A PMC Members Seneca Rocks Quick Guide

Since you’ll hear a lot of discussion about Seneca Rocks, here is a quick guide. Seneca is one of the favorite local spots, and is the focus for many club members. Many of the larger gatherings are at Seneca and there are a couple of annual events there. This is not a climbers guide to Seneca (read the Barnes guide and Mountain Project for that). It is not a travel guide to Seneca Rocks, there is beta for that on the public web site, on the sites for local guide services, and on Mountain Project. This is a guide for climbing at Seneca Rocks with this club. It is intended for club members who’ve been hearing about Seneca, figure they want to go there with the club, and want to know what’s up.

What is Seneca Rocks, and Where is it?

Seneca Rocks is a large rock outcropping in West Virginia. It is a major attraction in the Monongahela National Forest located at the intersection of 55 and 33, where 33 branches off to Elkins, WV. It takes three hours (plus or minus) from the DC area. If you are coming from Maryland and doing it at rush hour on a Friday night it will be longer. The standard route is 66 to I-81 through Virginia, South on 81 two stops then 55 toward Wardensville. Go over the mountain ridge to Wardensville then on the empty superhighway that is 48 (waggishly known as the Robert C Byrd highway to nowhere, but we appreciate it). Continue to Moorefield and get off on 55 toward Petersburg and Seneca Rocks (the signs will be appearing). Go through Petersburg, keep going on 55/28, when you get to the intersection with 33 toward Elkins you are there. There are two guide services, two stores, a restaurant over one of the stores, and The Gendarme, the climbing shop and general center of the Seneca Rocks universe.

As highway 48 continues its slow march west toward the Canaan Valley ski areas the favored route may change a bit, but this seems to work for now. Be aware of your speed, the police along with way do like out of state tourists.

What is so great about it?

It is the closest place with substantial multi-pitch climbing. It is in a very pretty location (especially in the fall), with a significant local community. The climbing there is generally pretty aesthetic, and certainly exciting. There are enough routes there to keep you busy for quite a while.

What is the climbing like?

The most popular Seneca climbs are two to four pitch traditional rock climbs. By “traditional” we mean few or no bolts, you place your own protection and have to build anchors at each belay. Many routes end up at the summit of the South Peak from which you have to rappel to descend (two to three rappels, depending on side and ropes). Other parts of the cliff may or may not have mandatory rappel descents. The climbing grades are very stiff. If you’ve climbed mostly at newer areas you’ll find Seneca routes about a grade harder than you are used to. If you’ve climbed mostly at traditional areas (e.g. the Gunks, older California crags, Eldorado) you’ll probably find the grades roughly equivalent.

How do I start climbing there?

To climb at Seneca you should be comfortable following on a multi-pitch route and doing multiple rappels to descend. This doesn’t mean you have to have done that before, but you should be comfortable with doing it. With the club we do not recommend just showing up on a trip and looking to follow. This usually works on a local trip, but on a Seneca trip partner arrangements have usually been made before hand. Ask for a leader on the lists before the trip, and be aware of the events where experienced leaders are more likely to take new people. In addition to shoes and a harness be sure you have helmet (loose rock out there), raingear, and water/food to go most of the day before you come down. If you go to the summit it is usually a couple of hours round trip.

Suppose I’m already an experienced leader?

Awesome! Get on the list and see about finding a partner. Seneca is strong in easy grade adventure climbing (long complicated traditional routes), mid-grade classics, and really old-school 5.10’s. A couple of recommendations for leading at Seneca if you are an experienced leader elsewhere:

  • 1.      It would be a very good idea to get with somebody who knows his or her way around the formation. The formation is complicated with a lot of transition ledges, back ways, and rappels that may require two ropes or non-obvious intermediate anchors.
  • 2.      Knock a few grades off your leading level the first time you go up. Seneca grades are stiff, the rock is unusually steep, and thin protection is common. You’ll quickly figure out what makes sense for you and your level.
  • 3.      If you can do Seneca 5.7, get on the 5.7 classics, even if you are a stronger climber. Seneca is widely known for the quality of a number of 5.7 (give or take a + grade or so) routes. These include Ecstasy, Green Wall, Pleasant Overhangs, Soler, West Pole, and others. Jump on them and surprise yourself, or ask around for beta if you want to know which ones require specialized gear or regularly have epics.
  • 4.      If 5.7 is above your level consider working on your adventurous spirit and moving afield from the South Peak-West Face classics. Routes like Old Man’s, Conn’s West, and Le Gourmet are nice routes but get really, really crowded on nice weekends (continuous parade). There are easy, but very adventurous, routes north and south that see very little traffic.
  • 5.      If you can lead Seneca 5.10 you’ll have a lot of routes pretty much to yourself. Traffic is low on most of the 5.10 and above classics.

