Rock city

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post, A woods named Fred.

boulder-top garden

Hearing the thunder, we decide to pick up the pace a little — from one mile an hour to maybe two. It’s well past lunch time, though, and we finally stop to refuel at a cluster of Volkswagen Beetle-sized boulders. A few have managed to acquire a thin layer of humus over the millennia, and sport miniature gardens of Canada mayflower and Solomon’s seal, as in the above photo. Just like the small exclosure I wrote about last Friday, such boulder-top gardens suffer very little deer herbivory and are a good indication of what the forest floor might look like if deer numbers were kept at a saner level. Tree seedlings often take advantage of these miniature refuges, as well, but the thin soil offers little support for many species. For trees such as yellow birch and red spruce, rock-top purchases present little problem, but we don’t find either species along the Fred Woods Trail. Neither black birch nor eastern hemlock seems quite as successful; we find a number of them that have grown to a decent size on top of a rock, then toppled over in an icestorm or a strong wind, taking the humus with them.

oak snag

I like that this is a mixed conifer-oak forest, though. I’ve encountered outcroppings of the Pottsville conglomerate in various parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and due to the variety of forest types and land-use histories, no two are alike. Even where the land has been horrifically treated, as at Dolly Sods in the Monongahela National Forest or the Wolf Rocks portion of Pennsylvania’s Gallitzin State Forest, the bare rock stands as a visible and charismatic reminder of an indomitable core of wildness.

whale rock

The sun is still shining as we finish our lunches and resume our slow perambulation. The thunder seems to have moved off a little, maybe. We explore a small assemblage of bus-sized boulders and wonder if that’s what all the fuss was about. But then we come to a fork in the trail, with a Vista in one direction and a Rock Loop in the other. Not much of a contest there.

hemlock snag 1

And then we are in the rock city, and it takes our breath away.

iron oxides and lichen

The surrounding vegetation might not be as lush, but the rocks themselves are every bit as magnificent as those at Bear Heaven in the Mon. The mossy parts are just as mossy, the iron oxide-y parts are as brightly colored, and the rock tripe is even bigger: we find two of the leathery lichens that are as big as serving platters. “The air can’t be too polluted here,” L. remarks.


Even the graffiti is tasteful: all of it incised, none painted. The oldest dated examples go back to the beginning of the 20th century, and one graffito from 1935 refers to a Civilian Conservation Corps unit, so it’s obvious that some sort of trail was here long before the completion of the entire Fred Woods Trail in 1980.

canyon 2

The graffiti is concentrated in a one-hundred-foot-long canyon, the narrowest portions of which would offer a bit of a challenge to anyone heavier than about ten stone. Even narrower fissures and caves allow sounds to travel through the rocks in strange ways. It’s easy to imagine the kinds of things that vision-questing teenagers must’ve seen here over the decades. The impression of enchantment is almost overwhelming…

happy rock

…though some visitors seem to have taken a more irreverent view.

The rain holds off until just after we finish exploring the densest section of the rock city. We’ve gone a few hundred yards further when L. spots what appears to be the biggest boulder yet off through the woods, as big as a mansion. As we approach it, though, the top half resolves into a dense cluster of hemlocks, some probably of great age despite their relatively short statures, judging from their basal diameters.

My camera batteries have given up the ghost a short time before, so I’m a little out of sorts. It doesn’t help my mood when I notice a grove of mountain laurel bushes that are almost all dead, probably from a combination of deer browsing (yes, deer do eat laurel, even though it is mildly poisonous to them) and the various blights whose effects we have been noticing throughout central Pennsylvania. On the other side of the grove, another boulder curves upward like the prow of a ship. We are literally just standing and staring at that when a close crack of thunder signals the onset of a downpour. We duck under the shelter, and though we both have umbrellas with us, I convince L. that we’d be better advised to sit it out — it can’t last more than half an hour. We settle onto a couple of flat rocks that appear to have been placed there for that purpose by some previous visitors.


The rain comes down in sheets, and for a while that’s all we can hear. But after ten or fifteen minutes, it starts to slacken off, and I hear an odd sound — a cry off in the woods. A minute or two later, L. hears it too.

