Standing on the escarpment known as Bear Rocks exudes a feeling of being atop the eroding spine of an ancient world. To the west, a vast plain dotted with windswept spruce trees stretches to the horizon. To the east, the hulking landmass plunges several thousand feet to a picturesque valley floor, only to rise again in successive mountain ridges superimposed against the backdrop of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. To the north and south, the exposed sandstone bones of the Allegheny Front run for some 165 miles, creating the Eastern Continental Divide.
While this magnificent plateau in the clouds is physically shrinking, it was recently elevated in prestige. The Bear Rocks Preserve, candidate for West Virginia’s most photographed spot, was joined with the corresponding Allegheny Front Preserve to become America’s 600th National Natural Landmark.
The National Natural Landmarks (NNL) program, administered by the National Park Service, “recognizes and encourages the conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources.” Sites are designated by the Secretary of the Interior—in this instance, David Bernhardt—for their rarity, diversity, and status as a premier example of a biological community or geological feature.
Owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Bear Rocks and Allegheny Front preserves earned the coveted designation on January 19, 2021. “Bear Rocks is such a unique feature in a unique position along the Allegheny Front,” said TNC Director of Lands Mike Powell. “From my perspective, it was a no-brainer to be evaluated for designation.”
Although TNC’s founders originally recommended Bear Rocks for NNL designation back in 1982, the push didn’t gain any traction until 2012 when it was brought back up during the designation of Hampshire County’s Ice Mountain Preserve NNL, another TNC preserve.
Bear Rocks, along with other sections of the Allegheny Front, has a storied history dating back hundreds of years to when Native Americans practiced prescribed burning to encourage the growth of food-producing shrubs. A 1746 survey party searching for the limits of Lord Fairfax’s land grant recorded the existence of heathlands, bogs, and open balds at the site of Bear Rocks—features likely capitalized on and maintained by those original inhabitants to increase food and game productivity.
In the late 1700s, the Dahle family emigrated from Germany to settle the high plateau now known as the Dolly Sods. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the region was clear cut down to the last sapling; the remaining slash was burned in massive fires that smoldered so long the soil burned down to bedrock.
In the 1940s, the US Army used the barren landscape as a training grounds for launching mortars and other bombs—a few of those shells remain scattered across the landscape. In 1975, 17,371 acres just west of the Allegheny Front was designated as the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, protecting the Red Creek watershed in perpetuity.
Bear Rocks, however, remained unprotected. In 2000, TNC stepped in and acquired the parcel for the Bear Rocks Preserve via donation from Dominion Energy. Recognizing the high conservation value of the plateau to the north of the Bear Rocks overlook, TNC purchased the additional acreage of the Allegheny Front Preserve in April 2018 with funding from private donors and the Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund.
You might be wondering why a landscape that was logged, burned, and bombed has been the centerpiece of such massive conservation efforts. The answer, at least for the NNL designation, lies in the geologic importance of the land formation. “It’s considered the best example of a plateau in the Appalachian Mountain Range,” Powell said. “It’s a combination of the plate-tectonic uplift and exposed sedimentary rocks right there along the escarpment.”
According to Powell, the unique plant and animal communities that characterize Dolly Sods also helped elevate Bear Rocks for designation. Those flora include the iconic stands of flagged red spruce and balsam fir trees, big-tooth aspen groves, peat bogs, and heathlands filled with berry-producing shrubs and rare mosses. Visitors flock to Bear Rocks in fall to see the vast fields of blueberry and huckleberry bushes aflame with bright-red foliage.
The geologic setting and cold climate of Bear Rocks creates an ideal high-elevation environment for these northern-associated plant communities to thrive. When glaciers were located just north of the region, northern species found suitable habitat throughout the Central Appalachian Mountains. As the climate warmed again, they retreated to higher elevations from lower, warmer surrounding areas.
Part of TNC’s goal in conserving the Allegheny Front was to preserve its natural qualities in the name of climate resiliency. The Appalachian Mountains, running southwest to northeast, serve as a migratory corridor for sensitive plant species and birds. As the climate warms and changes, species can move up and down in elevation while moving north and south along the mountain ridges. “The Allegheny Front is an important connector and a relatively uninterrupted, intact habitat,” Powell said.
While the NNL designation doesn’t change TNC’s ownership or management practices of the 1,024-acre parcel, it does provide additional opportunities to elevate the ecological and geological importance of the region to the national audience. In simpler terms, the designation, as Powell says, “adds a feather in the cap” to one of West Virginia’s most iconic landscapes. “It draws national and continental significance to an area that [West Virginians] know is special because we get to recreate and see the different seasons there, and this brings another lens of importance to the area,” Powell said.
But the designation raises questions about increased visitation and environmental impacts. During peak fall foliage season in 2020, Forest Road 75—specifically the northern end at Bear Rocks—was a venerable zoo of human activity. One busy Saturday resulted in an hours-long traffic jam with a West Virginia law enforcement officer being dispatched to the area to direct the flow of tourists.
Limited parking pushed people to park on both sides of the road, damaging sensitive vegetation and furthering the gridlock. Once out of their cars, throngs of leaf peepers dispersed across the landscape; many ventured off-trail, causing added impacts to the delicate ecosystem.
Powell pointed out that events like this are rare, happening only a few weekends per year during peak foliage season. But increased visitation during the COVID-19 pandemic has many asking how land managers will tackle these pressing issues. “We are having ongoing discussions with the Forest Service about how we might be able to better manage crowds, it’s a valid concern that we have as well,” Powell said. “We would like to work with local groups and stakeholders to improve the visitor experience there.”
As for the NNL designation leading to an additional increase in visitation, Powell isn’t worried. “I don’t know that it’s a huge tourism driver,” he said. “I think it could, in the short term, create some initial curiosity of people who may not already know about it, but I don’t think it will be an issue every day of the year.”
Overall, Powell thinks the NNL designation is a good thing for Bear Rocks. Designations like this tend to increase public awareness of the importance of valuable natural areas and increase public support for conservation initiatives.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the NNL program, perhaps consider a West Virginia road trip to Bear Rocks and the other fifteen NNLs in West Virginia: Big Run Bog, Blister Run Swamp, Canaan Valley, Cathedral State Park, Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, Cranesville Swamp, Fisher Spring Run Bog, Gaudineer Scenic Area, Germany Valley Karst Area, Greenville Saltpeter Cave, Ice Mountain, Lost World Caverns, Organ Cave System, Shavers Mountain Spruce-Hemlock Stand, and Sinnett-Thorn Mountain Cave System.
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and has shown up in the wee hours of the morning many times for the coveted Bear Rocks sunrise experience—it’s worth the lost sleep!