Devil’s Backbone between Huntersville and Minnehaha Springs is a perfect example of how rocks can be “folded,” creating an intriguing anticline. Photo by Suzanne Stewart

Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

West Virginia is a great state for history and a great state for natural history, too.

Geologists come from far and wide to study our rock formations. And you don’t have to be a professional rockhound to enjoy our rocks.

As you walk across West Virginia, just keep your eyes open and the rocks will tell you the story of the natural history of our state.

Not being a geology expert myself, I lean heavily on my friend, Pam Sharpes, who, as many of you know, was the high school biology teacher here for more than 30 years, and is a rockhound of local renown.

All West Virginia rocks are sedimentary – meaning that they were formed in horizontal layers and ultimately folded, beginning 275 million years ago, by the collision with the African continent, which resulted in the formation of the Appalachian Mountains and the corresponding Atlas Mountains in Northwest Africa.

There are five types of rock in Pocahontas County: sandstone, limestone, chert, shale and conglomerate.

These rocks were all formed during the Paleozoic Period, meaning that they are between 600 million and 275 million years old.

Compared to our rocks, we are all spring chickens!

Photo by Laura Dean Bennett
The rock sculpture is a good example of putting rocks to good use and was painstakingly built by Pam and Dave Sharpes. On top are two old chimney stones. The “table top” is sandstone – sometimes called flagstone­ – made of iron oxide, which gives it its orange color. Supporting the table are stacks of limestone.
Photo by Laura Dean Bennett
West Virginia’s state fossil, coral, is the limestone remains of the homes made by microscopic animals who lived in the shallow ocean that covered our state millions of years ago.

Around my stomping grounds, here in eastern Pocahontas County, we are walking on rocks that are primarily from the Devonian Period, meaning we are living our lives surrounded by rocks that are 405 million years old.

And some formations in the county are even older.

Brown’s Mountain, for instance, was formed by Silurian rock from the Paleozoic Era, making it about 30 million years older than the Devonian rocks.

The western portion of the county is composed of rocks formed during the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian Periods – both during the Carboniferous Era.

There are massive conglomerate rocks to be found up around Snowshoe. Conglomerate rocks are formed when rounded pebbles are cemented in sandstone rock.

And while our Pocahontas County rocks are old – about 400 million years old – the rocks in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle are even older.

The rocks at Harper’s Ferry, for instance, were formed during the Cambrian Period – 600 million years ago – making them the oldest in the state.

“Destruction of the layers of these rocks was extreme – and easily observed by the dramatic, tumbled formations at Harper’s Ferry,” Sharpes points out.

“The collision of our continent with the African continent – their grinding together over the course of millions of years – flipped our rock layers at the extreme Eastern Panhandle 180 degrees, putting the oldest on top and the youngest on the bottom,” Sharpes said.
“Walking along the towpath in Shepherdstown is walking on the most destroyed layers of rock in West Virginia, where the layers are not just folded, but actually flipped completely over.” 

The Appalachian mountains have been eroding for 250 million years, diminishing from their original elevation of 10,000 feet to 4,000 feet. And the erosion continues.

“Every time you see a muddy stream, you can know that it is carrying Appalachian sediments to the Ohio River and ultimately to the Mississippi River system,” Sharpes continued. “The uneven erosion of our mountains has resulted in the exposed sedimentary surface rocks being different ages.”

(See Map)

Millions of years of natural history can be seen on this map. While our Pocahontas County rocks are old – about 400 million years old – the rocks in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle are even older. The rocks at Harper’s Ferry were formed during the Cambrian Period.

The state also has abundant fossils in our exposed Silurian, Devonian and Mississippian Period rock formations.

Plant fossils are commonly found in shales that overlie coal beds. These coal beds are often exposed along highways in the southern, northwestern, and north-central parts of the state, meaning people can actually see coal as they cruise along those highways.

Fossil seashells are more likely to be found in the eastern counties bordering Virginia and Maryland.

We also have two very important mineral deposits of historic significance that are often found by rock hunters –  salt (halite) and coal.
There are famous salt licks along the Ohio River, left over from the evaporation of an ancient, tropical sea which covered our entire state during the Cambrian, Silurian and Devonian Periods.

Of course, West Virginia has extensive coal deposits.

Coal is from the Carboniferous Period of the Paleozoic Era – between 345 and 310 million years old. It was formed from the carbon of decaying plants under millions of years of pressure by geologic forces.

Bituminous coal was designated as West Virginia’s state stone in 2009, to honor the significance of coal in our economy, history and geology.

Coal is found naturally deposited in most of the 55 counties of West Virginia.

In 1770, George Washington recorded seeing “a coal hill on fire” near West Columbia in present day Mason County.

And, as we were once underwater in a tropical sea, we have a lot of coral.

In fact, Fossil Coral became the state gemstone in 1990.

Coral rock, composed of calcium carbonate, was manufactured by coelerate organisms and was deposited here 405 million years ago during the Devonian Period.

It is found in abundance in limestone formations in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties and is often used in jewelry.

Coral’s honeycomb-like deposits were the hard, protective homes made by coral, which are microscopic sea creatures related to jelly fish, sea anemones and hydras.

Photo by Laura Dean Bennett
This is a stack of sedimentary rocks topped by a concretion.

“Here in Pocahontas County, as in most of the Eastern edge of our state, coral is plentiful and it’s rare to do any real rock hunting that does not turn up a few coral samples,” Sharpes said.

“Rugose coral is particularly abundant in the Little Levels area of Hillsboro, where, when farmers plow their fields, they often come up with pieces of it.”

I asked Sharpes to tell me her favorite places to see rocks in Pocahontas County.

Of course, she knows many places to go for good rock hunting, but she said, if she had to choose her three favorites, they would be:

~ Devil’s Backbone between Huntersville and Minnehaha Springs- this magnificent anticline is a perfect example of how rocks can be “folded” and makes a great spot for photography.

The top layer of the anticline is Tuscarora Sandstone from the Silurian Period. The sandstone is very slow to “weather” or erode due to its high content of quartz.

~ Up on the Scenic Highway, besides offering breathtaking views, a lovely hike will bring you to the “Honeycomb Rocks” – a good example of limestone rock formations where the “glue” holding them together has weathered away and left interesting shapes.

~ Beartown may not have any bears, but it is definitely on the list of places to visit if you’re a rockhound, or if you have kids that like to get out and have adventures. It’s fascinating formations are composed of relatively young, Pottsville Period, rocks formed during the Pennsylvanian Era- only 310 million years ago. These rocks were originally all in one piece, but the “glue” (calcium carbonate) dissolved or weathered away and gravity eventually caused them to slide down the hill and land in pieces- just like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.

If you’re visiting Pocahontas County, have a yen to visit any of these three places and need help on how to get there, just stop by the Convention and Visitors Bureau on Main Street in Marlinton. They are glad to give directions.

Whether you’re a real rockhound or, like me, you just appreciate a really pretty rock, we’ve got some of the best rock hunting to be found anywhere.

Now that the weather is warmer, it’s time to get out there and enjoy the rock hunting adventures that can be had out and about in the mountains of Pocahontas County.

Photo by Laura Dean Bennett
Sandstone rocks, formed 405 million years ago on ancient beaches during the Devonian Age, can be found in many beautiful colors and are plentiful here in Pocahontas County. The colors are the result of a variety of iron compounds.