Backpacking the Spruce Knob/Seneca Creek Loop
Enjoy beautiful streams, waterfalls, swimming holes, high mountain meadows, spruce-filled alpine forest, and the wreckage of a 1967 Piper PA-23 plane crash on this 16.5-mile lollipop loop. Great for beginners and seasoned backpackers alike, the Spruce Knob/Seneca Creek Loop is an excellent route for all, and serves up some of the more exceptional backcountry campsites in the region.
Trailhead elevation 4,839'
Water mostly near the middle of the loop
Don't miss the plane crash on Spruce Mountain and the premier campsites along Seneca Creek
Backpacking the Spruce Knob/Seneca Creek Loop
The Spruce Knob/Seneca Creek Loop comprises six trails, namely the Huckleberry, Lumberjack, High Meadows, Horton, Seneca Creek, and Judy Springs Trails, all of which are utilized along this route. The loop begins near the top of Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia at 4,863'. Trailhead parking can accommodate around 80 vehicles, so finding a spot should never be an issue. Start by locating the Huckleberry Trailhead/533, which is located to the left immediately after entering the parking area.
The first 5 miles along the blue-blazed Huckleberry Trail until reaching the Lumberjack Trail/534 junction are generally downhill and can best be described as a shaded forest hike. Moss covered rocks and deadfall rest beneath canopies of upland red spruce, pine, maple, beech, and cherry birch. The scenery along this stretch is very reminiscent of the landscapes found along the Big Beechy Trail or North-South Loop in Cranberry Wilderness.
After hiking approximately 2 miles, you'll reach a section of the trail that becomes notably rocky, with huckleberry fields bordering it. In mid to late September, these huckleberry fields transform into a striking shade of red, creating a pleasant shift in the scenery.
The Huckleberry Trail is renowned for its muddy conditions between the 4.1-mile and 4.5-mile marks throughout the year. Hikers frequently encounter ankle-deep mud, standing puddles, or worse. While it's fairly easy to navigate around much of the mud and water, it's strongly advisable to wear waterproof boots.
At 5 miles, the Huckleberry Trail intersects with the Lumberjack and Hotron/530 Trails. Here, you'll have the option to continue along the Horton Trail and hike the loop clockwise, or veer right onto the Lumberjack Trail and hike counterclockwise. This article focuses on turning right onto the Lumberjack Trail and hiking the loop in a counterclockwise direction. It's important to note that when turning right from the Huckleberry Trail, you'll notice that there are two trails - the Lumberjack Trail is the trail on the right.
Roughly one mile into the Lumberjack Trail, or 6 miles into the overall loop, you'll find an unsigned spur trail on the left side of the main trail, at coordinates 38.7639046, -79.4977590. The faint spur trail takes a descent of 150 feet over a span of 250 feet, ultimately leading to the crash site of a twin engine 1967 Piper PA-23, which occurred on October 31, 1973.
According to NTSB records and newspaper reports, the flight originated from Flint, Michigan, destined for Cumberland, Maryland, carrying two individuals: the 24-year-old pilot and Vietnam War Army veteran James Tasker (JT) Watson, and 17-year-old high school student Jonathan Randolph (Randy) Johnson. The two men were on a return cargo flight contracted to Nicolson Air Services, a privately owned mail and cargo airline where Watson worked as a pilot. The Cumberland, Maryland based airline also ran a flight training school, which may explain why 17-year-old Johnson was aboard.
During the flight, the aircraft, lacking deicing capabilities, experienced ice accumulation on its wings, leading to the destruction of lift. Tragically, between the hours of 3 to 4 AM, the plane collided with the side of Spruce Mountain, instantly killing both men.
Three days following the crash, a hiker discovered the wreckage and subsequently notified the authorities. After rescue crews located the bodies of Watson and Johnson, they were transported to the Franklin, West Virginia Coroner's Office. Watson sustained fatal wounds to his head, chest, and extremities, while Johnson was decapitated.
With no easy way to remove the plane wreckage, it was abandoned on the mountain where it remains to this day. Over the years, scavengers have picked apart its remains, but a few substantial segments are still present. Along the slope lies the recognizable tail of the aircraft, bearing the tail number N5141Y, as well as sections of
Little is known regarding the aircraft's intended flight path. However, Spruce Mountain is well outside of the direct path of Flint to Cumberland, which suggests one of two plausible scenarios: either Watson attempted to bypass adverse weather conditions by flying farther south than originally planned, or there was a failure in the aircraft's instrumentation. Whatever the case, we'll never know.
