Otter Creek Wilderness Area
Located in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.
Otter Creek Wilderness lies in a bowl formed by Shavers Mountain and McGowan Mountain. Most of the streams flow into Otter Creek and then to the Dry Fork River. These streams can flash flood during periods of high rain, and can leave visitors stranded. Vegetation consists of second-growth timber, rhododendron, and a variety of mosses. Elevations range from 1800 feet at the mouth of Otter Creek to 3900 feet on McGowan Mountain.
Its management now emphasizes challenge and natural processes, while its history is still apparent in the trails built on old railroad beds and the apple trees planted by homesteaders and logging camp workers. Trails are neither signed nor blazed, altough rock cairns are occasionally provided in areas that may appear confusing. Deadfall trees are not cut out of the trails unless going around them will cause unacceptable environmental impacts. No bridges are provided at creek crossings. The shelters are monitored by the Forest's engineering department, and when they are determined to be unsafe, they will be removed. In some areas, exposed culverts that present a hazard either to public safety or environmental conditions have been or will be removed.
Otter Creek Wilderness is located on the Cheat Ranger District of the Monongahela National Forest in Tucker and Randolph Counties, West Virginia. The southern-most trailhead is accessed by taking US 33 east of Elkins, WV to Forest Road 91, at the top of Shavers Mountain. Follow FR 91 to a triangle -shaped intersection with FR 303. Take the right side of the triangle on proceed on FR 303 to the trailhead. The northern trailheads are accessed via the Fernow Experimental Forest. Take US 219 into Parsons. A sign across from Big John's restaurant points to Otter Creek; turn south there, but after 70 yards, turn left and follow this road though town, past a cemetery, and onto a gravel road. At the intersection with 2 other gravel roads, turn right. You should see a sign for the Experimental Forest after you round a curve. Follow this road and take the left fork when it splits above the reservoir. A parking lot with a trailhead sign in a sharp curve is Big Springs Gap trailhead. Turkey Run trailhead is a little further up the road. Caution is needed on these gravel roads, since they are narrow, prone to rockslides in areas, and vehicle traffic is often heavy. This is a favorite hunting and scenic driving area for locals, and log trucks from the Experimental Forest are common.
This area was logged by the Otter Creek Boom and Lumber Company from 1897 to 1914. Several areas were also homesteaded either prior to or during this time. The majority of the Otter Creek area was acquired by the U.S. government in 1917. For the most part, the trees came back naturally, with only some Norway spruce planted on top of Shavers Mountain in the 1920's. The area was viewed primarily as a recreation area. Dirt bikes often made the trip from the mouth of Otter Creek up the length of the drainage as a scenic shortcut to get to Elkins. In the 1960's, shelters were built at the junction of Otter Creek and Moore Run trails and not far from the intersection of Green Mountain and Possession Camp trails. These shelters were popular camping sites. More logging was done from 1968 to 1972 in areas near Turkey Run, Condon Run, and north of Otter Creek near Big Springs Gap as the second-growth timber started to reach merchantable size. About this time, a push began to get the area designated as a wilderness. Recreational users at the time were tired of the noise and physical impact of the dirt bikes and did not want any logging done in the area. Hunters joined the push because the remoteness of the area made it good black bear habitat, and the population of this species in West Virgina was perceived to be declining. The area was designated as wilderness by the Eastern Wilderness Act, passed by Congress in 1975. At that time, the last remaining parcel of land in private ownership within the Wilderness boundary was acquired by U.S. government from the Rhoades family.
While people often refer to any wild or unoccupied land as a wilderness, land managers use this term to define areas formally designated by Congress. The Wilderness Act of 1964 established a Wilderness Preservation SYstem to benefit the nation as a whole. This landmark conservation legislation established for the American people an enduring resource of Wilderness. The Act defined wilderness as areas:
Affected primarily by the forces of nature, where man is a visitor who does not remain;
Possessing outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation;
Federally owned, undeveloped, and generally over 5,000 acres in size;
Protected and managed so as to allow natural ecologic processes to operate freely;
Containing ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historic value;
Formally designated by Congress as Wilderness.
