Backpacking opportunities exist in these quiet draws (check out East Clear Creek for cool forest splendor or the Highline Trail for Rim majesty), while developed campgrounds perch in the flat forests above. There are many miles of backroads in “Rim Country,” as the locals call it, where one can pull aside onto a cushion of pine needles and call it camp. If you need a water fix in this humidity-starved highland, man-made lakes dot the forests of the Rim.
When to go:
June is achingly dry, often with campfire bans in effect.
July ushers in needed summer showers from the south.
August typically has clear mornings with thunderstorms by afternoon.
Apache and Sitgreaves National Forest:
LAND OF CANAAN
If the mugginess of summer has you longing for Canada, but the burden of such a journey is just too much, take solace: Canaan is near. Deep within the rural fortress of Appalachia exists a little slice of the north, a place where spruce trees line tundra-scapes and a chill breeze blows, even in July.
West Virginia’s Canaan (pronounced Kah-nane) Valley and Dolly Sods Wilderness sit astride the eastern continental divide, occupying a northland niche on the roof of Appalachia. The Canaan Valley floor is more than 3,000 feet in elevation. The “Sods,” as the locals call their mountaintop meadows, are 1,000 feet higher still. In three directions, this is the highest rise of land for hundreds of miles, hauling down more than 150 inches of snow annually (250 inches in 2010) and furthering a red spruce forest of epic stature.
The lure of this rich forest actually cursed the area a century ago, as voracious logging denuded the mountains surrounding Canaan. The leftover humus layer of soil burned to bedrock in many places, prompting the Civilian Conservation Corps to conduct an ambitious topsoil replacement project in the ’30s, along with reforestation efforts. Today, the old-growth might be gone, but the area has recovered well. Burgeoning forests of balsam fir, hemlock and 80-year-old spruce thickets remain. Big Bend and Red Creek Campgrounds will place you close to the forest depths.
Perhaps the most intriguing habitat in the area, however, is where the trees don’t grow. Dolly Sods is an open stretch of heath barrens that hold Pleistocene plant remnants and a decidedly Alaskan feel. It’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to walk, in a single day, from arctic tundra to Quebec-esque spruce swamps to Appalachian hardwood forest. The largest tree ever recorded in West Virginia grew near here, a white oak that was 10 feet in diameter at 30 feet off the ground! Behemoths like this are a thing of the past, but excellent stands of black cherry thrive near Canaan these days. You can’t get that in Alaska.