At 4,863 feet, the summit provides not only breathtaking views, but also an unusual landscape of its own. Gnarled red spruce trees, after which the mountain is named, grow deformed on one side, shorn by punishing westerly winds that tear over the ridge. And stands of evergreens at the top gradually mix in with other species, like mountain ash, which produces dense clusters of brilliant flame-colored berries that last through the winter, and turn from green to a spectrum of yellow and orange shades in the fall.
The drive to the peak requires resolve and care. From a base point near Judy Gap, W.Va., a serpentine drive up Route 33 narrows to a nine-mile stretch of old forestry road, with several blind curves and switchbacks, barely wide enough to pass traffic coming down, and with no guardrails protecting against steep drops down the mountain slope. The path is not treated to remove ice or snow.
At the top, however, visitors are rewarded with a wealth of options for taking in the scenery. About 1,000 feet from the parking lot is a two-story observation tower that provides an even higher vantage from which to survey the surrounding area. And the easy, half-mile Whispering Spruce Trail leads visitors along a gravel path that circles the tower for panoramic views across both sides of the ridge.
The more intrepid can seek out other overlooks to enjoy all to themselves. At the other end of the parking lot, the Huckleberry Trail carves a roughly five-mile path along the ridge, running northeast away from Spruce Knob. The trail passes by nearly a dozen backcountry campsites that lead slightly off the trail and, sometimes, down to an opening in the trees — a private window from which to view the vistas below, away from the main area.
Beyond that, the trail continues to a longer loop, which passes through a number of high altitude meadows, allowing hikers an opportunity to pause and observe the woods all around the clearing. However, the full hike is over 15 miles, and frigid fall temperatures necessitate serious cold weather gear for anyone planning to camp out overnight and complete the loop over multiple days.
According to the United States Forest Service, Spruce Knob lies within a day’s drive of about half of the populace, accessible from points all along the East Coast and the Midwest, and roughly four hours from Washington. And while it may be the most impressive vantage point in the area, it is not the only one.
Kelly Bridges, the public affairs officer for Monongahela National Forest, said that fall weather at the peak can be unpredictable, and heavy fog and clouds can, at times, obscure the very best views at the top of Spruce Knob. But on those days, an easy backup lies 10 miles northeast up Route 33 at Seneca Rocks, a soaring crag popular among rock climbers, with razor thin fins that stick up vertically and rise nearly 900 feet. There, a steep trail leads to another observation deck that looks down into the valley, where a variety of hardwood trees that thrive at lower elevations take on deep red and yellow hues along a river.