Where do we stay and eat? What is the approach?

There is camping right above the “town” of Seneca Rocks at Seneca Shadows campground. You can reserve through recreation.gov if you want. There is in-town (noisier) camping at Princess Snowbird. There are various motel, cabin, and rental house options in the area. If you want to stay in a room the Nelson Rocks Outdoor Center about 10 miles south is a new development and pretty nice, for the area. The Front Porch restaurant in town is very popular with climbers, and pretty decent. There are other restaurants north and south of Seneca Rocks that come and go.

When the club has a weekend at Seneca we usually reserve a group site at Seneca Shadows. The group sites hold around 10 tents and fewer cars. If you are arriving late you might want to reserve your own site in the walk-in area, which is immediately adjacent to the group sites. From the group sites you can walk a trail to the center of “town,” such as it is, and over to the rocks.

To get to Seneca Rocks park in the “Lower Parking Lot” near the visitors center. Or just walk down the trail from Seneca Shadows, pass the The Gendarme and Yokum’s, cross the road, and head down the climbers parking lot. Follow the crowd over the low water bridge, up the dirt road and then up the “stairmaster” trail. When you start on the stairmaster it will be pretty obvious you are on the trail. Once you start up the stairmaster things can be really simple or really complicated depending on where you are headed. Consult the guidebook and/or experienced folks.

What do you guys do after climbing? What’s the nightlife?

Nightlife, huh? You like campfires? Well, as far as food goes there is what you cook in camp, there is the Front Porch in Seneca (next to The Gendarme), and you can drive somewhere. The Front Porch is pretty decent, especially the pizza. There are a couple of major events every season. Cinco de Mayo, a Chili Cookoff toward the end of October, Fourth of July, sometimes a few other events. When one happens it will usually be on the porch of The Gendarme or the porch of the Seneca Guides across the road from The Gendarme, or both (cookout at The Gendarme, band at SRMG, for example).

Otherwise, it’s a camping environment. Petersburg is about 30 minutes away but there is not much there. Elkins is around the same, and they do have some pretty good restaurants.

What kind of gear is needed?

Shoes, harness, helmet, belay/rappel device, some slings and locking carabiners, and a prussic loop will do for following. Thunderstorms happen, be sure you bring raingear. You’ll be away from the car all day so bring water and food. There is no water once you leave the cars.

A standard lead rack will have cams from very small to a #3 Camalot (or equivalent) plus a full set of stoppers, 10-15 quick draws and/or alpine draws, a couple of long slings, and two cordelletes or whatever you like to build a belay. Larger gear and specialized gear is very useful on a few select climbs. A 60 meter single rope will usually be fine (there are some rare exceptions). Two ropes to rappel on is useful, though not required. If you are rappelling on a single 60 you will need to know which sets of rappel anchors to use and which not to use.

If you are climbing the popular routes you’ll be fine with a 60 meter rope and a standard rack, with one or two exceptions where you will want a bit of wide gear.

The rappel stations are normally bolted or are trees. The locals usually install slings and rings on the key trees at the beginning of each season. Most intermediate belay stations are not bolted and you need to build an anchor.

But I want to sport climbing!

New River is about two more hours on down the road. Have a good one. There are “sport routes” on the Euro Wall at Seneca. I hope you know what you’re doing.

Where do I get more information?

The guidebook by Barnes is the standard. Mountain Project has good location information and route descriptions for the more popular routes. The two guide services have good information on their web sites.

Anything else I should know?

Your cell phone won’t work. The whole area is cell phone dead zone. If you stay in the new motel rooms at Nelson Rocks (around 10 miles south) they do have free WiFi, and that’s a draw for some people.

Thanks Mark Maier for this guide!

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