, I realized what I’d done wrong; though I had drawn a 17-mile loop in CalTopo at home, I had my 23-mile summer route loaded in Gaia GPS on my phone and had been navigating off of that. We should have turned up the Swallow Rock Trail according to my 17-mile route. Rather than mutiny, everyone took the news well, which I was grateful for. We decided to camp back at Judy Springs for the night since the shadows were growing long, bodies were aching and several of the applicants had set personal records for miles walked in a day, 12! It wouldn’t be a DC UL trip without some bonus miles 🙂

The disappointment of not making it all the way to Upper Seneca Falls soon passed and we enjoyed the pleasant camping offered at Judy Springs. In what was likely my sixth trip to this area, I had never seen this prime campsite unclaimed so late in the day. A major benefit of backpacking during shoulder season is that there’s much less competition for campsites since all the fair-weather campers have long since packed it in.

We built a campfire and ate dinner sitting around it together. Several of us stayed out well past dark and since it was Halloween weekend, shared scary stories, mostly related to the outdoors. Vince told of a hooded figure following him through the Arizona desert at night; Bess shared tales of her family’s potentially haunted farm. I didn’t have anything as good so I retold stories from the Dirtbag Diaries ‘Tales of Terror’ podcasts. After foolishly creeping ourselves out right before bedtime, we all retired to our tents and tried to sleep.

The morning arrived chilly, with my watch reading 28 F, which was also a low-temperature camping PR for several members of the expedition. Once we were packed up, we decided it was wisest to split the group and send those who were nursing overuse injuries or simply newer to double-digit mileage back to Spruce Knob directly via the Judy Springs-Horton-Huckleberry Trails. Shayna, a relatively new DC UL member but experienced outdoorswoman kindly volunteered to lead this group back to the parking lot.

After the larger group departed, Vince, John, Bess and I continued down the Seneca Creek Trail to Upper Seneca Falls, which was flowing relatively lower than normal but was still very picturesque. I was a bit annoyed to see a sign with a QR code had been installed near the falls by WV Tourism, encouraging hikers to post their pictures to social media. Maybe I’m just a cranky old-timer but I prefer as little manmade infrastructure in the backcountry as possible.

After getting some nice pictures of the falls, we hiked quickly up the Horton and Huckleberry trail, making it back to Spruce Knob parking lot at exactly noon where we reunited with the others. The visibility had improved dramatically since Saturday morning and several of us took a cool-down lap around the scenic 1/2-mile Whispering Pines Trail.

We had a really wonderful group of people on this trip and no precipitation. I’ll take that over peak leaf color anytime!


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