Dolly Sods Wilderness

Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

 

Administered by the United States Forest Service, Box 1548, Elkins, West Virginia, 26241 (304) 636-1800. This area is located in Tucker County, WV.

Write-up assembled by Andy Hiltz
All photos Andy Hiltz

 


 

About the Wilderness

The high plains of the Dolly Sods Wilderness along the upper Big Stonecoal Trail.

Dolly Sods is an area of high elevation wind-swept plains on the Allegheny Plateau. At elevations of 2,600 to over 4,000 feet, the area has extensive flat rocky plains, upland bogs, beaver ponds, and sweeping vistas. The plant life and climate on this high plateau resembles northern Canada, and many species found here are near their southernmost range.

The 10,215 acre wilderness was designated by Congress in 1975 and is located in West Virginia's Tucker and Randolph counties. The high plains area was once covered with 7 to 9 feet of humus. This humus layer was formed under a red spruce/hemlock forest - a forest where the average tree was four feet in diameter. Sadly, these once stately giants were felled during the timber rush of the late 1800's. Hot fires in the logging slash burned the area extensively and destroyed the fertile humus layer. In the inhospitable climate and present rocky soil of Dolly Sods, red spruce now struggle to attain 12" in diameter. (A story and pictures of this logging effort can be read in PATC's article about What happened to the virgin forests of West Virginia.)

About the time the slash fires raged, local farmers burned the plains to create grazing land or "sods". The pioneer Dahle family used the sods for grazing about the turn of the century. Their German name became the present "Dolly" of Dolly Sods. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted red pine and other conifers in the area in the 1930's and assisted with the construction of Forest Road 75, now the main access into the Wilderness area.

In 1993, the Nature Conservancy purchased a large tract of land just north of the Wilderness Area from Quintana Corporation, a Texas oil company. This key purchase dramatically expanded the high plains region, following in a rough arc from Bear Church Rock to the north-western tip of the present Wilderness located near Cabin Mountain. The property has been turned over to the USFS in two donations. It is unclear at this time whether the property will be officially incorporated into the Dolly Sods Wilderness proper, or remain simply as additional USFS acreage.

 

About the Mortars......

During World War II, the Dolly Sods was used for military exercises, and some live mortar shells remain buried in the soil. The Forest Service has currently contracted with a private firm to clear the trail corridors (500 feet on each side) of these hidden hazards. Work is expected to continue through November 1998. The shells are definitely out there - I know one individual who found one, and also happened upon one of the bomb disposal contractors who verified that there remain plenty to be removed. If you should happen upon an unexploded shell, DO NOT TOUCH IT. Nitroglycerin, a component in the gunpowder charge, settles over time and can become extremely volatile. Moving the shell may cause the mortar to explode. Mark the location, draw a map of how to find it, and contact the District Ranger in Petersburg as soon as possible. While discovery of shells is extremely rare, they are still being discovered on occasion by hunters and backcountry travelers.

 

About the area......

Red Creek at the intersection with the Blackbird Knob Trail

In one word - extraordinary. The south-eastern region of the Wilderness is primarily cove hardwood forest typical of other mountainous regions of West Virginia. This area is characterized by deeply cut ravines filled with rhododendron and tumbling streams. The side streams feed into the main branch of Red Creek, a beautiful mountain river. The main branch of Red Creek, once a deeply shaded mountain river, was devastated by the famous flood of 1985 where the remnants of hurricane Juan dumped 8 inches of rain in the mountains of West Virginia. Today, the Red Creek valley is "open", and a short stretch of trail just south of the Big Stonecoal Trail has been relocated to bypass a washed out portion of the railroad grade the trail originally followed out of Laneville.

Looking south-east at the point where the Big Stonecoal bursts into the high plains region of Dolly Sods.

The south-western and north areas of the Wilderness are characterized by hanging valleys and rolling hills, with many open "parks" and beaver ponds. Less experienced backpackers traveling cross-country can become easily lost if they go off trail, so caution should be exercised.

