The George Washington National Forest extends for 140 miles through the mountains of western Virginia and eastern West Virginia. It includes 1,060,000 acres of federal land, mostly in Virginia. About a tenth of the forest land is in Hampshire, Hardy, Monroe, and Pendleton counties, West Virginia. The national forest boundaries also include a large amount of private land, especially in the valleys.
In West Virginia, the George Washington National Forest occupies a region of long, parallel mountains that are separated by well-defined valleys. Much of the acreage in West Virginia is on Great North and Shenandoah mountains, the latter with several peaks higher than 4,000 feet. The highest, Reddish Knob at 4,397 feet, is well-known for its outstanding vistas of the Allegheny Mountains to the west and the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains to the east.
Unlike the Monongahela National Forest, which is mostly in a region of high annual precipitation, the George Washington National Forest has relatively low annual precipitation. In addition, much of the area is underlain by acidic, nutrient-poor shales and sandstones. Consequently, much of the national forest supports dry forests of oaks, hickories, and pines. American chestnut was once abundant, but became scarce following the chestnut blight. Limestone areas support a diverse forest that includes yellow poplar, basswood, and maple, and are notably rich in spring wildflowers. In cool ravines and higher elevations can be found forests dominated by Canada hemlock and northern hardwoods, especially northern red oak. White pine was once prevalent in some areas, especially on Shenandoah Mountain, but insects, fires, and logging greatly reduced its extent.
Deer, turkey, black bear, bobcat, ruffed grouse, and other wildlife are common. Mountain streams often support populations of native brook trout. In the fall, the southward migrations of hawks and eagles follow the ridge tops. These migrations can be viewed from observation points at Reddish Knob in Pendleton County and the Big Schloss in Hardy County.
Many unusual and interesting plants and animals live within the George Washington National Forest. The Cow Knob salamander is found on Shenandoah Mountain and a handful of nearby ridges, but nowhere else on earth. Portions of the national forest are managed to protect the salamander. Box huckleberry, a rare evergreen shrub, is found in Hardy County. Turkeybeard and dwarf trillium, both members of the lily family, have been found in West Virginia only on Shenandoah Mountain, which is also one of the few places in the state where the mountain fetterbush can be found. The George Washington National Forest supports some of the largest, most diverse shale barrens known. Shale barrens are very dry, rocky habitats that support many unusual plants and animals, including some plants found only in shale barrens in the Central Appalachians. Important populations of the shale barren rockcress, an endangered species, occur on national forest lands in Pendleton County.
The national forest includes some of West Virginia’s best-known natural and scenic areas. These include Trout Pond, the only natural lake in West Virginia, and the Lost River Sinks, where the flow of Lost River disappears under Sandy Ridge, and then reappears as the Cacapon River. In early spring, the crest of Shenandoah Mountain has spectacular displays of flowering shrubs in the heath family, including mountain laurel, several azaleas, and in early April, mountain fetterbush, which has clusters of white flowers.
The national forest is popular with birders, hikers, mountain bikers, campers, anglers, and hunters. The Tuscarora Trail, a long-distance hiking trail that runs from central Pennsylvania to Shenandoah National Park, passes through part of the forest. Campgrounds, picnic areas, and other recreational facilities are scattered throughout. Portions of the national forest are managed for timber production and harvesting. The West Virginia portion of the George Washington has no congressionally designated national wilderness areas.
This Article was written by Rodney Bartgis