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Road trip: Dolly Sods Wilderness August 25, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature.
Tags: , , ,

How many trailheads have signs like this?

Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia has a checkered past, as you may gather from the sign shown above. Its high-elevation meadows were used for grazing sheep and cattle in the early 1800s by the family of Johann Dahle, a German immigrant. Then came long periods of logging in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the large spruce, hemlock, and black cherry of the high plateau were fed to the sawmills. As seems to have happened with logging operations everywhere during that period, big fires were fueled by the logging slash. By the 1920s, the area was more or less logged out. However, the fires continued amidst the dried-out slash: there was a particularly devastating one in 1930.

In this roughly handled area, it must have seemed quite natural when the U.S. Army used the area during World War II as a practice artillery and mortar range and maneuver area.

However, key tracts of this unusual high-elevation (up to 4000′) rolling plateau have now been preserved, and it has become an important destination for people who want to experience an isolated pocket of  windswept meadows and “southern muskeg.” Anyone who is interested in plants should come here. Most striking are the glades of red spruce, but the sprawling meadows contain worlds of other plants. The main plant communities are heath barrens, grassy balds, cranberry bogs, and hardwood forests.

I had a serious handicap in exploring Dolly Sods: no guidebook and no maps. The day before, as I journeyed on my quest to climb the state high points of PA, MD, and WV, I had driven past one of the points shown as a trailhead in my large-scale road atlas, hoping to find an informational signboard that would give me some clues. I was in luck! The signboard offered detailed maps. I took pictures of the maps, segment by segment, figuring I could use the review function of my camera to look at the maps if need be.

Signboard map of northern portion of Dolly Sods

Looking at the signboard, I hand-drew a map that showed the forest roads linking the different areas.

My hand-drawn map

And I did have a printed-out page from a “Hiking Upward” website that described an interesting-sounding route in Dolly Sods North. However, as had happened when I tried to print out maps for Mt. Davis, the color printer in the Econolodge lobby had produced such a washed-out map that I couldn’t use it.

The drive in to Dolly Sods on Forest Road 19 was very slow over a pothole-riddled surface. At last I reached the north-south artery of FR 75, which was in better shape, and headed to the far north end to pick up the Bear Rocks trail. When I emerged at last from my car, I was greeted by chilly winds out of the west that swept over the open meadows. But I enjoyed the cool air after having suffered through a lot of mugginess over the previous week.

Scene at trailhead

It was easy to see the direction of the prevailing wind in the dense spruce, whose material is easily sculpted. Meadow lay behind meadow, running off to a remote horizon: foreground, middle ground, background, with changing light flowing over everything.

Asymmetrical spruces buffeted by winds, with densely interwoven vegetation in the foreground

I came to a small tree with fruit that grew on long stems like cherries but with a dull rather than a glossy surface. The color was a bright and cheerful pinkish red.

Can you help me identify this?

I had left behind the open meadows and entered a deep ferny glade.

Ferny glade

It amazed me how different it felt inside the glades than out in the windy meadows: they seemed oddly unrelated to each other.

I passed through a series of glades, somewhat like passing through the rooms of a house

A boardwalk led over a marshy area. Unfortunately, the boardwalk builders seem to have run out of steam before reaching the trail I followed at the end of my adventure: it was several straight miles of slogging through thigh-deep bogs.

I appreciated the boardwalk

I crossed the stepping stones over the aptly named Red Creek. The color of the water is simply beautiful.

Maybe a bit more amber than red, but glowing in the sunlight

By looking in the other direction, I saw a different play of light on water.

Light on Red Creek

I climbed up out of the stream valley and entered a meadow with a nicely shaped tree. It reminded me of England—utterly different in feel from the meadows of the trailhead.

Pastoral scene

Soon, as Dolly Sods continued with its kaleidoscopic changes, the grass underfoot changed over to heath barren. It was as if the mixes of plants were thought up by some giant creative genius: “I’ll do a meadow of goldenrod here, a heath barren there—throw in some club moss—ferns here— a spattering of gentians over there—” Here in the heath I saw every variety of acid-loving plant: blueberry, cranberry, dwarf azalea and rhododendron, laurel, and wintergreen.

Heath closeup

I saw a yellow wildflower with woody stems that looked like something in the potentilla family.

Meadow scene

Water was everywhere, at or just below the surface.

Water, water everywhere

I passed from the Bear Rocks trail to the Raven Ridge trail and then the Rocky Ridge trail. I started to see fascinating rock formations.

This rock was created by someone with a sense of humor

The rocks seemed to lurk in the background, like observing presences of sorts.

More weird rock

Eventually I had run the gauntlet of the lurking rock shapes, and I turned down the Dobbin Grade trail to make a circle that would total 11 miles. I don’t recommend the lower Dobbin Grade trail—it was an endless quagmire.

But I do recommend a walk in Dolly Sods North. There is no other place quite like it.

To see all of the posts about my August 2011 road trip, type road trip: (with the colon after “trip”) in the search box at right and scroll down.

Cattails along Dobbin Grade trail


1. kaslkaos - August 25, 2011

I’m sure those rocks come to life at some time after midnight on the dark of the moon…

Jenny - August 25, 2011

Yes, you’re absolutely right! How amazing it would be to stroll there under the light of a full moon, no artificial light.

2. Thomas Stazyk - August 25, 2011

As usual great pics. I love the rocks. I also like the phrase “Highly Explosive Live Bombs.” Are there live bombs which aren’t highly explosive?

Jenny - August 26, 2011

Funny…department of redundancy department. You are a writer, so you can appreciate the unnecessary use of sharp language to describe the bombs. You wouldn’t want to think they were only live, without also being explosive….

3. Shoeless - March 29, 2012

Great photos! I love Dolly sods, one of my favorite weekend trips!

Jenny - March 29, 2012

Thank you! That is a truly wonderful place that I would like to go back to.

4. Sue Watson - July 6, 2012

Johann Dahle was my ancestor so I enjoyed all the pictures and your written commentary.

Jenny - July 6, 2012

So glad you visited! Dolly Sods is a wonderful place, and I hope to return.

5. DiannaP - July 13, 2013

Is it safe to travel tot he Dolly Sods on a motorcycle? I’ve read the roads are gravel and have lots of potholes. I’m wondering if this is a good idea to try and get the bikes up this road?

Jenny - July 13, 2013

Road conditions can change so much from year to year. I was there two years ago, and at that time I’d say Forest Road 75 was okay and FR 19 was bad. But I’m not a motorcyclist and don’t know exactly what would turn you around. Maybe try the Monongahela National Forest office in Elkins, WV—their number is 304-636-1800. Good luck!

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