“That’s a person! Somebody’s over there.”

“I don’t think that’s a human being. Why would anybody be wailing?”

There’s not much of a wind, but the tree tops do seem to be swaying. “I think it’s a tree,” I say. “Dead trees can make all kinds of ungodly noises when they rub up against living trees.” I’m eyeing a particularly large example of this about a hundred feet away.

The rain stops twenty-five minutes after it began. We’ve polished off a bag full of dried pineapple pieces and are anxious to find out who’s been doing all the wailing.

We discover the culprit just ten feet away, resting against the limb of a chestnut oak: it’s a dead tree, all right, but much smaller than the one I’d had my eye on. Enough to scare the crap out of anyone who’s tried to camp here recently, though, I’ll bet.

And perhaps we should’ve been more frightened then we were about hanging out in that rock shelter. The next morning, L. will find a deer tick and have to go the emergency room to get shots for Lyme disease.

snail trail

We pick our way slowly back along the wet trail. We smell the hay-scented fern hundreds of yards before we enter the younger woods. It smells nothing like hay now, if it ever did: an ambrosial odor that keeps us guessing even after the evidence of its humdrum origin is all around us.

For more photos of the Fred Woods Trail, see my photoset here, and another, by blogger Gina Marie, here. It was that photoset, in fact, that first tipped me off about the place. Thanks, Gina! And thanks also to Gary Thornbloom’s “On the Trail” column, which I found archived here [PDF].

21 Replies to “Rock city”

  1. From your photos, and from what I’ve seen in more northern woods, it’s clear we have a more diverse forest understory here in West Virginia, despite logging, strip-mining, and other scourges of the modern world.

    I doubt poaching is heavy enough to affect the deer population, but our WV deer hunting season is micromanaged by the DNR to a surprising degree. The hunting/fishing regulations are the size and complexity of IRS form 1040 instructions, they are changed every year, and are different for every county.

    In 2003, we could have taken 10 legal deer on our property. (We stopped at 6.) That same winter, heavy snows caused a big deer die-off, and since then, there has been no antlerless deer season in Pocahontas County, and the rifle season has been shorter. Monroe and Greenbrier counties, however, continue to allow much heavier harvesting.

    Now, the difference could have nothing to do with deer. The climate is different, and the soil may have more resilience.

  2. Marred but magical, Dave–those weird little enclosures and green man face and that marvelous rusty stone…

    Evidently one must pay for such marvelous outings, and the price of the quest is ticks.

  3. marja-leena – In fact, Canada mayflower and its cogeners are sometimes called wild, or false, lily-of-the-valley. True lily-of-the-valley is in a different genus of the lily family, though.

    I’m sure L. will be fine. Not every deer tick carries Lyme disease in any case, but getting the shots is a good precaution.

    Rebecca – Ten deer between the two of you? Does that include special permits issued at a property owner’s requests? We have a couple programs like that.

    I have to think that the higher proportion of woods to fields, suburbs and other openings makes a difference too. I don’t think the soil would be that different. The plateau areas are comparable in length of season to this area I’ve profiled here due to their higher elevation. Then again, severer winters on parts of the WV uplands could be a limiting factor on deer populations, and not just during the worst die-off winters like 2003 (it was March 2005 for us), especially if combined with different, more wolf-like behavior in your coyotes.

    At any rate, thanks for the very informative comment.

    marly – I’m glad the specialness of the place came through.

  4. 5 deer per rifle hunter on one’s own property–that was the limit that year, with a split season for bucks, and a long antlerless deer season. We could have had more if we had bows or muzzle-loaders. For a damage permit, your property needs to be classified as a farm (a complex legal process requiring 5 acres or more, and I don’t know what-all), and I’ve heard there is no restriction on number of deer killed, although I’ve never seen those regulations.

    Would your property qualify for damage control permits? You certainly have evidence of damage.

