Dolly Sods: An Outstanding Backpacking Adventure You'll Love
The 17,371 acre Dolly Sods Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest is part of the National Wilderness Preservation System located in Grant, Randolph, and Tucker Counties of West Virginia. The Dolly Sods Wilderness has much of the Red Creek drainage and has bog and heath eco-types, more commonly typical to southern Canada. Elevations range from 2,500 to over 4,700 feet.
Dolly Sods got it's name after Johann Dahle (pronounced "Dolly") who settled the area in the 1780s. “Sods” is a term used to describe a mountaintop meadow or bog, which is an apt description.
My husband Jamison and I first heard about Dolly Sods Wilderness from a sales associate at REI, while shopping for and ultimately buying our backpacking gear. It was immediately shortlisted to our “places to go” list, which ended up an impromptu happening the very next weekend!
This article summarizes our first trip to the Sods, but mostly explains the details of the trail system with maps, descriptions, and photos. At the time of this writing, we've been to Dolly eight times since the summer of 2015 and we've yet to cover every trail!
Dolly Sods Official Trail Map
Arriving at Dolly Sods Parking Lot and Trailhead Area
As you approach the summit of Forest Rd 75, you’ll see the entrance to the park. Around the corner, you’ll find a parking lot and be tempted to park there to start your hike. It says “Bear Rocks” and has a trail beside it. It looks legit, but keep going or you'll be as wrong as we were if you start your hike here. It's a preserve with the same name as the trail. We hiked 3/4 mile before hitting a dead end and signpost that read “Forest Land Boundary.” After backtracking to the parking lot, we noticed vehicles parked about 400 meters south where the actual Bear Rocks Trail does begin. We started hiking at 5:37 pm, and what was to be a 5.5-mile day, became seven miles thanks to our detour in the Preserve.
This is Where You Want to Start: “Bear Rocks Trail”
It was a beautiful June evening for our first Dolly Sods backpacking experience. Bear Rocks is an open, rocky, downhill start heading west for the first mile before crossing the river for an uphill climb and then intersects with trail #526 (Dobbin’s Grade). We traveled for about five miles and came upon beautiful floral-lined trails and cool rock formations.
We found the perfect campsite nestled in the pines with an existing fire ring about a mile from the rocks. It was sprinkling rain, so we were thrilled with this spot under a thick pine tree canopy. We tried to make a fire, but it was too wet. We pitched our tent and went to bed; experiencing our first night of official backpacking in a steady all-night downpour.
Sleep was minimal as the rain pummeled our rainfly. We'd placed our food up in a tree to keep it away from bears and other wildlife, having forgotten to bring a rope and keeping one eye and ear open as it was. Every time we'd drift off, the rain poured harder, or the thunder and lightning grumbled enough to be a bit on the scary side!
We tried to "sleep in" once the rain slowed, but it was futile. We packed our wet gear and opted for the six-mile route back to our car rather than the planned ten-mile trek to the next campsite.
The Next Morning
To our surprise, Dobbins Grade was a rushing creek bed the entire route back, ranging from ankle to sometimes waist-deep water, swampy areas, and mud that acted like quicksand. As much as I'd like to complain about this, it was a fun challenge and a comfortable 65 degrees, despite the persistent chilly rain.
We had three dicey, raging creek crossings that made us ask "what are we doing out here"? and wishing we'd turned back to the car the way we came. But, we made it a fun challenge, teamed up, and toughed it out, making it our most memorable hike to date.
The third crossing found us using a flexible tree to hold onto to make it across; it was that bad. The first crossing, I had to meet Jamison part way and give him my pack since he was tall enough to keep it dry. This experience has made us very mindful of watching the weather forecast!
Dolly Sods Blooming Schedule
- Monongahela National Forest - Nature & Science
The vibrant colors and breathtaking blooms are what makes Dolly Sods our favorite place to explore nature. This wilderness has it all from towering pines, lush ferns, pink and white blossoms of azaleas and rhododendrons, and delicious huckleberries
A Welcome Treat During the Month of July - Huckleberries aka "Wild Blueberries"
Detail About the Trails
I’ve highlighted each trail with a partial map below each description. The complete trail map, found at the beginning of this article, is from the US Department of Agriculture website.
Bear Rocks Trail - #522 - 2.4 Miles
This trail features predominately open views with a few wooded areas. The path contains a lot of broken rock in the beginning. Unlike most of Dolly Sods, the stones in this area are tannish-red in color. There are two minor hills and one creek crossing.
There are at least two campsites I can remember. The first is on the south side in a grove of pines as you head down the first hill (assuming westbound travel, about 3/4 of a mile). The second is at the creek crossing in another grove of pines (slightly more than a mile in).
After climbing the second hill when coming out of the creek crossing, there's a plateau vista filled with greenery and wide-open views and was the first moment at Dolly Sods where we said “WOW.” The trail ends at the midpoint of the Raven Ridge Trail.
Raven Ridge Trail - #521 - 2.8 Miles
We’ve only traversed half of the Raven Ridge Trail, 1.4 miles with light grey rocks (from Bear Rocks to Rocky Ridge). The Bear Rocks Trail intersects the trail at its midpoint. The trail continues the open vistas from the latter half of Bear Rocks before turning into a slightly rocky path lined with "flowery hedges or shrubbery" containing pretty pink and white flowers and beautiful greenery.
