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Seneca Rocks in 2006

Seneca Rocks is a large crag and local landmark in Pendleton County in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, USA. It is easily visible and accessible along West Virginia Route 28 in the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area. One of the best-known scenic attractions in West Virginia, the sheer rock faces of Seneca Rocks are a popular challenge for rock climbers.


Geography and geology

Seneca Rocks is at the northern end of the River Knobs, which contain other similar "razorback" ridges or "fins" such as Judy Rocks and Nelson Rocks. They are a prominent and visually striking formation rising nearly 900 feet above the confluence of Seneca Creek with the North Fork South Branch Potomac River. They also overlook the community of Seneca Rocks, traditionally known as "Mouth of Seneca". The Rocks consist of a North and a South Peak, with a central notch between. (Formerly, a prominent pinnacle — "the Gendarme" — occupied the notch.)

Seneca Rocks and nearby Champe Rocks are the most imposing examples in eastern West Virginia of several formations of the white/gray Tuscarora quartzite. The quartzite is approximately 250 feet thick here and is located primarily on exposed ridges as caprock or exposed crags. The rock is composed of fine grains of sand that were laid down approximately 440 million years ago in the Silurian Period, in an extensive sand shoal at the edge of the ancient Iapetus Ocean. Eons of geologic activity followed, as the ocean slowly closed and the underlying rock uplifted and folded. Millions of years of erosion stripped away the overlying rock and left remnants of the arching folds in outcrops such as Seneca Rocks.


Evidence suggests that the Native Americans of the Archaic Period may have camped frequently at the mouth of nearby Seneca Creek at the foot of the Rocks. The famous Great Indian Warpath, known locally as the "Seneca Trail", followed the Potomac River, allowing the Algonquin, Tuscarora, and Seneca nations to transit the area for purposes of trade and war. Excavation for the building of the present Seneca Rocks Visitor Center uncovered evidence of two villages,[1] the most recent of which thrived about 600 years ago. About a dozen dwellings were found.[citation needed]

The first European visitors to see the region were surveyors who passed through around 1746 and the first settlers arrived at Mouth of Seneca fifteen years later. At that time, West Virginia (or western Virginia as it was then) was the edge of the great wilderness. The Rocks were visited and sketched by the well known writer and magazine illustrator David Hunter Strother (known by his pseudonym "Porte Crayon") around 1853. His sketches were reworked and published two decades later as a popular wood engraving in an 1872 issue of Harpers New Monthly Magazine.

"The Cliffs of Seneca" (Wood engraving by David H.Strother, from "The Mountains III", Harpers New Monthly Magazine XLV (June 1872), 30.)
"The Gendarme" in a 1975 photo

It is unknown who the first person was to climb Seneca Rocks. Undoubtedly Native Americans scaled the rocks prior to European settlers reaching the area, but there is no record of their ascents. The historic ascent of Paul Brandt, Don Hubbard, and Sam Moore in 1939 found an inscription of "D.B. September 16, 1908." This has been attributed to a surveyor named Bittenger who was known to be working in the area.[citation needed]

The documented climbing history of the Rocks begins in 1935 with a roped ascent of the North Peak by Paul Brandt and Florence Perry.[citation needed] In the 1930s and 40's only a few climbers, mostly from the Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh areas, attempted to climb Seneca Rocks.

In 1943 and '44, as part of the West Virginia Maneuver Area, the U.S. Army used the rocks to train mountain troops in assault climbing in preparation for action in the Apennines of Italy. Evidence of this training can still be found on the rocks in the form of rusty old soft iron pitons.[citation needed]

The Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks NRA was established by an act of the U.S. Congress on September 28, 1965. The Rocks themselves were purchased by the federal government in 1969 from the heirs of D. C. Harper.[citation needed]

The original visitor center was opened in 1978, constructed on a grant of $297,000[2]. A 1985 flood severely damaged the facility. On 22 October 1987 "the Gendarme", an isolated and prominent pinnacle of the Rocks, fell to the ground.[3][4] On May 26, 1992, the visitor center was destroyed by arson.[5][6] The current visitor center, called The Seneca Rocks Discovery Center, was completed in the fall 1998 on a $5 million dollar grant.[7]

