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Seneca Rocks

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ANDREA LANNOM / The State Journal ANDREA LANNOM / The State Journal

Seneca Rocks: Popular, Scenic, Dangerous

By ANDREA LANNOM ∙ alannom@statejournal.com

Jutting out of the Pendleton County wilderness is the jagged crag of Seneca Rocks, a formation that not only is a state icon but a destination for visitors from all over the world.  

"All you have to do is look at it," said Pendleton County native and Seneca Rocks National Forest Information Assistant Garret Wilfong. "It stands tall and it's so prominent. It stands out from the mountains." 

It stands out so much that many visitors will pull off beside the road — some stopping in the middle of the road — to stare at or photograph the mountain. 

 "Some people don't realize it's here and will drive by it, see it," he said. 

Yet, to many of the locals, the prominent peak blends into the surrounding scenery. 

"I rode the school bus by it every day," Wilfong said. "I've hiked to the top and have come here for school trips, too."

So how did this unique peak form? 

Well, scientists postulate that it all started when the continents collided, forming the Appalachian Mountains. Erosion later caused the rock to be exposed. 

The rocks have changed even in recent history. There used to be a 30-foot piece of rock in the middle of the notch. It fell over the front face in the late 1980s. 

"A few people saw it fall. My step-dad heard it and said it sounded like a jet engine going off. It was so loud," Wilfong said, noting the piece fell off naturally. "Actually, people were climbing that day when it fell. No one was injured or hurt around it." 

Native Americans are thought to be the first visitors and the first people to scale the rocks. 

In fact, one legend says that Princess Snow Bird loved the rocks so much that climbing it became a part of her daily routine. She later decided she would marry the man who climbed up to the top of the mountain with her. 

As the legend goes, seven warriors took her up on this. Many turned away and one fell to his death. The last one, almost had the same fate as the previous; however, Princess Snow Bird decided to save him as he slipped, nearly falling to his death. 

Couples today still are drawn to the rocks. In fact, just last year, Bob Ewing and Antonie Hodge Ewing scaled the mountain, donned their wedding regalia and got married on top of the rocks. 

"On more than one occasion, people have got married on top of the rocks," Wilfong said. 

Seneca Rocks also hosted other visitors. The Seneca School trained troops in rock scrambling and extreme tension work on vertical slopes, according to information at the visitor's center. 

About 180 men would learn rock climbing and pass a final test where they would do two tactical night climbs on the rocks. The information notes that more than 1,000 men trained at Seneca School and there were no serious injuries.  

Kevin Duncan, director of the discovery center, explained Seneca Rocks actually is classified as a national forest — not a national park. 

"A lot of people think we are a park service," he said. "They want to know what national park we are." 

 And there is much in the works to keep everything maintained. 

"The overlook is going to be redecked within the next year," he said. "The trail recently was redone. We put in new stairs in 2011." 

Hiking is the most common activity at the rocks, but there also are several climbers. 

There are different difficulties for climbing the rocks — from beginner to expert. 

"The middle of the notch is the most difficult," Wilfong said pointing to the center of the rocks. "To the far right is the beginners and you can climb both front and back." 

Yet, for some people, the mile and a half trail with an 8 percent grade is tiring enough. 

"Sometimes, you will find people sleeping on the benches," he said. "They will be on their way up or back and be there taking a nap."

The trail winds its way up the mountain, leading to the overlook. A sign near the top warns people not to climb on the thin rocks. 

"Some adventurous people climb the rocks but I don't recommend it," Duncan said. "When you think about Seneca Rocks, and when you look at it, you don't realize that it's not a huge rock. It's only about 5-6 feet wide on top. It's like a big piece of bread sticking out of a toaster. The rock is the bread and if you fall off either side, you're toast." 

Unfortunately, some people will go too far, panic and fall. Duncan said there is an accident about every year. 

"When you think about it, for the number of people up on the rocks in 40 years, we've had about 20 fatalities," he said. 

Duncan estimates 50,000 to 60,000 people hike the trail each year, but he says it could be as many as 80,000 to 100,000. 

"We estimate that we will have a lot here for our 50th anniversary," Duncan said, noting the discovery center will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary. "A lot will be West Virginia people but we get people from all over the world. We hear just about every language."

"Here we are in the middle of nowhere and look around and what we got. That's what we've got," Duncan added, gesturing to the rocks.