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Monongahela National Forest

The AAA Adventure Outdoors is not the only magnificent natural playground in West Virginia. Just to our northeast lies the Monongahela National Forest, with over a million acres of forests, streams and mountains, all of which are within a day's drive of one third of the U.S. population. There are 23 campgrounds, 17 day-use picnic areas and over 500 miles of multi-use trails. During the logging era in the early 20th century, railroads crisscrossed the area. Many have been turned into wonderful hiking and mountain bike trails through various "rails to trails" programs. The Monongahela's trail system is also perfect for horseback riding. The trails range from easy walks in the country to extremely challenging hikes. Rock and mountain climbing opportunities are endless and there's plenty of camping options.

There are five federally designated "Wilderness Areas." These are Otter Creek, Dolly Sods, Laurel Fork North, Laurel Fork South, and Cranberry. These areas are developed with the serious visitor in mind with lots of trails of varying difficulty but few facilities for comfort or convenience. Vehicular traffic is prohibited which adds wonderfully to the feeling of solitude that makes a true wilderness so inspiring.

Perhaps the most interesting Wilderness Area is the Cranberry Wilderness, located in the southern end of the forest in Webster and Pocahontas Counties. It includes the 750 acre Cranberry Glades which is often described as "a little bit of Canada in West Virginia." Sections of the Glades are muskeg, similar to those of northern Canada. Many species of plants are found only in Canada and the Cranberry Glades. The theory is that these species were pushed south by the glaciers and found a home here. With altitudes of 3000 to over 4000 feet, the cooler climate suited these migrants perfectly and they've flourished. The area
gets its name from its four distinct cranberry bogs. A half-mile boardwalk has been built to allow the public to visit this unique ecosystem without damaging its delicate flora. For more information, contact the Gauley Ranger District at 304-846-2695.

"Flatlanders" will notice immediately that, because of its altitude, much of the areas climate is considerably different than they've found elsewhere in West Virginia. The forest gets over 60 inches of precipitation in an average year. Rain is frequent in Summer, there's lots of snow in Winter, and frost can occur in every month of the year. This "micro-ecosystem" has a climate more similar to northern Canada than to the surrounding lowlands of the eastern U.S.

Speaking of snow, the Monongahela National Forest hosts some of the east's best skiing. There are four resorts in the forest: Canaan (pronounced "kuh-nain") Valley, Timberline, Snowshoe and Silver Creek. Some of the east's best downhill runs are right here as well as lots of cross country skiing and ski-touring.

While most out-of-state visitors come for the spectacular scenery and remoteness, West Virginians use the forest mostly for hunting and fishing. There are over 500 miles of trout streams in the Monongahela and these include 90% of the trout streams in the state. Hunters will find abundant populations of deer, bear and wild turkey.

In addition to all the scenery and outdoor adventure, there are also two very interesting places to visit while you're in the Monongahela National Forest. The Green Bank Observatory is our country's national observatory for radio astronomy. Huge dish antennae listen to the sounds of the distant universe. The antennae are located in a natural bowl in the mountains which shields them from electrical interference. Guided tours are available and you can contact the observatory at 304-456-2011 or check out their website at www.nrao.edu. E-mail at crose@nrao.edu.

One of the most interesting attractions in West Virginia is the Cass Scenic Railway State Park, located in the National Forest right next door to the Green Bank Observatory. The park features several operating steam engines from the logging era of the early 20th century. You can ride the train to the summit of Spruce Mountain, at over 4000-feet, it's the second-highest point in West Virginia. There are also museums and restored homes that can be rented for an overnight stay. If you have kids, you've got to show them this place. The big kids (like dad) will like it too. For more information, call the West Virginia tourism toll-free number: 1-800-CALL-WVA..

When visiting any wilderness area, it's always comforting to have reservations if you plan to stay overnight. The National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS) is a central reservations service used by both the Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for all of their recreation areas that have overnight facilities. Call 1-877-444-6777 or visit their website at www.reserveUSA.com. You can reserve a campsite in just about any national forest...over 58,000 nationwide. That's 1,700 campgrounds in 44 states and you can reserve up to 8 months in advance. All campsites in the Monongahela National Forest can be reserved with NRRS. They'll want a deposit when you make your reservation and they do accept major credit cards.

For further information on the Monongahela National Forest, call the Supervisor's Office at 304-636-1800. They're open Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 4:45 PM, Eastern time.