The Eastern Wilderness Act of 1975 tiers to the original Wilderness Act that was passed in 1964, confirming the intent of the original Act and relaxing size and pristine conditions restrictions. This Act was deemed necessary because it became obvious that under the original Wilderness Act, virtually all the designated Wildernesses would be west of the Mississippi River. The fact that all land east of the Mississippi had at one time been privately owned contributed to human impacts on the land and the often small sizes of parcels in federal ownership. The Eastern Wilderness Act was a recognition of the remoteness of some areas despite their size or proximity to urban areas, and the ability of nature to reclaim land into a wild state.
Otter Creek Wilderness is 20,000 acres in size. Its management now emphasizes challenge and natural processes, while its history is still apparent in the trails built on old railroad beds and the apple trees planted by homesteaders and logging camp workers. Trails are neither signed nor blazed, although rock cairns are occasionally provided in areas that may appear confusing. Deadfall trees are not cut out of the trails unless going around them will cause unacceptable environmental impacts. No bridges are provided at creek crossings. The shelters are monitored by the Forest's engineering department, and when they are determined to be unsafe, they will be removed. In some areas, exposed culverts that present a hazard either to public safety or environmental conditions have been or will be removed. Help us keep our Wilderness wild. In high-use areas, use the existing sites and fire rings. In low-use areas be careful where you camp and strive to have as little impact as possible. Avoid those areas that show a little use. They are the most fragile. Please, don't disturb or remove the artifacts of previos occupation. Those spikes, chunks of metal, old glass, etc. are past of our heritage. Leave them for others to enjoy.
The Forest's wilderness management personnel request that all visitors know and practice the 6 Leave No Trace principles. By following these easy techniques to minimize human presence in wild areas, we can all help preserve our Wildernesses for present and future generations. For more information on these, you can contact any of the federal land managing agencies or their partners in Leave No Trace. There are even LNT websites on the internet.
Please note that mountain bikes, deer carts, chainsaws, and other motorized or mechanical equipment are not permitted. This is because they can negatively impact the desired wilderness qualities of solitude and primitive type of recreation.
Horses are permitted, but we are not clearing the trails to make their use easy. This is because some of the trails are rocky, some are boggy, and some have narrow places. Riding horses in this area could put your horse at risk from stone bruises, dislocated legs, or injuries from sliding down slopes. As a rider, you may be at risk from low branches and injuries resulting from narrow trails or if your horse panics at unfamiliar territory or conditions. Riding could endanger other wilderness visitors because of the unpredictable nature of horses, and it could harm the environment by compaction of the soil, and the breaking down of the sides of narrow trails (horses tend to walk on the outside edges) which could lead to soil erosion. We suggest that if you wish to bring horses or other stock into the area that you
- Are knowledgeable about Leave No Trace riding and camping techniques with stock
- Have well-trained animals familiar with wildlands, people wearing packs, and dogs
- Consciously rein your animal toward the uphill side of the trail as you ride to prevent them from walking on the downhill edge, and
- Take the time to scatter your animal's manure both at campsites and while on the trail. This will help the manure break down faster and avoid having others walk through it.
Please read this brochure, and others on minimum impact camping. If this is not the experience you seek, please inquire about other areas that may better suit your needs.
Wildlife in the area includes black bear, white-tail deer, wild turkey, grouse, snowshoe hare, cottontail rabbit, and a variety of squirrels. There are many species of birds, and several of reptiles including the poisonous timber rattlesnake. Otter Creek is also home to a small population of brook trout and several amphibians such as salamanders. The area on the west slope of McGowan Mountain is being managed for wild turkey, black bear, and associated species. While it is not within the Wilderness boundary, this management does affect two Wilderness trailheads: Moore Run and Yellow Creek. The WV Division of Natural Resources has asked the US Forest Service to minimize disturbance to these species during the late-spring and summer time periods to assist these animals is rearing their young. Therefore, the gate on McGowan Mountain road (FR 324) at the boundary with the Fernow Experimental Forest is closed to the public between April 15th and August 15th. This reduces the traffic to that necessary for maintenance, research, or management contracts and helps relieve the animals at a time when they are already stressed. Hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers are less stressful than motor vehicles and are still welcome to use McGowan Mountain road during this time.
