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Old-Growth Forests


When European settlers first arrived, West Virginia’s 15 million acres were almost entirely forested. As late as 1880, two-thirds of the state was still covered by original forests, but by 1920 virtually the entire state had been deforested. Old-growth forest was once abundant here, but few forests escaped the logging of the 19th and 20th centuries. By 2000, West Virginia had reforested and our state had more forestland than it has had for 100 years, but only small remnants of the grand pre-settlement forest remain. Individual old trees are not uncommon, fortunately, since boundary trees were often left untouched, and many trees were spared because of their low timber value.

Old-growth forests have trees of many ages, and conditions favorable for trees to reach their natural longevity. The age of old-growth varies widely by species. White oak and hemlock can live for more than 500 years, while red spruce rarely exceeds 300 years.

Some of the best remaining old-growth stands are dominated by conifer and hardwood mixtures. Cathedral State Park in Preston County is a wonderful example of a cove forest, with hemlock, beech, sugar maple, red and white oak, and cucumber tree. The largest hemlock measures over 21 feet in circumference, and is probably more than 500 years old. Pierson Hollow in Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park has a similar mixture of hemlock, yellow poplar, and white oak. Nearby Koontz Bend in Fayette County also has old hemlock, along with black birch and red maple. A ten-acre stand along Anthony Creek in Greenbrier County contains white oak, pignut hickory, black gum, and white pine which all exceed 200 years of age.

One of the state’s better-known conifer stands occurs on Pike Knob of North Fork Mountain in Pendleton County. Pike Knob has the southernmost station for red pine, many of which are 200 years old. The pines on Pike Knob were used as a seed source for reforestation projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

The world’s oldest living table mountain pine is located on Pike Knob. Researchers doing a study of the history of fire determined the pine tree is 271 years old. Table mountain pines are more likely to survive fires because they grow in isolated areas on rocky terrain.

Another well-known stand of conifers is located in the West Virginia University forest in Preston County. The hemlock stand along Little Laurel Run survived because the logging concern went bankrupt just as its railroad tracks reached the area. Because of its streamside location, it also escaped the slash fires that ravaged the mountains.

Gaudineer Knob in Pocahontas County is the state’s best-known old-growth red spruce stand, a small remnant of the once vast red spruce forest of the highlands. This stand escaped logging in the 1920s because of a surveyor’s error.

A fine example of an old-growth oak stand is the Murphy Tract in Ritchie County, managed by the West Virginia Nature Conservancy. This stand occupies a dry ridge with very thin soils, and has five species of oak, along with maple, beech, and hickory. Because of the infertile soils, towering trees with large trunks are absent here. Nevertheless, 400-year-old white oaks may be found, some no larger than 30 inches in diameter at breast height. Horner’s Woods in Lewis County has 300-year-old white and chestnut oaks, along with black oak, sugar maple, and beech.

Written by James Rentch


  1. Davis, Mary Byrd, ed. Eastern Old-growth Forests: Prospects for Rediscovery and Recovery. Washington: Island Press, 1996.

  2. Carvell, Kenneth L. Virgin Timber Stands: Why Were They Spared?. Wonderful West Virginia, July 1996.