Six Hour Series: Dolly Sods Wilderness, WV


In a word, damp.

In another word, inspiring.

(Photo Credit: Kevin King)

This is the first installment in what I call the Six Hour Series; a collection of overnight hikes outside of Ohio but within about 6 hours’ drive of Columbus.  Overnight backpacking in Ohio can be limited, but there are several excellent options within a manageable drive from 270.

The Dolly Sods Wilderness is located in the Monongahela National Forest, in Eastern West Virginia, about 5 and a half hours from Columbus.  It is a highly favored backpacking spot of mine.  Let me tell you why.  First, a history lesson:

The Land

The land encompassed by the Dolly Sods Wilderness was first viewed by white folks in 1746, when a group of surveyors under Lord Fairfax of Virginia were sent to explore the Northwestern reaches of Virginia, territory given under grant by King George II of Britain.  Fairfax, the only resident British noble in the 13 Colonies, made the acquaintance of a distant relative of his: the young George Washington, whose first employment as a lad of 16 was to survey Fairfax’s lands west of the Blue Ridge.  While we don’t have definitive proof that the future first President of the United States walked the Dolly Sods, Washington’s life and career made an impact all along the Alleghenies.

The Dolly Sods gets its unusual name from an equally unusual immigrant.  Johann Dahle was a Hessian mercenary; a German soldier who fought in service of Lord Cornwallis against the aforementioned George Washington.   In 1781, two years after Lord Fairfax’s land was confiscated by Congress, Dahle was captured at the battle of Yorktown and imprisoned for a few years.  Then, in the 1780s, he purchased land nearby reportedly on the advice of George Washington himself, and used the high meadow grassland (or “sods”) to graze his livestock.  As you might imagine, its easy to “Americanize” from Dahle’s Sods to Dolly Sods.

The Dolly Sods wilderness was once described as “so savage and inaccessible that it has rarely been penetrated even by the most adventurous,” storied by “marvelous accounts of its savage grandeur, and the quantities of game and fish to be found there.”  The high areas of this region were once covered in massive stands of ancient spruce and hemlock inhabited by bears and mountain lions.  It was home to the largest tree in West Virginia, a white oak boasting a 13 foot diameter at the base (height unknown.)  Naturally, it was cut down.

In fact the entire region was savaged, to such a degree we will never again truly know the “savage grandeur” that was described.  Railroad men flocking to the area in the 1890s logged the highlands bare of spruce and hemlock, and settlers burned the rest to clear grassland for cattle grazing.  With the protective tree cover gone, the underlying humus dried out and became essentially a massive tinderbox.  Without natural protection, fires ravaged the area in the early 20th century to the point where all forms of life down to the lowly worm were obliterated and the rocks were scorched.  In 1916 the Federal Government stepped in and purchased the land in an attempt to mitigate this hellscape.  In the 1930s the CCC began to plant Red Spruce.  The land was trying to heal.

Then came World War II, and the Army used the area as an artillery practice range.

Let’s pause a moment.  You are surely saying to yourself “this doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement.”  While the land will never be what it once was, I would reply it only takes a quick Google Images search to reveal the extent to which the land has recovered, and the special terrain that has evolved makes for a memorable backpacking trip.  The highland bog is often wet and rocky, but during the summer when everywhere else is in the 90s and drenched in high humidity, I can count on the Sods for a breezy 80 and sweeping vistas.  In fact, the area contains flora and fauna that conjures a scene one might expect from Canada.  When I am sick and tired of the sweltering and humid “Green Tunnel,” I go to Dolly Sods to feel the breeze..and maybe once in a while a burn on my pale skin.  Sunrise and sunset are often host to a gaggle of photographers, with spectacular results.

Enough history, now on to the hike itself.

The Hike:  October 15-17

Taking advantage of an unanticipated 3 day break, I jumped on the opportunity to get in a Fall trip to the Sods.  I had the gear mostly together already after a Zaleski hike a couple weeks previous.  Looking at the temperatures, I knew I was in store for a couple cold nights.  After a re-pack and food run I hit the highway, arriving at Bear Rocks trailhead at 5:30 PM.  Sunset was at 6:48.

