The Dolly Sods Wilderness Experience
Hiking in the Dolly Sods Wilderness
According to HikingUpward.com, Dolly Sods is "arguably one of the most unique and beautiful hiking areas on the East Coast."
Its full name is the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, encompassing 17,371 acres in the Monongahela National Forest located in Grant, Randolph and Tucker Counties, West Virginia. Dolly Sods is part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Into the Wilderness
It was about an hour before sunset.
We knew we were going to witness a magnificent view. We were climbing from the road to a very high point in the Wilderness. The short climb was very steep—so steep that I had to climb sideways, setting my feet perpendicular to the slope. Slowly we reached the top and discovered Valley View Trail. We turned around and couldn't believe our eyes.
A beautiful broad expanse of the Canaan Valley opened up to our west. We could see for miles and miles.
As we walked along Valley View Trail, the wonders of the Dolly Sods Wilderness landscape were everywhere to be seen—plush grasses along the trail, windswept stunted deciduous trees along with wind-formed spruce trees. Sweeping views. And then the rocks—piles of rocks and boulders on the crest of the ridge.
A Most Unusual Climate
What is it about Dolly Sods that forms its landscape? For starters, consider the climate—with 55 inches of rainfall and 155 inches of snowfall, there is plenty of moisture to feed grasses, shrubs, trees, and bogs. A fog can roll in so dense that you must be careful not to lose your way.
This rugged part of the Allegheny Plateau is at an elevation of 2600 to over 4700 feet. Be prepared for cold or chilly weather, even in the summer. These windswept landscapes include unusual and distinctive features such as high mountain bogs, sort of like northern muskegs: heath-like areas covered with blueberry bushes. Boulders are strewn across meadows with names like Roaring Plains. Plants and wildlife here are typical of more northerly locations in the U.S. and Canada.
Cairns Mark the Spot
As we carefully picked our way through the rocks, we came to a cairn of stones, an important-looking marker built by persons unknown. I believe the cairn was built to mark the way to another trail—the three-mile Rocky Ridge Trail, aptly named and one of the major mapped and marked trails through the wilderness.
The sun was slowly setting as we retraced our steps. The sun, the clouds, the views, the experience -- it all combined to make this one of the most memorable short hikes of my experience.
What Is This Place Called Dolly Sods Wilderness?
My curiosity was piqued to such an extent that I did a bit of research on Dolly Sods.
It is a federally-designated Wilderness Area within the 921,000-acre Monongahela National Forest. It is named after a German homesteading family (Dahle). "Sods" is a mountain term for open mountain meadows.
"Dolly Sods," by Norma Jean Venable
I discovered a great resource in a 2001 booklet written by Norma Jean Venable for the West Virginia Extension Service. It is still available on Amazon. Although some of the data in the booklet are dated, overall it does present a good overall reference.
Venable begins the booklet with a poem that for her captures the essence of Dolly Sods:
"Boulders that glisten
as white as snow,
spruce trees with wind-blasted
landscapes that resemble
the arctic tundra.
This is Dolly Sods,
one of West Virginia's
most unusual wilderness areas."— from Norma Jean Venable, "Dolly Sods"
Her book offers a comprehensive guide to the history, climate, geology, forest, wildlife and birds, trees and vegetation to Dolly Sods.
What I particularly like in her book are the black and white detailed drawings by various artists of trees, plants, and wildlife, These will be very useful in identifying flora and fauna in your exploration. She even includes a detailed checklist that you can use to keep a record of what you have seen and identified.
Mapped Trails in Dolly Sods
According to the National Forest Service, the Dolly Sods Wilderness has 47 miles of trails. Many follow old railroad grades and logging roads. Some cross fords that present problems in high water. The Forest Service suggests a number of loop trails so you do not have to trek all 47 miles at once.
To find your way around in Dolly Sods, Norma Jean Venable's booklet (highlighted earlier) includes a map and detailed guides to its main trails and nearby flora and fauna. Remember though that her information was good as of 2001 when her guide was published. A long time has passed since then. Current wilderness boundaries and trails today are different.
Following is a complete list of Dolly Sods trails. There are 19 listed trails totaling 47.9 miles. This list comes from two sources:
Notice that Valley View Trail, the trail that inspired my Hub, is not included on this list. That may be because parts of it may not fall within the boundary of Dolly Sods.
Dolly Sods Wilderness Trails
Upper Red Creek**
Fisher Spring Run
Hikers: Make Sure You Get the Latest Available Map
If you are planning a hike, I would make sure to get the latest maps available from the Forest Service. The designation of wilderness area property boundaries has expanded the area since the publication of Norma's booklet, and the number of designated trails has also grown.
REI's Hiking Project -- Dolly Sods Wilderness Trail and Virtual Hiking Tour
Another very useful hiking guide to Dolly Sods is the virtual hike presented by REI's Hiking Project.
Besides being an outfitter, REI sponsors the Hiking Project, with computer maps, apps, designated hikes all across the country, and virtual hikes, where you can watch a virtual hiker's trek across designated trails, with mileposts, all overlaid on topography.
Their virtual hike through Dolly Sods features:
- a loop totaling 19.6 miles
- an ascent and descent of 1410 feet
- a high point of 4157 feet
- a low point of 3360 feet
For me, 19.6 miles is much too much for a one-day hike that allows full contemplation of the flora, fauna, and views offered by Dolly Sods. In fact the Hiking Project offers this quote from hikers about the trek: “A great multi-night, long-weekend trip with amazing views and incredible changes in terrain.”
Hikers Beware! World War II Ordnance
Long before Dolly Sods was designated as a Wilderness Area, this area was used as a World War II-era bombing range. Warning signs are conspicuously posted near entrances to Dolly Sods. Even though it is said that the trail and a couple of hundred feet on either side have been surveyed and cleared of ordnance, be careful!
If you happen to find suspicious metal, avoid it!
Have you ever hiked into the Dolly Sods Wilderness?
Questions & Answers
© 2017 John Dove