Making Lemonade from a Fresh Crop of Lemons – The Highpoints of PA, MD and WV

Making Lemonade from a Fresh Crop of Lemons – The Highpoints of PA, MD and WV

Making Lemonade from a Fresh Crop of Lemons

The Highpoints of PA, MD and WV

Mt Davis PA, 3,213 ft.; Backbone Mt. MD, 3,684 ft.; Spruce Knob WV, 4,863 ft.

June 30, 2013

Wes Chapman

Martha and I had not planned on a reprise of our trip of two weeks ago – driving to Nashville from New Hampshire with a load of furniture for our daughter at Vanderbilt. An unfortunate/fortunate automobile accident by that daughter (totaled car, no injuries) had us back on the road ferrying a replacement auto south. In an attempt to make lemonade from a fresh crop of lemons, we decided to knock off three state highpoints in the central Appalachian Mountains on the way south – PA, MD and WV. I had not done a single state highpoint for over a year – since Mt. Hood in May of 2012 – and was itching to get back into the game.

The entertainment for the trip was an Audiobook – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s terrific work, Team of Rivals, and we were off. The historical theme of the journey was appropriate, as the area we were traversing has some of the richest human and geological history in the US.

           PA climbing boots

Insouciant success on Mt. Davis, PA

Mt. Davis – “A rose by any name” 

Mt. Davis lies in Amish farm country in the southwest corner of PA, along a 30 mile long northeast/southwest trending ridge in the Allegheny Mountains that stretches into Maryland. This is a drive-up summit, topped with a parking lot and an old observation tower. Because of the lack of prominence of the ridge, the views are only fair. The ridge is formed by a tough sandstone cap rock, and was previously the font of extractive industries including timber, pine tar, coal and clay. This is a triple watershed area on the Eastern Continental divide, including the Potomac, Mississippi and Susquehanna Rivers.

The area was explored by George Washington and others prior to and during the French and Indian Wars. Mt. Davis is named for an early settler in the area, but the entire ridge is still known officially as Negro Mountain – including road signs on the Interstate. It was named for a slave (known either as Nemesis or Goliath) who was killed in a skirmish with Indians, in an action led by Colonel Thomas Cresap in 1756. Apparently Nemesis was wounded, and volunteered to stay behind and protect the retreating band of Colonials – in a valiant self-sacrifice reminiscent of Roland battling the Saracens on the Spanish March.

Not too surprisingly, the name has produced some controversy – including those who find the name offensive – led by Rosita C. Youngblood, a State representative from Philadelphia who said,” Through a school project, my son and granddaughter first informed me of the name of this range and I found it to be disparaging that we have one of our great works of nature named as such… I find it disheartening for tourists who visit this range to see the plaque with the name Negro Mountain displayed on the mountainside.”Ms. Youngblood has unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation to rename the mountain.

Views from Mt. Davis

Views from Mt. Davis

On the other side of the issue is Christopher Bracey, Professor of African and African American Studies at the Washington University in St. Louis who said, “I must confess I have a slightly different take on it than [Youngblood]… Here we have a mountain, whose name was intended to be a testament to Negro bravery. It seems rather crass and unsophisticated to name it Negro Mountain, but the intentions were strong.”

In any event, the name remains, the controversy continues, and the matter remains unresolved. I can only hope that if they do rename this Hill, that they capture the valor and self-sacrifice of the person for whom it is currently named. It is difficult to imagine today what transpired on this place over 250 years ago, and it would be a tragedy to lose it.

Backbone Mountain


With three highpoints in our sights for the day, we had work to do, and came careening down off the summit, headed south on 219 to the summit of Maryland. But first, it was time for lunch. We found a first class BBQ joint along the way – great prices and super ribs, smoked turkey and corn bread – Archie’s BBQ.

 Achies BBQ

The best ribs on Rt. 219

Backbone Mt. is part of a 20+mile ridge – slightly more prominent than Mt. Davis, and festooned with windmills. This is another hunk of sandstone formed into a ridge which roughly approximates the Maryland/West Virginia border. Access is from a parking lot on the main road, and involves a 1 mile walk up a woods road to the crest. The trail is extraordinarily well maintained and marked, and is a credit to the local crew that keeps it up.

Backbone Mountain Winfmills

Windmills on Backbone Mountain

 Good signage up the hill

Good signage makes it hard to get lost

 Martha on Backbone Mt

Martha resting on the Summit of Backbone Mt.

One striking feature of the forests in this area is that there are virtually no evergreens, and the forest canopy is dense and approximately uniform in height. This results in very limited undergrowth, and clear views on the forest floor. This is typical of old growth forest in the Northeast as well, but very rare to encounter today.

 Road up Backbone Mt

Well-trod path to the Summit

US Smallest Church

Smallest Church in America

After a quick stop by the smallest church in America, we were off to the top of West Virginia – Spruce Knob. Spruce Knob is named for the eponymous red spruces that cling to the summit – a remnant population form the Ice Age. The spruce trees really don’t grow below 4,700 feet – and are plastered to the summit plateau. As in the mountains of the Northeast, these trees are uniformly deformed by the prevailing Westerly winds, with almost all branches on the leeward side.

Spruce Knob is also a drive up – and the route passes through some of the best rock climbing in the eastern US – Seneca rocks. This formation is a hunk of 440 million year old Quartzite – the Tuscarora – which is about 250 feet thick, folded into a vertical configuration ,and cut by Seneca Creek and the Potomac River. The setting is spectacular and supports a vibrant local climbing community. The rock is really hard and tough, and was the training area for US Mountain Troops in WWII. The climbing ethics of the period involved the use of destructive pitons and bolts – soft steel driven into the rock. Tens of thousands were used over the years and many remain to this day – tempting but very dangerous to climb with.

  Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks – a wonderful place to play

One unusual aspect of the local geology is that it includes two of the three oldest rivers in the world – the Susquehanna and New Rivers – each over 300 million years old. These rivers actually predate the Appalachian Mountains, through which they cut, and create some of the most extreme and wild topography in the US. Thinking about it while driving through these valleys is somehow a little spooky.

Summit of Spruce Knob

Summit of Spruce Knob

Spruce Knob is a drive up, and topped by a recently built observation tower, restrooms, parking lots and the rest of civilization. This must have been a really wild place before the CCC built the road up in the ‘30s. I was very glad that this is the last of the driveups on my list – this place would be terrific if you had to walk to get here.

Our mission complete, we headed out at flank speed back into the arms of civilization – specifically Elkins West Virginia and a surprisingly good Venezeulen meal at El Gran Sabor – who would have imagined?

El Gran Sabor

The best of Venezeula in Elkins WV

The Gendarme

The Gendarme on Seneca Rocks

 View from the top of Spruce Knob

Adios from Spruce Knob

Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 05, 2013

    Enjoyed this column very much, Wes. Might I guess that you are a fan of John McPhee’s writing on geology (and perhaps of McPhee in general)?