When looking at the Hope Diamond for the first time, you’re not impressed by its size — even for a rare diamond, it isn’t that big. What immediately impresses is the sparkling magnificence and the hue of cobalt blue — its rarity.
But this type of rare beauty isn’t just for diamonds. This very much applies to many amazing, smaller natural wonders in our vast national forests, grasslands and public parks as well.
We know many of these rare wonders. The Natural Bridge in Virginia. Old Faithful in the middle of Yellowstone National Park. And Methuselah, an ancient Bristlecone pine believed to be the oldest known tree, or living organism for that matter, on Earth that resides remotely in the Inyo National Forest.
So, rare is the point here. There’s nothing rarer than an old growth forest in the eastern U.S. The reason is that most ancient woodlands were harvested and, in some cases, simply clear-cut during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This wrongheaded overharvesting of forests resulted in the formation of the Forest Service in 1905 by Gifford Pinchot, who resolved to conserve our woodlands for generations to come.
By the early 20th century, when the proverbial dust cleared from so many felled trees, only a handful of primitive pre-colonial forest acres remained on the eastern seaboard. In remote areas, the trees were not easily accessible before modern off-roading and high-tech hiking gear made them easier to reach.
One such hidden gem is Gaudineer Knob on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.
Walking through this more than 200-acre area of towering virgin Red Spruce, especially in spring, you become a time traveler of sorts. With thick barked trees, emerald-green moss and colorful wildflowers, this living time capsule gives a glimpse of what many eastern forests looked like to the Native Americans, who diligently managed the land so they too would have them for generations.
“What’s most interesting is that Gaudineer Knob was saved because of human error — a survey mistake by loggers,” said Darley Newman, the creator and host of Travels with Darley, a nature and cultural exploration series that airs on the Public Broadcasting Service. “The area today is an old-growth reference site. There have been ongoing studies for decades looking at tree composition, the types of plants and animals that exist among these old trees and the process of forest growth.”
Designated as a National Natural Landmark, Gaudineer Knob is also home for rare species like the Cheat Mountain Salamander and the flying squirrel. A mountain summit, the area at 4,449 feet is the highest elevation of Shavers Mountain, a ridge of the Allegheny Mountains. The Gaudineer Knob Lookout Tower, once an important Forest Service fire tower, formerly occupied the crown of the knob. The tower is long gone, but the foundations remain adding yet another sense of wonderment that can spur your imagination about what it must have been like to work in the tower decades ago.
At such a high elevation, Gaudineer Knob has views of several mountain ridges of the Appalachians, blanketed in shades of green. From this vantage point, you can see a wilderness that is geologically one of the oldest on Earth — literally millions of years old. As wind blows through the trees around you, some over 300 years old, you can hear a whisper of the past telling stories of time immemorial.
There’s a famous song that says diamonds are a girl's best friend, but our nation’s hidden wilderness gems, like Gaudineer Knob, are everyone’s best friend and far more precious.