Dolly Sods Wilderness Area
|Backpackers in West Virginia's Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, Monongahela National Forest (Raeky/Wikimedia)|
Tucked away in the northeast corner of West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest, the 17,371 square acres of Dolly Sods Wilderness feel more like a pocket of southern Canada than John Denver's mountain mama. Dolly Sods' 3,734-foot elevation on the Allegheny Plateau and neighboring high-altitude mountains are primarily responsible for the area's cool temperatures and atypical flora and fauna. The high plateaus play host to wind-stunted spruce, resilient azaleas, and rhododendrons, as well as sweeping views of the surrounding valley.
The area is named for the Dalhe family, which purchased the land as sheep-grazing fields, known as "sods," in the early 1900s. More than 76,000 annual visitors enjoy hiking, sightseeing, berry picking, and bird-watching on the high plains of Dolly Sods, which lines the eastern border of the state with the highest mean elevation east of the Mississippi. Excessive logging in the 1800s nearly decimated the landscape's monstrous four- to ten-foot-diameter red spruce, hemlock, and oak trees, inviting frequent forest fires before the U.S. Forest Service and Civilian Conservation Corps reforested the area in the 1930s.
The Dolly Sods Scenic Area drive, through 2,000 acres of protected wilderness sandwiching Forest Road 75, is one of the most popular destinations in the area. The route's famous overlooks are propped 2,500 feet above the North Fork Valley and, in the fall, boast views of a quilt of brilliant foliage. The half-mile Northland Loop Trail winds around bogs and huckleberry patches, giving visitors a taste of high-elevation plant life and drivers an excuse to stretch their legs. In peak season (spring through fall), the 12 spots at the area's only campground, Red Creek, fill up quickly. The site, at 3,900 feet, offers water and toilet facilities. We recommend camping in the backcountry; as part of U.S. Forest Service lands, Dolly Sods permits off-trail camping. Check with the visitor center upon arrival for details, and don't plan on building a campfire out there.
Driving through Dolly Sods might be simple, but the 47 miles of hiking trails belie the wilderness's innocent-sounding name. The 8.2-mile Red Creek Trail remains the most popular and is also the longest, extending from the north to the south edges of the wilderness. Hikers should note that this trail crosses Red Creek numerous times, and with no bridges, fording the river can be dangerous during high water. Trails are often wet, rocky, and unkempt, and are typically built on top of old logging roads and railroad grades. The area was used by the military for artillery practice during World War II and could potentially contain live mortar shells. A team of professionals has swept the area multiple times for explosives on and around the trails, but if you find one, do not touch it. Immediately call the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (888-283-0303).
Starting in October, prepare for freezing temperatures and lots of snow that can last through April. In winter, the area can receive up to 150 inches of snow, so cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular. Backcountry skiers can ski Forest Road 75 itself since the road is closed December through mid-April. Alternatively, Blackbird Knob Trail (No. 511) starts on an old jeep trail before switching to grassland, starting at Red Creek Campground and ending east by Cabin Mountain. Cabins are available to rent in nearby Petersburg, Seneca Rocks, and Canaan Valley, or the courageous can brave the winter winds and make camp. Be sure to bring a topographic map and compass—available at the Potomac Ranger District Office in Petersburg (year-round) and the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center in Seneca Rocks (summer only)—since poorly marked trails make it easy to get lost. Do not depend on using your cell phone. Service in Monongahela is spotty at best.
In summertime, Dolly Sods' blissfully cooler temperatures, typically five to ten degrees cooler than in the valleys below, offer hikers a break from the boiling humidity blanketing the rest of West Virginia. Berry-picking season, peaking in July, offers blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries, and teaberries for hungry hikers—and the occasional bear. Even through autumn, avid berry pickers can brave the mossy bogs in search of cranberries. The wilderness's rugged trails are intended for serious hikers, but horseback riding is a family-friendly alternative offered April through November from outfitters in Seneca Falls. The wildflowers that bloom May through July, as well as the sprawling views from Bear Rocks, make the area a popular destination for photographers. The plateau has become a hot spot for bird-watching, particularly in August and September, when volunteers from the Brooks Birds Club count and band more than 100 species—from raptors to songbirds—as they migrate over the Allegheny Front.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
Dolly Sods Wilderness Area Travel Q&A
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- When does Dolly Sods open and close for the season?
Asked on September 16, 2012 by Linda | 177 views
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- When is the best time to pick blueberries in Dolly Sods?
Asked on April 24, 2012 by Wanda | 199 views
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