UPPER TRACT, W.Va. -- In my travels, I have repeatedly learned that it is very easy to be a long way from anywhere in parts of West Virginia.
Welcome to Smoke Hole.
That's the name given to a very pretty and surprisingly isolated canyon along the South Branch of the Potomac River in eastern West Virginia.
It is a half-mile-deep canyon with nearly vertical walls and is considered by many to be among the most beautiful spots in West Virginia.
You may see both bald and golden eagles in Smoke Hole, parts of which are not accessible by car.
There is evidence of old farmsteads in the canyon, but that's about all.
The canyon stretches north-south from near Petersburg in Grant County south to Upper Tract, north of Franklin in Pendleton County, and roughly parallels U.S. 220.
Smoke Hole lies east of North Fork Mountain, one of West Virginia's premiere long-distance hiking trails, and west of Cave Mountain, not far from the West Virginia-Virginia state line.
It is a rugged, inaccessible and isolated area -- wild backcountry. You are a long way from anywhere.
The Smoke Hole area, known locally as Smoke Holes, covers about 40 square miles in the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreational Area within the sprawling Monongahela National Forest.
But visitors go instead to Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia at 4,863 feet, and Seneca Rocks, the 900-feet-tall cliffs that rise above the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River.
Spruce Knob is a windswept spot dominated by stunted, one-sided spruce trees, blueberry, huckleberry and azalea. It features an observation tower that offers sweeping 360-degree vistas of the West Virginia high country. The area offers more than 70 miles of backcountry trails.
The U.S. Forest Service operates a first-rate visitors' center near Seneca Rocks, the quartzite cliffs that are popular with climbers and are one of the most distinctive natural features in West Virginia.
Both Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks, along with two commercially run caverns, are all west of North Fork Mountain -- far removed from Smoke Hole.
There is no road to the portion of the Smoke Hole canyon between the Big Bend Campground and Petersburg, a distance of about 15 miles.
No one is sure how the area came to be known as Smoke Hole.
Morning fogs often fill the canyon until the suns burns them away. There are historic accounts of Indians using nearby caves to smoke meat. Others claim the smoke came from moonshiners' stills.
One of the best ways to see Smoke Hole is to paddle the 25-mile section from U.S. 220 north to Petersburg.
The five miles from the road to the Forest Service picnic area are the most difficult, with large boulders and almost continuous whitewater. It is for experienced paddlers only, with mostly Class 2 and Class 3 paddling.
Rapids are rated on a 1-to-6 scale, with 1 being the easiest and 6 being the most difficult.
Between the picnic area and Big Bend Campground, the stream is gentler and easier. It is popular with small rafts, tubers, canoes and kayaks. The stream itself features many short rapids and calm pools.
Many paddlers camp near Blue Rock, a huge rock cliff, and make it a two-day trip.
Water levels may be too low for late summer trips.
One outfitter is Eagles Nest Outfitters at P.O. Box 731, Petersburg, WV 26847; 304-257-2393, http://www.eaglesnestoutfitters.com. The company offers 12 different river trips from April through October, including Smoke Hole paddle trips.
Two roads provide some access to Smoke Hole and its limited facilities.
State Route 2 enters the southern end of Smoke Hole near Upper Tract. It follows the river for about nine miles into the canyon. The first 5.5 miles are paved but narrow.
That road will take you past Eagle Rock, a towering rock formation rising out of the river. It was named for Col. William Eagle, a Revolutionary War soldier who lived nearby and is buried near the rock.
At an old store and a log church (St. George Episcopal), the road splits. One fork continues along the river to the Big Bend Campground, where the road ends. The other climbs north on the edge of North Fork Mountain and then down to the North Fork and state Route 28. It is a narrow, winding road that passes old farms. Traffic is generally light.
On a peninsula in the river, the Big Bend Campground features 46 sites with water and flush toilets from April 15 to Oct. 1. Some sites are available from March 1 to Dec. 15, but only hand-pump water is available.
Primitive camping is available at the Jess Judy Camping Area along the river.
Camping is also allowed along Smoke Hole Road 28/11 on North Fork Mountain but not near trailheads.
Camping is prohibited along River Road except in designated areas.
Smoke Hole is popular with anglers seeking trout and smallmouth bass. It is stocked by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources with rainbow and golden trout from January through June and again in October.
Special catch-and-release restrictions apply between Eagle Rock and Kimble Cabins.
Smoke Hole is also popular with hunters in the fall.
The only trail strictly in Smoke Hole is a 3.5-mile South Branch Trail, a loop from the picnic area. The blue-blazed trail follows the river downstream, ascends a ridge, passes fields and old farms and drops back down to the river.
The best hiking may be 24-mile-long North Fork Mountain Trail. It stretches from U.S. 33 north to where the Smoke Hole Road nears state Route 28 west of Petersburg.
Trailheads for the trail, which looks down on Smoke Hole, are located along Smoke Hole Road 28/11.
For information, contact the Potomac Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service, Route 3, Box 240, Petersburg, WV 26847; 304-257-4488 (weekdays only); http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf/sp/smokehole.html.
You can also contact the Seneca Rocks Visitor Center, U.S. Forest Service, P.O. Box 13, Seneca Rocks, WV 26884; 304-567-2827 (closed in winter); http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf/sp/srdc.html.
Also, the Pendleton County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 737, Franklin, WV 26807; 304-358-3884; http://www.visitpendleton.com.
Also, the Grant County Chamber of Commerce, 105 Virginia Ave., Suite 1, Petersburg, WV 26847; 304-257-2722; http://www.gowv.com.