Otter Creek Wilderness has an interesting variety of vegetative types and associated ecosystems. Spruce dominates the higher elevations and gradually gives way to hardwood trees such as black cherry and yellow birch on the middle and lower slopes. There are also occasional plantations of Norway spruce and groves of apple trees dating from when people resided in the Otter Creek area and tried to replace some of the harvested timber. Many areas, particularly stream drainages, are covered with thickets of impenetrable rhododendron and mountain laurel. There are three high plateau fens: Moore Run, Devil's Gulch, and Shavers Lick. Beavers are active near Moore Run fen and along Yellow Creek. In 1964, the WV Division of Natural Resources installed a limestone drum at the head of Otter Creek to neutralize the naturally acidic water.
Otter Creek Wilderness has 42 miles of trails, many of which follow old railroad grades, logging roads, or farm roads. Trails inside the wilderness boundary are no longer signed. Trailside vegetation will be allowed to close in more on some of the wider trails. This is to provide the wilderness visitor with a "wilder" experience. Because we are trying to provide this kind of experience, we strongly suggest that you carry USGS topographic quad maps and a compass when you visit Otter Creek Wilderness. If you know how to use them, they will help keep you from getting lost during your visit.
Mylius Trail #128
Average hiking time: 1.25 hours
This trail crosses Shavers Mountain between FR 162 (Kuntzville Road) and the Otter Creek trail. 1.7 miles of this trail are outside the wilderness boundary, which begins at the top of Shavers Mountain. In the area outside the wilderness boundary, you will pass near or through a permanent wildlife opening, which provides grass and forage for some wildlife species, and a thinning, which removes some trees from a stand to allow the remaining trees to grow bigger and faster. You may notice some small clearcuts on the flank of Shavers Mountain which were made to ensure that tree species that do not grow in the shade will continue to be present in the area.
Shavers Mountain Trail #129
Average hiking time: 4.5 hours
This trail follows the crest of Shavers Mountain. It begins at the junction of U.S. 33 and FR 91 (Stuart Memorial Drive) and ends where it meets the Green Mountain trail, near the Tucker/Randolph county line. 1.8 miles of this trail is outside the wilderness boundary, and much of the rest of it is very close to the boundary, so you may see the results of activities by private landowners from the trail.
Green Mountain Trail #130
Average hiking time: 2.5 hours
The trail crosses Green Mountain from Otter Creek to the east side of Shavers Mountain. It starts on the Otter Creek trail and ends where it joins with Shavers Mountain trail.
Otter Creek Trail #131
Average hiking time: 5 hours
This old railroad grade is the most-used trail in the wilderness. It follows Otter Creek from Condon Run to Dry Fork River. Condon Run can be reached by taking Stuart Memorial Drive (Forest Road 91) 1.4 miles north of State Route 33. Take the right fork in the road, which turns into Forest Road 303, to the trailhead parking area, 0.6 miles away. Hike a gated road which leads toward the limestone drum until the trail breaks off as a footpath on the left. Dry Fork Trailhead is just off State Route 72 south of Hendricks, WV. A bridge built by the US Army in cooperation with the Forest Service was completed in 1991 and provides access across the Dry Fork river to the trail. The original bridge was washed away in the 1985 flood. The trail crosses Otter Creek several times, so be prepared to get your feet wet. The section between Moore Run trail and Green Mountain trail is not recommended for horses. This part of the trail is extremely narrow and high above the creek. There is nowhere for hikers and animals to pass safely, and any mis-step may put horse, rider, or hiker 15-20 vertical feet into the creek. It is also not possible to safely walk animals in the creek due to waterfalls, large boulders, and potholes. Anyone with stock is encouraged to take Possession Camp or Mylius trails instead.