Rocky Ridge Trail - #524 - 3.0 Miles
Rocky Ridge Trail is our favorite trail. When traveling southbound on the path, it starts rocky with open views. It quickly transitions into very rocky terrain, causing you to slow, else risk a twisted ankle. Many large windswept boulders add to the ambiance of the scenery.
Nearing the midpoint of the trail, you'll descend gently into some pine trees. There are a couple of campsites on the east side of the trail just before Dobbin’s Grade. The terrain switches back to the tannish red rocks similar to the start of Bear Rocks Trail. Once you pass the intersection with Dobbin’s Grade, you ascend a moderate grade onto another wide-open ridge with tremendous views all around. About 3/4 up the hill is another great campsite on the east side of the trail.
After hiking along the ridge for a time, you descend gently again, and the trail merges with the end (or beginning) of Blackbird Knob Trail, marking the boundary of Dolly Sods North.
Dobbin’s Grade Trail - #526 - 4.3 Miles
As I mentioned above, it rained all night and had rained at other times we completed the entire Dobbin’s Grade Trail (aka "The Swamp"), which is hit and miss--total swampland or dry and beautiful; but usually a swampland!
As you travel east, the trail descends moderately, with a couple of little rises to mix things up. The terrain is rocky, much like Bear Rocks Trail, and there are abundant water erosion troughs throughout.
Just over a mile in, you’ll arrive at the first creek crossing. We've experienced mid-thigh deep water and the current very strong. The rocks in the creek bed are large, making footing treacherous, so exercise caution here.
Once you pass this area, the trail enters a wide-open valley and the path is better, but can still be a creek. After passing the intersection with the Upper Red Creek Trail, you’ll come to the second creek crossing. We've also experienced mid-thigh deep water here too, but the current isn't as strong due to being wider than the previous passage. The rocks were more consistent in size and easier to navigate.
Shortly after the second creek crossing, you’ll enter "the swamp." Don’t let the greenery fool you, whether it’s raining or not; the area contains stinky water. It's almost always boot-deep, leaving you with swamp water inside your boots. If you’re cautious and bushwhack through and around the worst parts with your hiking poles to test the depth and scout out rocks for foot placement, you can prevent the water from going over your boots. If you’re wearing low shoes, you’ll have wet feet.
The swamp section lies between the intersections of Raven’s Ridge Trail and Beaver Dam Trail. If traveling eastward, it’s slightly uphill and then comes a third creek crossing. The only time we went up this far, it was raining, and the creek was waist-deep and broader than the other two passages. On top of that, it smelled more swamp-like than the other two. After crossing this creek, you’ll enter a slightly wooded area and ascend uphill to the end of the trail when it intersects Bear Rocks Trail.
Upper Red Creek Trail- #509 - 1.3 Miles
Upper Red Creek trail is our second favorite trail at Dolly Sods. When traveling north from Blackbird Knob, you’ll ascend a slight hill and enter a plateau that's wide open and has the most significant "Big Sky" feel of any of the trails we've seen here. The vast majority of the trail is on this plateau with nothing but field grass around. If your purpose is to stargaze, this is the perfect spot.
The trail ends by descending through some trees and entering the valley that Dobbin’s Grade traverses. There's a small creek crossing at the northern end of the trail.
Upper Red Creek
Beaver Dam Trail - #520 - 0.7 Miles
Traveling east from Dobbin’s Grade, this trail is all uphill, with some sections steeper than others. The path is open, especially at the ends and in the middle, goes through some muddy wooded areas.
The trailhead is nicer than Bear Rocks and features a “real” parking area. It’s not very big and can fill up fast on the weekends. Another reason to start a trip here is it’s a downhill start.
Lessons Learned About Dolly Sods
Each trip we learn a bit more.
- We've determined if the water at a creek crossing is over the boots, hiking sandals on and boots off is a good option. The feet are getting soaked.
- A pair of gaiters is helpful to ward off the splashing, mud, and debris in boot-height conditions if there has been recent rain. We purchased since they are light and good for hot weather. these gaiters
- Don't forget to bring rope to hoist your food bag up into a tree to keep the bears and other critters from getting it.
- It's essential to carry fuel or fire starters to get a fire going in wet conditions.
- Firewood is hard to find near any camping spot there, so a small ax is helpful to cut down dead limbs.
Where Oh Where Is the Infamous "Lion's Head"?
Lion's Head or Breathed Mountain is not very easy to find, and it took us three trips to finally find it. It's not marked AT ALL! You access it from Rocky Point Trail (which gets its name honestly) and loops around Breathed Mountain. You make a very steep climb from an area that's frequently marked by cairns. After a steep ascent, you'll come to a tall pine grove (see the first photo below). Hike through the pines and the various campsites until you can't go any further, turn right and take a short trail until you land on top of Lion's Head. If you want to use GPS coordinates, they are: 38°59'19.9"N 79°21'59.8"W.
Lion's HeadClick thumbnail to view full-size
Do You Have a Fun Fact, Favorite Spot, or Memory of Dolly Sods?
I'd love to hear from other Dolly Sods enthusiasts! Please share something you love about Dolly Sods in the comments below.
Check Out My Other Backpacking Reviews
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 Debra Roberts