  5. We have a new (4-year-old) program called the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) – see here. Quoting myself: “DMAP permits landowners to distribute additional coupons to take antlerless deer on their property, generally one coupon per fifty acres, unless the landowner makes a case that more than that are needed. In 2006, we made that case…” Last fall, some of our hunter friends did take four or five deer apiece, using DMAP coupons as well as extra doe tags. But that included archery and muzzleloader seasons; doe tags and DMAP coupons apply equally to all seasons. So it sounds as if West Virginia does allow more deer to be taken.

  6. Say, how big are those mayflowers compared to lily-of-the-valley? They obviously bloom at a later date. (Just thinking of my shade wildflower garden…)

  7. A few inches taller, I guess. The question is whether any of your local nurseries carry them. I was noticing this spring that there seem to be more native plant sales than ever, so maybe that would be something to keep an eye out for. Perhaps readers of this thread will have other suggestions on how to obtain them.

  8. I have several books at home on the subject of wildflower cultivation and will consult them this evening for Canada mayflower’s requirements and post the answer right here in VN tomorrow.
    L.’s a friend of mine and is fine, no shots (except the one with the anaesthetic preceeding the surgical removal of the tick’s head) …a heavy dose of antibiotic was taken orally. They don’t even test ticks for Lymes anymore, it’s so widespread, they assume that if you’re bitten, you’re in danger. The first 24 hrs. after the bite are the best window for fighting it off.

  9. Hey Dave – thanks for the links. Great post – Stacy and I both enjoyed it. We both missed the bus when we were there – too bad. FW is a really cool place and probably not too well known. Did you say you took refuge from the rain under a rock overhang? Stacy thinks the place you are talking about is a possible entrance to a cave (or so he hoped). Here’s where I mean (not very good quality – sorry).

    Also a bit unnerved to hear about L.’s tick. I feel we’ve (me and stacy) been very lucky so far for as much traipsing around the forest area as we do. I’m just biding my time before a tick finds my flesh too irresistible.

    quiet regular glad to hear L. is okay. And hopefully not too scarred to give up her hiking fun.

  10. Hi Gina – Glad you liked. No, it wasn’t that one – I recognize the spot. This shelter was a ways off the trail, and high enough that one could stand upright in it.

    I’ve never gotten a tick myself, though it’s probably only a matter of time. It could be that some people are simply more attractive than others. L. even had her pant legs tucked into her socks.

  11. marly,
    Canada mayflower is about 6″ high and will thrive in deep shade. Find a spot where it grows profusely and visit that spot in the fall when the berries are present and mature. Help yourself to a few and plant them where you want them. This taken from
    Handbook of Wild Flower Cultivation by Kathryn S. Taylor

  12. Seung and I came across a bunch of ancient graffiti in pyramids and other old rock stuff in Egypt, incribed like what you saw here. Paul Theroux mentions this too in his book Dark Star Safari, Overland from Cairo to Capetown, which Seung is reading right now.

  13. a bunch of ancient graffiti in pyramids and other old rock stuff in Egypt
    Cool! You know that’s what I’d have been photographing.

  14. You describe this trail perfectly. I have walked it over ten times, but the beauty of such a magical place still thrills me. I’m glad someone wrote about this trail, and did it justice. Thanks.

  15. I read both of your posts about Fred Woods Trail. Great pictures. From someone who has been all over that mountain, literaly, you have barely scratched the surface of what the mountains has to show you. Sometime in the future, I will have to set up a flickr account and post some of my over 1000 pictures I have of that mountain alone. I have been down the majority of the runs that flow off of it. I have been down Sandy Run, Beaver Dam Run, Stone Quarry Run, Water Plug Run and Little Dents Run. Especially Beaver Dam Run has alot to offer. But if you decided to go down it, be prepared, there is no trail, and it is extremely rugged for a good portion of the decent. Also you may want to have someone meet ya at the bottom on 555.

    The Reason i know that mountain so well is my uncle has a camp up there and I am usually there 2-3 times a year for 3 days to a week a visit. If you have any questions about the area, let me know, I will be glad to try and answer them for ya.

    1. Hi Digger – Thanks for the comment. If I get back up that way I’ll definitely drop you a line. There’s no substitute for the kind of knowledge one gets from long-term association with a place. Please do let me know if you post photos online at Flickr (I hear Picasa is a good photo-sharing site, too).

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