A WEEKEND HIKE
Exploring West Virginia's Otter Creek Wilderness
• by John David Fawcett •
I usually shy away from group activities, but when my local outfitter offered a weekend trip to Otter Creek Wilderness in mid-October, I took the opportunity to explore an area I had never seen before. Located in the Cheat Ranger District of the Monongahela National Forest, the 20,000-acre Otter Creek Wilderness is home to one of the largest populations of black bear in West Virginia. Turkey, deer, and grouse are also plentiful as are several species of snakes including timber rattlers.
Heavily logged at the turn of the century, the area was acquired by the U.S. government in 1917 and was designated as wilderness by the Eastern Wilderness Act in 1975. Nearly fifty miles of hiking trails are maintained in and near the wilderness and are quite often wet and muddy. Otter Creek is usually less than knee-deep where trails cross the stream, but it may be above the waist and fast-moving during high water following periods of prolonged rain.
After an uneventful six hour drive we arrived at the Mylius Trailhead. Easy road access to the boundaries of the Otter Creek basin makes the entire area unusually accessible. In spite of its size and seeming remoteness there is no point in the area that is more than five miles by trail from a trailhead.
Stretching our weary bodies we sorted out our gear, shouldered our packs and started up the trail. Many of the trails are old logging roads or railroad grades and, although the trails are no longer signed, most are obvious. Just the same, it's a smart move to carry a map and compass to avoid getting lost.
Public use of the area is permitted only to the extent consistent with maintaining high-quality Wilderness and you will find few, if any, facilities for comfort or convenience. The Otter Creek Wilderness is an excellent place for nature study, photography, and even cave exploration. The northern portion of the area contains six caves with about two miles of passages.
The Mylius Trail is fairly wooded and ascends about 900 feet at a moderate grade passing through a selective cut timber sale dating from 1960. As the Otter Creek forest has matured, much of the understory has cleared. Ferns and grasses, rhododendron and laurel are now the principal understory. At 1.7 miles we came to the junction with the Shavers Mountain Trail and began the long hike to the summit of Shavers Mountain.
The Shavers Mountain Trail climbs steadily, gaining 400 feet in elevation in 2.2 miles before reaching the summit of Shavers Mountain at 3800 feet. The old Shavers Mountain Shelter is perched on the edge of the mountain crest and has a magnificent view of the mountain ridges to the east. We stopped for lunch at the old shelter and spent quite a while enjoying the sunshine and the spectacular views. Off in the distance we could make out Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virgina at 4862 feet.
After a brief interlude tending to a bee sting, we made a short detour to a nearby spring. Except for this unreliable spring, there is no water available along the Shavers Mountain Trail. Fortunately, the spring was flowing so most of the group refilled their water bottles before continuing on down the trail.
Traversing through the spruce and hemlock forest of the summit, we met the Green Mountain Trail and began our descent into the Otter Creek valley. Near the junction with the Shavers Mountain Trail, the Green Mountain Trail skirts the edge of a small bog, one of three contained within the Wilderness boundaries. Perched in high altitude valleys surrounded by forested hills, these bogs contain many plant species that are normally found much farther north.
By now some of the group was becoming tired and lagging behind while the others, envigorated by the spectacular scenery or perhaps anticipating dinner, quickly forged on ahead. I was bringing up the rear since I had been taking pictures and had consequently been passed by everyone. Having no difficulty catching up to the group after a photo stop, and since the leader had pushed on with the main group, I decided to stay back with the two women who weren't interested in keeping the fast pace.
The first part of the Green Mountain Trail is heavily wooded and thickets of impenatrable mountain laurel and rhodedenron are often encountered. We were startled when a hunter dressed in full camoflage and carrying an enormous evil looking rifle stepped out onto the trail and asked us if we had seen any bear. At that point I think we were more afraid of the hunter than the bear.
The sky had grown cloudy after our lunch break on Shavers Mountain, and was now threatening to rain. Leaving the rhodedenron behind we came at last to the long descent toward Otter Creek. The trail follows an old logging road that descends about 1200 vertical feet, and while the grade isn't too steep, the slippery leaves and loose rock caused the two women to go at an even slower pace. As badly as I wanted to hurry on ahead and get my tent set up before it rained, I felt an obligation to make sure they made it safely to camp.
Eventually we all made it to the junction with the Otter Creek Trail where we quickly set up camp. Fortunatly, the rain held off and we were able to enjoy dinner and even shared a campfire we built in an existing fire ring. We didn't stay up very late since we were all tired from the long hike,a but I lay awake for a while listening for bears (as if I would know what a bear sounded like!).
During the night the rain finally let loose, and by 3 a.m. I had water in the tent. There wasn't much I could do about it, so I made sure my camera was safe and dry, and went back to sleep, listening to the rainfall. The following morning we broke camp in a downpour, and just after wading the icy creek... the rain stopped.
The guidebook says "The best stretch along Otter Creek is between Green Mountain Trail and Mylius Trail" and I have to agree. The trail follows and old logging railroad grade and crosses Otter Creek three times. There were numerous waterfalls ranging from three to ten feet high and many swirling rapids, but none of us managed to fall in.
Consisting of over 20,000 acres, the Otter Creek Wilderness lies within a natural bowl formed by McGowan Mountain and Shavers Mountain.
USGS Thematic Maps - Discover a small sample of the millions of maps produced by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in its mission to map the Nation and survey its resources. This booklet gives a brief overview of the types of maps sold and distributed by the USGS through its Earth Science Information Centers (ESIC) and also available from business partners located in most States. The USGS provides a wide variety of maps, from topographic maps showing the geographic relief and thematic maps displaying the geology and water resources of the United States, to special studies of the moon and planets.
Logging the Virgin Forests of West Virginia - Virtually every tree on every mountain was cut down and hauled out by horse, steam rigger, or train. As is true of all the "major undertakings" of man, clearcutting and the ultimate devastation of the Allegheny forest ecosystem was documented in pictures by the various logging companies that cleared the land. The destruction of these once magnificent forests in the 1880's and stretching over a forty year period was "complete". Today, for those that have visited the backcountry regions where few men originally roamed, these pictures bring to life a time in our history when a tree was more valuable as a clothspin than a national resource for recreation and ecosystem preservation. The photos show what once was, and what is now lost to history under the lumberman's saw.