After exploring the wreckage, continue along the Lumberjack Trail for another mile until it dead ends at the signed High Meadows Trail/564. Except for a 300-foot stretch of the trail that traverses a partly open meadow teeming with wildflowers around the 8-mile mark, the High Meadows Trail offers a woodland landscape reminiscent of the scenery found on the Lumberjack Trail.
At approximately 9.3 miles, the High Meadows Trail reenters the forest and soon intersects with the clearly marked Horton Trail/530. At this juncture, make a right turn and follow the Horton Trail for a half mile, leading you across a 10-foot-wide stream and over the crest of a 15-foot-tall waterfall shown below. Later in this article, you'll find detailed information on every campsite along the loop, including photos, tent capacity, proximity to filterable water, and more. The waterfall below is within view from campsite #19, one of the premium sites along Seneca Creek.
Crossing the stream that is the source of the waterfall is easy in any season, typically involving minimal rock hopping. Upon reaching the 10-mile mark, or approximately 0.15 miles past the stream crossing, you'll encounter the end of the Horton Trail, where it meets Seneca Creek. The loop's route on the Seneca Creek Trail/515 carries on from there, on the opposite side of the creek.
During the summer and fall seasons, wading across the creek typically doesn't exceed mid-calf depth. Nevertheless, following extended periods of rainfall or during the spring, when the water levels are higher, attempting to cross the creek can become hazardous.
Before crossing, consider making a quick detour to view the 30-foot-tall Upper Seneca Creek Falls. To reach this spot, rather than crossing the creek, turn right at the end of the Horton Trail and follow the Seneca Creek Trail downstream for 150 feet.
Once you arrive at the falls, you'll encounter a brief but steep trail that guides you to the plunge pool. This offers an opportunity for those inclined to get closer to the falls or take a chilly swim in its waters. Afterwards, backtrack along the same path, cross the creek, and resume the hike on the Seneca Creek Trail, located on the opposite bank. The ensuing 1.7 miles hug Seneca Creek and are typically regarded as the most picturesque segment of the hike.
The trail passes numerous cascades and some of the most exceptional backcountry campsites in the area.
During this stretch of the hike, you'll encounter two more creek crossings. The second occurs at roughly 10.5 miles, and the second near the 11.0-mile mark. In the summer and fall, these crossings are easily manageable, typically involving only minor rock hopping. However, in springtime or following extended rainfall, these two crossings can become more demanding, though still not as challenging as the initial one.
At 11.7 miles, the Seneca Creek Trail intersects with the Judy Springs Trail/512. At this point, you'll cross Seneca Creek using a small footbridge.
After crossing the footbridge, the trail takes a left turn and begins a notably steep ascent. Over the course of the next mile, the Judy Springs Trail gains more than 700 feet in elevation, marking it as the most demanding section of the hike.
The Judy Springs Trail segment of the loop stands out for its scenic beauty, as it meanders through high mountain meadows adorned with vast amounts of wildflowers, red spruce, and beautiful mountain views. Peak fall foliage is generally early to mid-October.
At approximately 12.7 miles, the Judy Springs Trail intersects with the Huckleberry Trail and proceeds to climb another 300 feet over 0.7 miles before levelling off. After that, you have another 3 miles to hike along the Huckleberry Trail to reach the trailhead and complete the loop.
There is an abundance of established backcountry campsites along the loop, catering to various group sizes, ranging from single tent sites to larger group accommodations. Below is a comprehensive list of sites, including tent capacity, proximity to water sources, and more. The mileage is indicated from the Huckleberry Trailhead when hiking the loop counterclockwise. It's worth noting that there are five campsites that stand out distinctly from the others. They are listed below as sites 19, 23, 28, 29, and 30. The backcountry campsites lack official numbering along the trail; however, for descriptive convenience, I've assigned them numbers. All of these sites are equipped with stone fire rings and are either situated right beside the trail or within 20 feet. It's also worth noting that due to unreliable GPS signal along the Seneca Creek Trail and beyond, campsite mileages may be inaccurate by up to one-tenth of a mile.
