West Virginia’s Dolly Sods: If wind doesn’t take your breath away, the view will
Far down a dusty dirt road, atop an Appalachian mountain ridge, vehicles were jockeying for any available piece of dirt on which they could park their cars. A fierce wind was blasting across the Dolly Sods, stirring dust and rocking the vehicles.
We finally pulled into an ad-hoc parking space near the Bear Rocks trailhead, but when the driver of the car to our right tried opening his door, the wind yanked it from his hand and it slammed into the side of our car. The driver sheepishly glanced at us as he tried to regain control of the wayward metal.
I opened my door, and the wind sucked a plastic bag outside. I chased after it, but by the time I’d gone 10 yards, it was a football field away and still rising, perhaps destined for Oz.
To be sure, the harsh environment is part of the draw to this Monongahela National Forest wilderness area in West Virginia. The Dolly Sods Wilderness is on the highest plateau east of the Mississippi River, with elevations ranging from 2,644 feet to more than 4,000. It features large, stunning rock formations — with names like Bear Rocks and Lions Head — spectacular vistas of wind-swept meadows, and forests more typical of Canada than the mid-Atlantic.
On this day, near the end of October, it was unseasonably warm in the direct sunlight, but the wind delivered a stinging chill. My son, Grant, and I — in the area for a weekend of day hikes — dressed in layers, realizing we would need to make frequent adjustments between valleys and open hilltops, meadows and forests.
At the ridge top, we stood briefly in the blasting wind and gazed into the valley along the Bear Rocks Trail. It was several hundred yards before we’d reach any sheltering trees. But the trail ahead was dotted with dozens of hikers. Judging from their license plates, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia were well-represented, but so were New England and the Carolinas.
The popularity of the Dolly Sods is remarkable, especially given its history. In the last century, the land had been clearcut, repeatedly burned, heavily eroded and even bombed. Now, it’s a heavily used, federally designated wilderness with no roads, and no motorized vehicles allowed inside the wilderness boundary. Cell phones are pretty useless, too.
The area is named for an early German settler, named Dahle, and the natural openings in the forests, called sods, where animals could be grazed.
But the landscape seen by settlers like Dahle had little in common with what visitors see today. When they first arrived, the area was thickly forested with huge red spruce and hemlock trees. Some were said to be 12 feet across.
A dense understory of mountain laurel covered the forest floor. After emerging from the plateau in 1746, early explorer Thomas Lewis reported that “never was any poor creature in such a condition as we were in, nor ever was a criminal more glad by having made his escape out of prison as we were to get rid of those accursed laurels.”
That changed dramatically when the high plateau was accessed by a railroad in the late 1800s. Over a span of several decades, as one local newspaperman reported at the time, “the whole of Tucker County [where the Dolly Sods is mostly located] was reduced to stumps.”
With the trees gone, the rich, deep soil that had built up over the centuries from fallen pine needles and tree debris began to dry as it was exposed to high elevation sun and wind. The dry soil, along with leftover tree limbs from logging, turned the area into a tinderbox.
Repeated fires scorched the landscape for years. Much of the rich topsoil was lost to erosion, and — without huge trees drawing water from the ground — the water table rose and wetlands expanded.
The Civilian Conservation Corps replanted several hundred acres of red pine and red spruce in the 1930s. Then, during World War II, the Dolly Sods was used to train troops for mountain fighting in Europe. Peaks became targets for artillery and mortar practice. Signs today warn about unexploded shells still in the area.
In the decades after the war, the barren, shell-pocked landscape made a comeback as human activity declined, no doubt influenced by the area’s harsh climate. The elevation is buried by as much as 150 inches of snow in the winter. The 55–60 inches of rain that falls on the plateau is nearly twice what lands on communities just a few dozen miles to the east. Frost can hit any month of the year.
The Dolly Sods no longer has vast, old-growth forests of spruce and hemlock trees, but a second-growth northern hardwood forest has rebounded with yellow birch, red maple, hemlock and — in some places — dense stands of red spruce.
Thousands of acres of heath barrens now occupy rocky land where the soils were burned away and mountain laurel, blueberries, huckleberries and other acid-tolerant plants continue to thrive. Sphagnum bogs and swamp forests are found throughout much of the area.
The result is an unusual landscape, home to a wide variety of forests, grasslands and a colorful variety of plants, including a number of northern species rare in this region. The barrens and bogs provide vistas of vast tracks of uninhabited lands.
We stopped for a snack on a hillside, sitting on a log with a sweeping view of meadows, forests and waves of ridges in the distance. No signs of civilization could be seen. A nearby fire ring was evidence that many people over the years had chosen this vista as a place to pitch their tent.
“This doesn’t look like something you should see on the East Coast,” Grant said.
Conservationists and hikers began to make the same observation in the 1960s and launched campaigns to preserve the area. The Nature Conservancy helped to buy some of the land, and portions were designated as a federal wilderness in 1975. The conserved area has been enlarged several times since, to 17,371 acres today.
An even larger surrounding area is also considered part of the Dolly Sods. It straddles the boundary of the Chesapeake Bay watershed: The water running through portions of this unique mountainous terrain is connected to the river systems feeding the expansive coastal estuary located more than 200 miles away.
Inside the Dolly Sods Wilderness, you find a rugged, rocky world, with crystal-clear coldwater streams and trees at high elevations with limbs that perpetually point in the direction of the prevailing winds — called “flag trees” or “banner trees.”
The Dolly Sods is also filled with seemingly inexplicable patches of mud, often deep, which pop up everywhere, occasionally hidden under grasses. Sometimes, oddly, you have to hike down, not up, to avoid the muck. “It’s like the laws of gravity don’t apply here,” Grant said.
Some muddy areas have boardwalks, but you can still expect to get your feet wet. In other places, the trails are rock-studded pathways. The topography and scenery change with every bend in the trail. One minute you’re in dense, dark forest, the next in a sun-drenched meadow.
You can hike for hours — for days — on more than 47 miles of trails with no evidence of cars or buildings or much of anything made by humans, save for the occasional plane overhead. But you will see plenty of humans. The Dolly Sods is immensely popular, especially on weekends.
While we were camping in the relative comfort of a nearly deserted National Forest campground a half-hour away (with showers!), it was evident from the number of backpackers we saw that more people were actually camping in the wilderness area.
While trails generally aren’t blazed, they are often so worn from use that they’re easy to follow. A Forest Service brochure helpfully describes one trail as “generally overused, muddy, and rocky, with lots of roots.”
That said, it’s refreshing that a place like the Dolly Sods, with its rugged trails and lack of phone signals, is such a draw in this day and age. It is a unique place, one I highly recommend.
While it’s not the pristine old-growth forest of 150 years ago, neither is it the barren, burned-over wasteland of a century past. Given time, it might once again resemble the real wilderness that Thomas Lewis explored in 1746.
Exploring the Dolly Sods
For directions, printable maps and hiking options, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/mnf/recreation/recarea/?recid=12366.
Getting to the trailheads requires driving on several miles of gravel (and often dusty) forest roads. Hikers should wear sturdy boots suitable for trails filled with rocks and roots. And, most likely, you’ll get your feet wet. Some seemingly dry grassy areas are actually wet, and most stream crossings do not have bridges.
Weather can change quickly, so be prepared.
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