WYMER, W.Va. - The Laurel Fork Wilderness is more than a little out of the way.
The 12,052-acre tract lies 17 miles southeast of Elkins, tucked between long narrow ridges in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains.
The Laurel Forks - as they together are known - are not a place you visit on your way to somewhere else. They are the least-visited federal wilderness in the sprawling 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest. Nearby wild areas, including Dolly Sods, Otter Creek and Spruce Knob, all get more visitors.
The Laurel Forks are a land of narrow valleys, first-rate hiking trails, cold mountain streams and exceptional northern hardwood forests of beech, birch, cherry and maple with some young red spruce.
The wilderness is drained by the fast-flowing and pristine Laurel Fork of the Cheat River with native brook and brown trout. You will find the stream's headwaters at the southern end of the 20-mile-long valley on Burner Mountain.
The stream is marked by its rocky bottom and pools. At its midpoint, the riffle-filled stream is up to 30 feet wide and the water is amazingly crystal clear, as I learned on a recent visit.
Wildlife is abundant: black bear, white-tailed deer, turkey, bobcat and especially beaver.
The Laurel Forks are wild and very picturesque. The area is known for its solitude. The Laurel Fork North is larger with 6,055 acres. The Laurel Fork South has 5,997 acres.
The wilderness lies between Middle and Rich mountains in Randolph County. Elevations range from 2,900 feet to more than 3,700 feet.
The Laurel Forks area was heavily logged in the early 1900s. Initially, logs were hauled by teams of horses and then floated down the Laurel Fork at high water. Once the railroad came into the mountains, logging became a year-round activity.
The Laurel River Lumber Co. had cleared the narrow valleys and ridges by 1921, and sold the cut-over land to the federal government. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps. operated a camp in the valley.
For decades, the area was used by hunters and foresters but few others. In 1983, Congress designated the two as wilderness areas.
The two tracts together have 18.5 miles of trails, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Many follow old railroad grades and logging roads. The North wilderness has 9.5 miles; the South, 9 miles. Several trails extend beyond the wilderness borders.
The trails are not signed or blazed, but most are clearly defined. You may lose the trail, especially in the summer, when weeds obscure it, and in late fall, when fallen leaves cover it.
Hikers will have to cross the Laurel Fork and smaller streams. That can be risky at high water but rock hopping is usually an option.
The main Laurel River Trail runs north-south along the stream. You can get to it from the Forest Service campground between the two wilderness tracts or from trailheads and short spur trails off Middle Mountain Road, which runs along the west side of the wilderness.
The primitive Laurel Fork Campground at elevation 3,100 feet sits between the two wilderness areas. There are 16 spots, including several sweet sites by the stream. The fee is $8 per night.
The campground makes a great base to explore the Laurel Forks Wilderness. It is open from April 15 through November.