Take a walk on White Horse Mountain, the area's soon-to-be newest recreation destination
Essay by Tracy Lind
Potomac Conservancy Director of Land Protection
In 2015, with overwhelming support from local residents like you, along with the Conservation Fund, Potomac Conservancy saved one of the largest remaining tracts of forest in our region, White Horse Mountain.
In so doing, we stopped White Horse Mountain’s 1,725 acres of forest and 8 miles of streams from being subdivided into 70 housing plots. Saving White Horse is a huge conservation win for clean water, healthy habitats, and rural heritage.
Potomac Conservancy officially transferred White Horse Mountain to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources to become the area's newest public space!
The property is open to the public this fall. Here’s a sneak peek! These photos are from a hike I took on White Horse, and they showcase the amazing plants, animals, and landscapes you're protecting.
On my way to White Horse Mountain, I visited a nearby farm that is protected with a conservation easement through Potomac Conservancy. You can see much of this West Virginia mountain’s forest from the property.
When you set foot on White Horse Mountain, you are instantly surrounded by dense hardwood forest, which includes trees like beech, birch, black cherry, and various species of oaks. These trees are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the fall and winter to conserve water and energy.
The forest floor is covered with fallen leaves and detritus (organic matter produced by the decomposition of organisms). Tree seedlings are scattered about. This white oak seedling may look slightly unusual because of its wide leaves. Many seedling growing in the shade have this widened leaf characteristic so they can absorb more sunlight for energy and growth.
Throughout the 1,700 acres of forest, there are almost 8 miles of streams, all of which flow into the South Branch of the Potomac River. Streams like these that are surrounded by healthy forests provide the cleanest water to the Potomac.
White Horse Mountain has both intermittent and perennial streams. Intermittent streams flow during certain times of the year and after rain. Perennial streams continuously hold water and flow all year long. Some of the rocks in this stream bed were covered in common hair cap moss.
Near a stream, I spotted a red eft, the juvenile stage of one of West Virginia’s most common salamanders, the red-spotted newt. The red eft stage lasts at least two years. After this newt becomes an adult, it will change from being terrestrial (living on the ground) in forest habitats to spending most of its time in permanent pools of water.
There are 14 species of frogs and toads in West Virginia. This young eastern American toad will grow up to be anywhere from 2 to 4.25 inches. During breeding season, which can take place between March and July, males will gather in choruses to beckon females to wet areas, such as shallow streams and wetlands.
As you can see, this toad is covered in warts, but don’t worry, they’re not contagious.
Garter snakes are common throughout our region and are found in a variety of habitats, including meadows, marshes, woodlands, and even suburban areas. They’re vivaporous, meaning they give birth to live young, and are generally docille snakes.
This eastern box turtle was making its way towards a stream to cool down. Eastern box turtles are often found in open forested habitats.
I heard this pileated woodpecker calling long before I spotted it pecking this tree. They are the largest woodpeckers and one of the largest forest birds in North America. They leave rectangular holes when excavating for carpenter ants.
Common whitetail dragonflis were flying around near the top of the mountain. This female perched in the sun to warm up. Common whitetails are widespread throughout North America and can be seen flying from early spring to late autumn. They’re beautiful to watch, and also great because they feed on small insects.
Thought I didn’t encounter West Virginia’s state animal, the black bear, I did come across some of its scat. Black bears are intelligent and shy animals, which is why seeing one in the wild is a rare experience. They are omnivorous, meaning they feed on plants and animals; they prefer nuts, berries, grasses, and roots. You can see nuts and some grass in this bear’s scats.
Our region has some of the most beautiful fauna in the country. Luckily, we can grow these native flowers in our yards. Just check a local nursery for seeds and starters. Native plants require much less maintenance than non-native plants and can offer habitat and food to local birds and butterflies.
But please don’t pick them from the wild! In most places, that’s illegal. It's also important to not pick wildflowers to ensure they continue to come back year after year.
Mountain laurel, picture above, is a native shrub that is abundant in the mountains. The leaves are poisonous to livestock and humans, but deer graze on the plants, and ruffed grouse eat the leaves and twig tips.
Eastern red columbine is a beautiful native woodland wildflower. Lucky for us, it is a perennial, meaning we’ll be seeing it often on White Horse Mountain since it comes back year after year.
The showy aromatic flower of the black locust makes it hard to miss. It's a controversial native tree. Some say it is invasive because of its ability to rapidly spread. Others say it's beneficial for erosion control. The tree establishes itself easily, grows quickly in its early stage, and is able to form positive relationships in the soil with certain bacteria. Since its wood is strong and durable, it’s often used for fence posts.
White Horse Mountain is mostly dense fertile forest, but it also has some limestone outcroppings and wetland areas, visible in the photos above.
The view from the top! You're overlooking West Virginia’s South Branch Valley. Potomac Conservancy continues to work one-on-one with private landowners in the valley to protect its rural communities, pristine forests, and clean streams.