Monongahela National Forest offers scenic vistas and outdoor adventure in West Virginia (cue “Take Me Home, Country Roads”). The forest is vast, so if you’re looking for an itinerary for a weekend or slightly longer, here are some popular things to do in the area and places to stay.
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Before we get into the post, here’s one important clarification: the pronunciation of Monongahela, which stumps locals and visitors alike. The most common pronunciations include: muh-naang-guh-HEE-luh and muh-naang-guh-HAY-luh, but the proper Lenape pronunciation (where the word originates) is said to be mo-noun-GEE-ha-la. (All these are totally off from my best guess, which was MAH-nun-gah-huh-luh (whoops).
How Long to Spend in Monongahela National Forest
Monongahela is massive—it spans over 919,000 acres. You could spend weeks in the forest and still have more to explore. My family and I only spent 2 nights in the area, but it definitely felt rushed since we arrived Friday night and left Sunday midday (it was a 5 hour drive for us from Columbus). I would’ve liked to have at least two full days of exploring, but 3-5 days would’ve been even better. Most of the major sights and trails are spread apart, often almost an hour drive away.
That said, you could definitely spend only a weekend in the area and still have a great time, especially if you plan to stick to one section of Monongahela.
If you’re hoping to see the fall foliage, late October/early November is too late. I’d recommend going in early to mid-October, but be sure to check conditions as they can change each year. Monongahela is beautiful in all seasons though, so even a winter trip can be fun.
Where to Stay in Monongahela National Forest
We stayed in Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge, which was in the middle of the forest and mountains. There were a couple trails that started right from the lodge! The back of the building even overlooked a canyon, so you could walk right outside and admire the morning fog hovering over the treetops.
The lodge wasn’t anything fancy and was a bit older, but they closed for renovations shortly after and won’t reopen until November 2021. They did have a nice rec room, common space, and dining room. Food wasn’t included in the stay, but the prices were pretty reasonable for a hotel restaurant and portion sizes were generous (though I wish there were more veggie-friendly options—more about that later).
While the lodge is currently closed, there are other accommodation options in Blackwater Falls State Park, including cabins, campsites, and Tentrr sites (kind of like glamping, but more focused on function than aesthetics). If you only have a weekend, I’d recommend staying in the park and exploring the trails nearby, though you could definitely add in a day trip to another area.
Another popular place to stay is the Canaan Valley Resort, which may be a better choice if you’re planning to explore further within Monongahela. It is a bit pricier since it’s a ski resort (~$170/night), but it does seem like a nicer place to stay, and even offers a pool and fitness center. You can also opt to stay in cabins and cottages, or at a campsite.
A note about food: If you’re plant-based, you may want to bring some food with you because there really aren’t great veggie options, especially vegan ones. The Blackwater Falls Lodge did have some vegetarian-friendly options, but the only vegan options were a Beyond Burger (without cheese) and side salad. Breakfast had no vegan options at all. Within the small towns in Monongahela, the situation is similar, and in some cases, it may even be hard to find good vegetarian entrees. The best food I had all weekend was a stop in suburban Pennsylvania on the way home.
Places to Go in Monongahela National Forest
Note: these locations are relatively close to each other and are in the northern part of the forest. There are many other sights in the rest of Monongahela that were unfortunately too far out for a short trip.
1. Seneca Rocks
The Seneca Rocks are one of the most iconic landscapes in Monongahela National Forest and the state of West Virginia. The craggy peaks are impressive from afar and up close.
The hike is around 3 miles round-trip with 800ft elevation gain. It takes around 2 hours total if you factor in some time to take photos at the top. The trail is out-and-back and isn’t too rocky, and the switchbacks make the elevation gain more manageable. There is another path down, but it’s said to be steep and precarious, so it’s not recommended.
Once you reach the top, you can stop at the observation deck, or you can climb further up to the craggy peaks. The rest of the trail is not as stable; there are signs warning you that 15 people have died at Seneca Rocks. A good number of people were going to the peaks, so my brother and I kept going too. It did require some light scrambling and was tight in some places. If you give it a try and feel overwhelmed, don’t feel pressured to keep going.
Seneca Rocks is actually a popular rock climbing place, but those routes begin elsewhere. If you’d like to rock climb, you can go on your own with the right equipment (and experience), or go on a guided tour.
2. Lindy Point
Located within Blackwater Falls State Park, Lindy Point is an easy, flat hike of less than a mile total. The out-and-back trail will take you to a panoramic overlook of the surrounding mountains. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset.
Parking can be a little tricky to find, and many people end up parking along the road. You should also watch out for the lookalike trailhead—the actual trailhead can get blocked by parked cars and be hard to spot. You should be going into a thin trail in the woods, not the unpaved road that continues from the parking area.
If you stay for the sunset, make sure you have a form of lighting on the walk back. While the trail is easier, you will be hiking in the dark.
3. Blackwater Falls
The namesake of Blackwater Falls State Park is a 57-foot cascade. The fallen spruce and hemlock needles give the water its amber color. You can park right next to the falls and take a paved path down, or take the stairs. It’s not really a hike but a short walk. There is another overlook from above that is also a brief walk. It’s wheelchair and stroller accessible, though there is no designated accessible parking.
If you’ve seen a lot of waterfalls in your life, then Blackwater Falls may not be the most exciting. I wouldn’t personally go out of my way to see the falls, but if you’re in the park, it’s a nice place to stop. There’s also a gift shop/trading post near the parking lot, so if you wanted a snack or souvenirs, that could be another reason to swing by.
4. Spruce Knob
Spruce Knob is the highest point in West Virginia, offering sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. You can drive close to the peak and walk the remaining 900ft (just over half a mile) to the observation deck. My family wasn’t able to go since it was a bit further out, but it was on my list.
If you’re looking for a more rugged weekend adventure, you might try the 16.5-mile overnight trail to Spruce Knob via Seneca Creek. Along the way, you’ll find Seneca Falls, a small waterfall with turquoise waters.
5. Dolly Sods Wilderness
Dolly Sods Wilderness is full of scenic hikes for all skill levels. I didn’t get a chance to go here either, but I would’ve liked to.
A popular hike is Blackbird Knob to Harman to Rocky Ridge Loop, which is a 6.3-mile trail. In the right seasons, you may see wild blueberries, wildflowers, or colorful foliage. Like many of the Dolly Sods trails, however, the path can get really muddy, so come prepared.
Hiking Gear to Bring
If you’re planning to hike or camp, you’ll want to have the right equipment. Here are some recommendations.
- Hiking boots: The hikes I listed here (that I did) are pretty manageable. You can do them in tennis shoes (my family did), but it’ll be easier on your ankles and feet if you have good hiking boots. The longer hikes at Spruce Knob and Dolly Sods are more difficult, so I’d recommend having boots. There’s this budget pair on Amazon, but consider shopping at a more ethical retailer like REI if you have the extra money.
- Hiking poles: Poles aren’t necessary on the shorter hikes, but they might help on the longer ones. I personally use these poles, but there are cheaper ones that work too.
- Tent: If you’re going camping, you want reliable shelter. I’ve used this two-person tent on several trips now, and it’s kept me dry in the rain. This REI tent is also said to be a great starter option.
- Toilet paper and hand sanitizer: You typically won’t find bathrooms along the trails, though there are some at popular trailheads. Either way, make sure you’re prepared. It’s now recommended to pack your TP out instead of burying it (for ecological reasons), so bring a plastic bag for that.
- The 10 essentials: navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid, knife, matches, emergency shelter, extra food, extra water, extra clothes.
Outdoor gear can get really expensive, but you can find a lot of these items for cheaper in thrift stores. I’ve had friends even find hiking poles for $10 in a thrift store! REI also has a “Garage Sale” section of returned/used items at a huge discount (for co-op members only).
I hope you have a lovely trip to Monongahela National Forest! If you’ve been, let me know if you’d add anything else to the list.