Spruce Knob – West Virginia’s High Point
If the state of West Virginia had not presciently decided to move away from the wickedness of slavery during the Civil War, its High Point would be about 250 miles south-southwest at Mount Rogers, near the Virginia tripoint with North Carolina and Tennessee. Instead, the good citizens of the new state can crest their homeland at Spruce Mountain.
Though the summit of Spruce Mountain, known colloquially as Spruce Knob, clocks in 866 feet shorter than its Virginian cousin, this state High Point still manages to rise 4,863 intriguing feet above sea level. Spruce Knob is a wonderful curiosity for geography and nature wonks, as its location and essence combine for a few unique traits.
Let’s explore the dome of West Virginia!
As you can see in the above photo, Spruce Mountain does not feature extraordinary prominence or large swaths of above-the-treeline jaggedness. The low starting elevation of the Appalachian range often means its tallest peaks retain tree cover, robbing them of the quintessential mountain profile. The Rockies, by contrast, have the benefit of starting a mile above sea level, which allows the tree line to occur at a relatively lower spot on a mountain. Still, the Appalachians and Spruce Mountain climb a significant amount around the surrounding areas and the coastal plains to the east. Spruce Mountain’s technical prominence is 2,781 feet, no tiny piece.
This crag is also the highest point in the Allegheny Mountains. A subset of the Appalachians, the Alleghenies stretch approximately 400 miles from Pennsylvania through Maryland, before terminating in West Virginia. The mountain resides within Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area (Seneca Rocks is another phenomenal location we will explore someday!) and the Monongahela National Forest. Spruce Knob is also the highest point between the Adirondacks in northern New York and Mount Rogers in the Blue Ridge Mountains to the south. So, while a quick glance at this location might not scream verticality, it’s an interesting spot on the map when it comes to height!
Most humans who visit Spruce Knob approach via a winding road that produces just a short hike to the platform constructed at the acme. Though the surrounding region features a plethora of longer trail approaches, the flat grade from the parking lot might, again, not elicit a big-mountain feeling.
But a quick glance at the flora of Spruce Knob will reveal a more alpine biome than the metrics might suggest. The location and elevation of the peak combine to produce weather and vegetation more akin to Canada or the high mountains of New England. Even in the summer, the area is cool. The summit region receives an average of 180 inches of snow each year. As such, the deciduous forest that lines the lower elevations gives way to the trees that give the apex its name: red spruce.
Red spruce can survive the peak’s high winds and rough winters, but they sometimes display the alpine version of battle scars. Gnarled roots, called Krummholz, on the windward side and limbs on the leeward make the spruce into oddly bifurcated beings.
Spruce Knob is an interesting locale. It will not satisfy the desire to climb a mountain, but it’s a great spot to experience the feeling of being high without the usual toil, making it an accessible alpine adventure. One can add distance via surrounding trails, but the High Point happening can be leisurely if desired.
Despite the scorching temperatures of late spring in 2019, the top of Spruce Mountain was overcast and cool, just as advertised. The spot reminded me of some of the highland areas of Ireland. As we took in the side trails around the summit, the sun peeked through a few times, blessing us with some views of the area.
Also, though one can drive close to the peak, the exact location is fairly remote. Many people opt not to motor the dozens of miles on twisty thoroughfares, so the top of West Virginia provides quite a bit of solitude. This High Point ranks 24th on the list of the 50 states in terms of elevation, but it offers a few attributes the other 49 lack!
Further Reading and Exploration
Spruce Knob and Spruce Knob Observation Tower – U.S. Forest Service
Spruce Mountain – Peakbagger
Spruce Knob – SummitPost
Summit of Spruce Knob unlike any other in area – Bay Journal
Highpointing: Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia – Rooftops of America