Location: Nelson Sods, 38° 40' 18.9" North, 79° 26' 23.6" West
To get to where I’m sitting you’ll have to drive to the base of the highest mountains in West Virginia. Next, follow the rocky and rutted Franklin-Circleville Pike until the road deteriorates so much that you can drive no further. The road is the long-ago abandoned route over North Fork Mountain which now dwindles to just a footpath the further up you go. You’ll then have to find a spot to pull off where you’re not blocking the way for others. (Note though that the pull offs and the others are few and far between in this very remote locale.) Leave your car and continue on foot up, up, and more ups until you reach a saddle in the mountain. Veer right and follow an old, even-more-rutted jeep trail. More ups relentlessly ensue until you finally arrive at the peak – Pike Knob, a 4,290 foot forested summit. You’ll be out of breath, but you’re not done yet.
Though this preserve I’m visiting is named after its peak, the true gem is where I currently sit: Nelson Sods a half-mile further on. Finding this amazing mountaintop meadow requires some off-trail instincts; there is no path. Preparation, map skills, and a solar compass are necessary if you plan on joining me in the single best viewing spot I’ve ever found in the Appalachian Mountains.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) describes where I’m at as a place for fit hikers seeking one of the most secluded locations in the state. When I first read about Pike, I must admit I was a bit intimidated. Choosing to visit in late November only added to my worries. It’s hunting season, so would I be entering a crossfire? And just ten minutes after setting out on foot, I heard gunshots near where I was headed.
My car’s balding tires are near the end of their useful life, so would the rutted road leave me in the middle of nowhere with a flat, or perhaps with a torn up undercarriage?
Fit hikers? At this elevation, was I truly fit enough to make it up the mountain - heart troubles, quadriceps tendinitis, vertigo and all?
Aside from all of that, the forecast called for a high of 35 degrees… and that was for in the valley 2,000 feet below the summit. It’s not easy getting to Nelson Sods; its elusive remoteness though, unquestionably is one of its charms.
Another charm is its weather. Bluntly, this mountain is the driest spot in the Appalachians. Storm systems marching over the state are wrung dry as they rake across Spruce Knob, West Virginia’s highest point just to the west of Pike Knob. This orographic phenomenon has been on full display this morning as I sit dry in the sunshine while just across the valley Spruce Knob is shrouded in clouds. Amid the sunshine, the knee-high rice-grass in this meadow is a sea of glittering goldenness.
A lone bald eagles soars past, not flapping its majestic wings even once. It surely has no trouble spotting me in blaze-orange hat. This symbol of American prominence drifts gracefully on updrafts unconcerned, welcoming a non-threatening visitor into its astonishing kingdom.
The views from Nelson Sods are as expansive as I have ever seen. Forty years of hiking these mountains has not led to a spot more beautiful than this. The elevated vantage point puts me atop the world, and makes it easy to spot other iconic peaks. Draw a straight line from West Virginia’s highest point to High Knob on the Virginia border twenty two miles to the east and the line passes directly over Pike Knob. Three prominent 4,000 foot high peaks lined up perfectly straight, and all three in clear view on this brilliant day.
Before I turn and leave out after my hours immersed in the beauty of Nelson Sods, I take a few photos with my phone to be used as the background image for my display screen. The images will pale compared to the true sights seen here, but they will justly serve as reminders of today’s incredible experience.
Back in 2016, while on my sabbatical, Mike Powell spoke to me about Pike Knob. Mike is TNC’s stewardship director and is aptly familiar with all of the state’s very best spots. He emphatically told me a visit to Pike was a must-do and definitely worth the effort. It’s been a morning of overcoming doubts and surviving demanding physical challenges but undeniably, Mike was exactly right. Pike Knob Preserve is an amazing place and has re-set the scale by which I now judge the beauty within the Appalachian Mountains.