Yellow Creek Trail #135
Average hiking time: 0.5 hours
This trail is also an old railroad grade and starts at the headwaters of Little Black Fork and follows Yellow Creek to its confluence with Otter Creek. One area where the trail crosses Yellow Creek is often flooded because of beaver activity. Yellow Creek can be forded upstream of the meadow, but be prepared to get your feet wet. Yellow Creek trailhead is not open to vehicle traffic between April 15th and August 15th (see Wildlife section).
McGowan Mountain Trail #136
Average hiking time: 2 hours
This trail follows the crest of McGowan Mountain from Moore Run trail to the headwaters of Yellow creek. It then follows Yellow Creek down to the Yellow Creek trail.
Moore Run Trail #138
Average hiking time: 2 hours
This trail is another railroad grade that heads east from the trailhead on FR 324 (McGowan Mountain Road) and follows Moore Run down to Otter Creek trail. Some of the old ties are still visible and pieces of track can still be found near the Otter Creek ford. Horses are not recommended between the junction of McGowan Mountain trail and Turkey Run trail. Beavers have built a new dam and the water has backed up over the trail tread. While we are placing stepping stone to accomodate hikers, horses will sink in the deep mucky soil and can injure themselves, their riders, and seriously impact the environment. Moore Run trailhead is not open between April 15th and August 15th (see Wildlife section).
Turkey Run Trail #150
Average hiking time: 2.5 hours
This trail begins on McGowan Mountain Road near its junction with the upper loop of FR 701 (Elklick Run Road). It follows an old logging road for about 2 miles before diverting onto a foot path to cross Turkey Run and climb up onto the McGowan Mountain plateau. Horses are not recommended on the section between the top of the Moore Run plateau and Turkey Run. Flood waters have scoured the former trail tread and it is no longer useable. Hikers can follow a berm on the downslope side of the old tread. It then drops off the plateau and ends on Moore Run trail.
Big Springs Gap #151
Average hiking time: 0.5 hours
This trail begins at a trailhead in a sharp turn on the upper loop of Elklick Run Road. The trail follows an old farm road down to Otter Creek. You will need to ford Otter Creek to get to the Otter Creek trail, so be prepared for wet feet. You should be able to find the apple trees from the homestead along this trail.
Possession Camp Trail #158
Average hiking time: 1.3 hours
This trail begins on Otter Creek trail and heads in a northeasterly direction. It was called Possession Camp because the old camping place at the head of the trail marked the possession of the area by the lumber company that logged the area at the turn of the century. The trail ends on the Green Mountain trail.
Hedrick Camp Trail #165
Average hiking time: 0.5 hours
This trail begins at Condon Run parking lot and heads in an easterly direction until its end on Shavers Mountain trail. It was also a location for a turn of the century logging crew camp.
Please note that trail conditions are variable. West Virginia had 5 major storms that resulted in flooding during the 1996 season. Some of the trails are narrower than they used to be. In keeping with the "natural processess" management of the wilderness, we will not be "fixing" any of these trail conditions unless we determine that human safety is at risk or unacceptable human-caused impact will result if we do not intervene. The areas we do work on will be widened up to the national wilderness standard of 24". This may still make them too narrow for stock. We request that those of you using stock take the time to check out the trail beforehand. Some of the areas are too narrow and too steep to allow horses and hikers to pass each other, and too long to know whether you will meet anyone (See trail descriptions). In these instances, horses are not recommended and we ask you to take a different trail.
It looks like 1997 will be the exact opposite of 1996. We have been at least 2 weeks without significant rainfall (by July 18). Many of the smaller streams have dried up. Please check with the Parsons office (304-478-3251) about water availability and fire hazards. If the dry weather continues, we may have to restrict campfires. We will post that information at the trailheads if it becomes necessary. Thanks to all who Leave No Trace!
The policy of the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, religion, sex, or disability. Persons believing they have been discriminated against in any Forest Service related activity should write to:
Chief, Forest Service, USDA, Washington, DC 20250.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication