Dolly Sods Wilderness
Dolly Sods Wilderness, spanning 17,371 acres across Grant, Randolph and Tucker counties, is the highest plateau east of the Mississippi River and one of the most unique areas of West Virginia. Indeed, the ecosystem that exists at Dolly Sods is so rare the area is designated as a federally managed National Wilderness Preservation System. The lifeforms and climate found here is more characteristic of southern Canada. The bogs, mountaintop meadows, weather-gnarled red spruce and wind-carved boulders are some of the features that draw thousands of tourists to Dolly Sods each year.
Historian Hu Maxwell wrote in 1886, that the region has “an appearance of distance and mystery that must be witnessed before it can be understood.” We tend to agree.
Dolly Sods forms a portion of the Eastern Continental Divide with elevations that range from 2,500 to more than 4,700 feet. Here, snowfall and high winds make much of the area impassable during the winter months. The severe weather conditions are what lend the bare, one-sided trees and sculpted boulders their unique look.
The Sods’ Modern History
Europeans first braved the wilderness area now known as Dolly Sods in 1746 when surveyors were sent to map the limits of Thomas Fairfax’s land grand from the British Crown. This Fairfax Line runs the northern edge of the Dolly Sods Wilderness near Bear Rocks. After that first trek, the area was considered impenetrable and was left mostly untouched until the late 1800s. That is except for a German family by the name of Dahle that settled nearby in the early 1800s. Under the influence of English-speaking settlers, the name became Dolly. Thus the sods were named.
“Sods” refers to mountainside fields. The fields were logged and purposely burned to produce grasslands for grazing sheep and cattle. Over time, the grass died out and was replaced by bracken fern that made the land unusable for grazing.
In the late 1800s logging companies laid railroads to access the challenging terrain where enormous red spruce and eastern hemlock stood up to 90 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter. At the time, the red spruce found here were the greatest stand in the world. Needles blanketed the ground several feet deep beneath the giant trees. This humus layer was home to small animals and insects of diverse sorts. When the tree cover was logged, the humus dried out creating the perfect environment for devastating wildfires. These fires destroyed the Dolly Sods region and eviscerated the fauna.
In 1915, the Monongahela National Forest was established in response to the massive destruction that had occurred in the preceding years. Most of the land comprising the Dolly Sods Wilderness was purchased by the federal government at that time. Later, in the 1930 the Civilian Conservation Corps replanted red spruce in an attempt to revitalize the ravaged land.
Stay on the trail!
Dolly Sods Wilderness possesses some of the most rare and delicate natural life found anywhere in West Virginia. From the upland bogs of spongy peat and sphagnum moss to thickets of blueberries and huckleberries and the insect-eating sundew plants, there is good reason for visitors to keep to the marked trails. The fragile ecosystem found here is easily imbalanced by clumsy human interference.
If that’s not reason enough to encourage you to tread lightly, perhaps the existence of potentially live mortar shells might inspire you to keep to the trails. The military trained for World War II in the dense topography of the Dolly Sods throughout the mid-forties. The artillery and mortar shells used in training remained until, in 1997, a special crew surveyed the area looking for live munitions. They found 15 in all, some of which were exploded on site. It is impossible to know if the crew found all the remnants. The Forest Service recommends that if you happen upon a suspected ordinance, identify the spot on a map, mark the location with sticks or a personal item and leave the area the same direction you came. And, immediately contact the Forest Service.
Highlights of Dolly Sods Wilderness
Accessible from Red Creek Trail, Red Creek is rife with swimming holes and waterfalls. Overnighters can watch the sun rise over the steep canyon that forms the creek from one of the primitive campsites along the creek’s edge. You won’t have to hike too far in to find a picturesque spot to suit your picnicking or frolicking needs.
Situated along the eastern edge of the plateau that marks the Dolly Sods Wilderness, Bear Rocks is a preserve maintained by the Nature Conservancy where visitors will find exquisitely eroded rocks that take various shapes. Bring your imagination along for the hike and maybe you’ll see a bear rock, too.
One of the most identifiable rock formations in all of Dolly Sods is the imposing Lions Head. This sandstone and conglomerate outcropping looks strikingly like the head of a lion. The best view of Lions Head requires a little work. A difficult 6.7 mile hike beginning at Red Creek Trail will take you to the vista. It’s important to note that the last stretch of the hike is an 8-foot wide bench cut into a rocky mountainside.
Backpacking & Hiking
Dolly Sods boasts three peaks that can be accessed via the 47 miles of trail interweaving the area. Coal Knob sits at 3,766 feet above sea level, Breathed Mountain at 3,848 feet, and Blackbird Knob at 3,960 feet. Many of the trails follow the railroad grades and logging roads left from the deforestation era of the early 1900s. The trails throughout the Dolly Sods Wilderness are subject to high water and the need to ford a creek is common. We’ve included a few notes about some of our favorite trails.
Bear Rocks Trail
Designated as an easy to intermediate trail, this 2.2 mile out-and-back will take you through characteristic bogs and rocky sections. Bear Rocks Trail intersects with Dobbin Grade Trail and Raven Ridge Trail allowing you to create a longer day hike or overnight excursion.
Raven Ridge Trail
Take in more of the diverse landscape of Dolly Sods via this 2.9 mile connector trail. This moderately difficult trail will take you through meadowlands and rocky pine forests. Keep your camera ready to capture sweeping panoramas of the region from Raven Ridge Trail.
Dobbin Grade Trail
For the trekker who wants to see a large swath of the Sods without too much difficulty, Dobbins Grade Trail is the ticket. This 4.5 mile one-way connector is an easy hike that cuts across the center of the Wilderness. Just beware that the bogs can be wetter than they seem. It isn’t uncommon to sink to your knees in some spots and, depending on the time of year, you may have to ford the creek.
Red Creek Trail
Not surprisingly, Red Creek Trail follows Red Creek along the valley where lots of waterfalls and swimming spots are easily accessed. From there, the trail meanders to a popular campsite called The Forks. The trail gets steep in the ascent to the Rocky Point trail.