The "Seneca Rock" turnpoint at 38°50′03″N 79°22′04″W / 38.83417°N 79.36778°W / 38.83417; -79.36778 has been used by glider pilots for gliding competitions and soaring awards because its distinctive appearance in aerial photographs made it suitable for photo documentation of the flight performance.[8] This turnpoint was used on many 500 km out-and-return course flights from Ridge Soaring Gliderport in Julian, Pennsylvania, including an October 15, 1995 flight by Canadian pilot Walter Weir that was recognized as a world record at the time.[9]

Rock climbing

North and South Peak with Gunsnotch in between

Due to the hardness of the Tuscarora Formation, and the degree of climbing difficulty, Seneca Rocks offers rock climbers an opportunity unique in the east. There are over 375 major mapped climbing routes, varying in degree from the easiest (5.0) to the most difficult (5.12). There are two climbing schools located in the communities of Seneca Rocks and nearby Riverton who train prospective climbers in beginning and advanced rock climbing. The school in Riverton also offers a climbers rescue course.

Some rock climbing routes in the West face of the South Peak of Seneca Rocks.

Both the East and West faces of fhe North and South Peak offer single and multi-pitch routes, up to 300 ft in length. Technical routes also exist on the Lower Slabs, located on the slopes below the west face of the North Peak, and on the Southern Pillar, directly across Roy Gap from the South Peak. Because of the way the rock was uplifted, there are many vertical cracks that offer excellent jamming and good protection. Routes range from 5.2-5.13, nearly all of which require the leader placing protection (traditional climbing). Some routes and their rating in the Yosemite Decimal System are represented in the picture on the left. The South Peak is rumored to be the tallest peak east of Devils Tower, WY that is only accessible by 5th class climbing.[citation needed]

According to the MNF, 16 people have died in falls while climbing Seneca Rocks since 1971.[citation needed]

Popular legends

Summit of Seneca Rocks

A popular romance of the Rocks — "The Betrothal of Snow Bird, Princess of the Seneca Indians" — was written many decades ago by Harry Malcolm Wade. West Virginia writer J. Lawrence Smith provides the following short summary of the story:

"Princess Snow Bird, who had grown to maidenhood in the shadow of the rocks and scaled their heights many times, proposed a contest to her father, [Chief] Bald Eagle. She would climb to the crest of the rocks as prospective suitors followed. The first to take her hand would become her mate. Bald Eagle agreed,

and at the end of the climb, of seven suitors, only one remained, the others having turned back from fear or fallen to their deaths. From their lofty perch, Snow Bird and her future mate surveyed the surrounding realm of the Seneca

that would be theirs to rule one day."[10]

In reality, the Seneca homeland was in what is now western New York state, and what Seneca tribesmen passed this way were strictly transients.

See also




  1. ^ Site No.: 46PD1, Site Name: Mouth of Seneca Site, Component Age: (blank) AD 810 AD 893, References: Robertson in progress; also 46PD1, Mouth of Seneca Site, (blank), AD 960 AD 1025, Robertson in progress. Source: Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc.
  2. ^ "Grant County Press", 1970-7-1, Retrieved from Google news scan on 2009-1-10.
  3. ^ RobSC "The Gendarme",, 2008-1-16. Retrieved on 2009-1-7.
  4. ^ Baker, Donald P. "Famed W.Va. Rock Takes Tumble After 440 Million Years", The Washington Post, October 29, 1987. Retrieved on 2009-1-10.
  5. ^ "The Glenville Democrat", 1992-6-11, Retrieved from Google news scan on 2009-1-10.
  6. ^ "The Glenville Democrat", 1992-9-10, Retrieved from Google news scan on 2009-1-10.
  7. ^ "Seneca Rocks New Discovery Center Opens", "", retrieved on 2009-1-10.
  8. ^ Weir, Walter. "Ridge Soaring Gliderport - Photo Based (Julian, Pennsylvania)". Worldwide Soaring Turnpoint Exchange. Retrieved 2008-01-26. 
  9. ^ Wiese, Ursula (2007). The book of the best. Soaring Association of Canada. Retrieved 2008-01-26. 
  10. ^ Smith, J. Lawrence, “Fact and the Fanciful: Native American History and Legends”, Wonderful West Virginia, November 2007; pp 23-27.

Other sources

  • Tony Barnes (2006). Seneca Rocks: The Climber's Guide, 2nd edition. Earthbound Sports. ISBN 978-0964369887. 

External links

Coordinates: 38°50′07″N 79°22′00″W / 38.83528°N 79.3666667°W / 38.83528; -79.3666667


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