By Stephen Smoot
As Pendleton County and the region get hit with the full blast of Old Man Winter’s wrath, the striking scenic vistas will serve as strong temptation. Residents and tourists alike may yearn to drive to the tops of area summits to see the region’s matchless winter views.
The US Forest Service, however, has issued warnings to those considering taking a drive through national forest lands. An alert last month noted that “Forest Service roads are not maintained for winter travel. Be prepared for snow, ice, fog, high winds, downed trees, and other hazards.” The Forest Service added that Spruce Knob, the Highland Scenic Highway, and other higher elevation attractions will not receive attention until spring. “Winter travel,” the Forest Service says “can be treacherous, and roads may be impassable during storms.”
Rick Gillespie, emergency services coordinator for Pendleton County, says that “we do have issues with stranded folks on Spruce Knob in the winter months.” He related that recent meetings between the Forest Service, local emergency services officials, and the West Virginia Department of Highways have sought solutions. These could include electronic messages signs from the state DOH reminding motorists of both extreme conditions and the lack of winter maintenance.
Forest roads, particularly on the ridges surrounding and approaching Spruce Knob, offer significant risk in the winter. Many are one lane, surfaced with dirt and gravel, and challenge some vehicles even in the summer. Winter carries the additional risk of downed trees and bitter extreme cold.
For those braving the roads and conditions, the Forest Service advises that “you should always carry a survival kit in case you’re stranded.” They recommend that it include “chains, a shovel, blankets, food, water, maps, and other safety gear” which should include phone chargers and other necessities of food, warmth, and communication in case of emergency.
Emergency officials, however, strongly advise against risking the roads. “People unfamiliar and unprepared go up there, become stuck, stranded, or wrecked over the side of the mountain,” Gillespie stated.
After finding a cell signal, which could mean hours of hiking through bitter cold and high winds, “they call 911, reporting their situation. Emergency responders and tow services are dispatched to find and help the persons. All of this causes taskings on 911 and local responders when it shouldn’t need to occur.”
The Forest Service also recently announced annual winter road closures in the Dolly Sods area, shutting the gates Jan. 3 on Forest Roads 19 and 75. Motor vehicles will have no access until at least the middle of April “to provide for public safety due to variable road conditions in the winter months.” Non motorized use remains permitted.
Cheat-Potomac District Ranger Jon Morgan said in a release that “the road closures are put in place to ensure the safety of both visitors and employees. Forest visitors and emergency responders are put at unnecessary risk” without the closures. Gillespie stated that a similar policy could help reduce the risk at national forest sites in Pendleton County.