#1 0.1 miles, room for 3-4 tents, no water source nearby
#2 0.25 miles, room for 1-2 tents, not very flat and fairly rocky, no water source nearby
#3 0.4 miles, two sites that are side-by-side, each have room for 4-5 tents, no water source nearby
#4 0.45 miles, two sites that are side-by-side, each have room for 4-5 tents, no water source nearby
#5 0.75 miles, room for 4-5 tents, stone chairs, no water source nearby
#6 0.9 miles, room for 3 tents, stone bench, no water source nearby
#7 0.9 miles, room for 3 tents, opposite side of trail from the site above, no water source nearby
#8 1.25 miles, room for 8-10 tents, stone benches, no water source nearby
#9 1.35 miles, room for 6-8 tents, no water source nearby
#10 1.85 miles, room for 3-4 tents, no water source nearby
#11 2.2 miles, room for 6-8 tents, stone bench, no water source nearby, there is another site adjacent to this site, 100 feet away, set off from trail with more privacy
#12 2.3 miles, room for 8-10 tents, five stone chairs and stone bench, no water source nearby
#13 2.4 miles, room for 3-4 tents, two stone chairs, no water source nearby
#14 3.6 miles, room for 6-8 tents, two stone chairs, no water source nearby
#15 3.9 miles, room for 4-6 tents, two small stone chairs, no water source nearby
#16 4.4 miles, room for 3-4 tents, no water source nearby
#17 4.5 miles, room for 1-2 tents, good privacy, no water source nearby
#18 9.4 miles, room for 1-2 tents, uneven ground, reliable stream 100 yards prior to site
#19 10.0 miles, room for 3-4 tents, four stone chairs, beside two waterfalls and Seneca Creek, including the waterfall that you pass beside along the Horton Trail just before reaching the Seneca Creek Trail
#20 10.1 miles, room for 3 tents, stone chairs, beside Seneca Creek
#21 10.3 miles, room for 1 tent, stone chair, must cross Seneca Creek to access, beside Seneca Creek
#22 10.35 miles, room for 1-2 tents, two stone chairs, must cross Seneca Creek to access, beside Seneca Creek
#23 10.8 miles, room for 1-2 tents, stone bench and chair, beside waterfall and swimming hole, rooty, beside Seneca Creek
#24 10.85 miles, room for 8-10 tents, four stone chairs, must cross Seneca Creek to access, beside Seneca Creek
#25 11.0 miles, room for 8-10 tents, five stone chairs, beside Seneca Creek
#26 11.1 miles, room for 4-6 tents, four stone chairs, somewhat off trail with decent privacy, beside Seneca Creek
#27 11.2 miles, room for 3-4 tents, two stone chairs, beside waterfall, must cross Seneca Creek to access, beside Seneca Creek
#28 11.2 miles, room for 4-6 tents, beside a small waterfall with another larger waterfall 100 feet away, beside Seneca Creek
#29 11.2 miles, room for 1-2 tents, grind wheel table, beside waterfall, adjacent to the site above, beside Seneca Creek
#30 11.3 miles, room for 3-4 tents, two stone chairs, beside natural waterslide, decent privacy, beside Seneca Creek
#31 11.5 miles, room for 6-8 tents, four stone chairs, must cross Seneca Creek to access, just beyond intersection with Bear Hunter Trail/531, beside Seneca Creek
#32 11.6 miles, room for 8-10 tents, three stone chairs, in an open meadow-like area, beside Seneca Creek
#33 11.7 miles, room for 2-3 tents, small stone chairs, beside small waterfall, just after footbridge, Seneca Creek within 100 feet
#34 11.8 miles, room for 1 tent, very rocky and not level, beside filterable stream, this is the last campsite before those on the Huckleberry Trail when hiking the loop counterclockwise
In addition to the water available along the 1.7 mile stretch of the Seneca Creek Trail, you'll find three other dependable water sources along the loop. As you hike along the High Meadows Trail, near the 9-mile mark, there's a stream that cascades down the hillside and crosses the trail that can be filtered. This stream typically flows year-round, but it may dry up during extended dry periods. About 0.1 miles before reaching the Horton Trail at the 9.3-mile mark, you encounter another consistently flowing stream. Further along, at approximately 11.7 miles, you'd find a trustworthy stream beside campsite #33 just after crossing the footbridge at the Judy Springs Trail/Seneca Creek Trail junction. Lastly, the last reliable water source on the loop can be found beside campsite #34, which is located 0.1 miles beyond the Judy Springs Trail/Seneca Creek Trail junction.
A modest black bear population resides in the region. While the USFS doesn't require bear canisters or bags, it's advisable to use one. If you plan on spending time along Seneca Creek, be on the lookout for the elusive blue crayfish known to inhabit the stream. Keep in mind that there is no cell phone coverage along the loop, so if you rely on AllTrails to guide you, make sure to download the Huckleberry, Lumberjack, & Seneca Creek Loop map before setting out. Just know that the mileage that they list is short by about 1 mile.