(Chasing the sun)

If I had time, I might have stopped at Bear Rocks for a leisurely stroll and some photo opportunities.  At a brisk pace chasing the sun West I was able to cover 2.5 miles and reach a suitable camp just after the trail intersection with the Raven Ridge trail, tucked away in a stand of Red Spruce on a nice soft floor of needles.

The breeze that sweeps over the ridges is a double-edged sword; it keeps the hiker cool during the day but can also have a cold bite in the evening when you’ve stopped and are trying to keep a stove from blowing out.  In the dying light filtering through whispering spruce trees, I pulled on my down jacket and set to work setting up my Big Agnes HV UL 2 tent.  9:00 PM, otherwise known as “Hiker Midnight,” rolled around after dinner was done and the foodstuffs were put away.  Nothing to do at that point other than burrow into my down sleeping bag and hibernate for a bit.

The first night out on the trail after a long period of “normal” life is always rough.  I spent the remaining 10 hours tossing, turning, and stitching together a few hours sleep in between.  Fast-forward to sunrise, Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy, and wiping the evening’s rainfall off of the fly.  There is not a much greater motivator than temperatures around freezing, so the goal was to get on trail and get moving as quickly as possible.

The croak of ravens over the eponymous Raven Ridge and the blanket of fog produced by the previous night’s rain created an effect about as gloomy as you could expect from Halloween season.  Before long, the fog was driven back by wind and sun as the trail turned South along Rocky Ridge.

(Fog on Raven Ridge)

Let me tell you something; the people who named these areas were true to their word.  For a significant distance along the Western ridge, you will be picking your way across pebbles, rocks, boulders, and any other designation of stone there is.  The views looking Westward are definitely worth it.

(Looking West from Rocky Ridge)

A gentle Southward descent brought me to a popular entry point on the West side, a trailhead that splits off into three different directions.  I had already visited the Lion’s Head rock formation on Breathed Mountain a couple years earlier, so I wanted to explore an area I had not been to yet.  I took the Breathed Mountain Trail, which is a rocky trail that picks its way across from West to East through patches of scrub meadow, hardwood and windswept conifers alike before it descends to meet the Red Creek trail.  After a brief snack, I forged ahead accompanied by the sound of rushing water, the cooling aura of damp air and the smell of wet leaves and rocks hidden from the sun.

Crossing Red Creek is not particularly difficult, but my trekking poles ensured I did not experience a shocking dip in the cold highland water.  The bit of flat land on the North bank of Red Creek is a popular place to set up camp, and the scene of a trailmix theft that was visited upon me by some small rodent back in the Summer of ’15.  Letting bygones be bygones, I stopped just long enough to refill the bottles and continued on my way.

(Red Creek, looking East)

(An artist’s interpretation of crossing Red Creek)

At this point, it was mid afternoon and I knew I wanted to make as much progress as possible to ensure a short hike back to the car on Tuesday.  Approaching Blackbird Knob I mused to myself that it were 74 years ago I would have been in the center of a furious artillery barrage, dodging from crater to crater as trees splintered around me.  Instead I was treated to a calm walk through a mottled canopy, dodging only the occasional raindrop.

Passing several tempting campsite options along the way, I managed to push to the site I had made camp at the previous night.  Positioned on top of the ridge and close to the Bear Rocks trailhead, I knew the next day’s hike would be a simple stroll back to the car.

The next morning, I awoke to a layer of frost over everything.  Eating the rest of the food and drinking the last of my water to reduce weight as much as possible, I pulled on my shell to protect against the wind and the cold as I began to crunch my way through frozen grass and mud back to the car.  About an hour later it was time to pack everything in, warm up the car, and say goodbye to Dolly Sods.

(A parting view)

The Verdict:

  • Pros
    • Ridgetop vistas
    • Sun and breeze
    • Gentle elevation change
    • Easy to follow the trail
    • Trail network makes it easy to customize a hike
    • Unique type of terrain you might expect to find in Canada
  • Cons
    • The wind can make camping in the open a noisy affair
    • Rocky on the Western side and along Red Creek trail
    • Muddy, especially along the low creeks
    • Can be busy on weekends around trailheads
  • Gear “MVP”
    • Trekking poles definitely saved me an injury or two
  • What I needed
    • Stove windscreen – I had forgotten that I had taken it out of the bag for my Outdoor Cooking class.  I needed it.

by ODS Staffer John T.