Most visitors and locals seems to collect at an area called "The Forks", a large flat area at the confluence of north and south branches of Red Creek. Just below this area are some beautiful waterfalls and excellent swimming holes. However during good weather holidays, the entire Wilderness is heavily visited, and it can be a challenge locating a suitable camping area that is well away from other visitors in the backcountry.

During the fall, the changing color of leaves in the backcountry can be "electric". This is due primarily to the warm days, and sharply colder nights that occur in the higher regions of the Sods. The area also has a surprising variety of tree species, so there is a veritable kaleidoscope of color in the higher regions at the height of fall color.

 

Weather, Snow and Winter Visitation

"Camp" in Dolly Sods Wilderness during a late fall snowstorm on the Breathed Mountain Trail.

Weather on the plateau can be severe, and many of the red spruce growing in exposed areas have branches growing on only one side of the trunk. During winter, the area experiences heavy snow, and the access roads can become blocked very quickly, remaining impassable even to all-wheel drive vehicles (I've seen vehicles attempt it with bravado, and turn back). No help is available for extracting vehicles according to warning signs posted at these access points. Temperatures can also drop well below zero during the colder months of the year.

Winter access for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing is problematic. During the warmer months, most of the trails are accessed along FS 75, running along the high country on the eastern edge of the Wilderness. During winter, this road is typically impassible due to snow - and it doesn't take much to close it. The major problem is snow drifts, which form quickly due to the windy conditions on the plateau (which is why the spruce branches typically grow heavier on the leeward side of the trunk). Even if the road is open, if it snows while you're in the backcountry, the road can easily "drift shut". And the drifts are not little mounds of snow, but substantial drifts 20 or 30 feet long comprised of wind-compacted snowpack that can be difficult and time-consuming to shovel.

The other problem is metamorphized snow. Due to the cold temps, a snowpack forms along FS 19 (the sheltered road going down the eastern side of the plateau), and the lower levels of this pack typically compress into ice, which can make driving quite interesting. The interest level is compounded by the fact that there are no guard rails along FS 19, and some of the drops off the road are steep. During the deep winter months, tire chains are a worthy consideration if travel along FS 19 is anticipated.

The best and safest option is to drive into Laneville (which is typically plowed by the State), and hike up Red Creek from there. But that presents another interesting challenge - crossing Red Creek. While the cold water can be negotiated with neoprene fisherman wader booties, ice typically forms on each bank of the river, and this can make a venture into the river "quite interesting". This challenge can be addressed with an ice ax that can be used to break up the ice, but it's still interesting venturing onto the ice with running water underneath.

Given that you can get over the river and up to the plateau, you'll find a good cover of snow - likely drifted in spots. In sheltered areas, over a foot of snow is not uncommon, which is ideally negotiated with snow shoes. The rocky and "close" nature of the trail in spots can make cross-country skiing very challenging on some connecting trails. Expect very cold and windy conditions.

Winter travel in the Sods is a lesson in challenges. Do-able, but challenging. You can expect to run into one or two folks (maybe none). And a bail-out exists if you get into trouble. Just over Cabin Mountain at the end of the Breathed Mountain Trail/Big Stonecoal Trail is the ski lift for "Timberline" resort - and vaction homes that have been built far up the mountain. You can potentially access the wilderness from the western slopes of the resort, but you might want to call Timberline Resort or Whitegrass Cross-County Ski Center first for a recommended approach/options.

The upshot is, if snow is forecast for the region, visitors SHOULD NOT park on the high plateau along FS 75. Even with moderate snow, FS 75 can become blocked by large, wind-blown snow drifts, and snow coverage can last most of the winter months in the high plains region. Winter travel in the Sods is recommended for experienced winter travelers only, since it is one of the few Wilderness Areas in the State where those who are inexperienced or unprepared can quickly find themselves in serious or potentially fatal trouble.

You can get a general idea of the temperatures on the Dolly Sods plateau by visiting an online weather site such as The Weather Channel's weather.com and requesting the report for Petersburg, WV. Then simply subtract 15 degrees to determine temperatures on the plateau. Note that Dolly Sods often has "its own" weather, and high winds on the plateau can create wind chill temperatures that fall far below the estimated temperature.

Trails worth hiking?

A "not so unusual" autumn ice storm in the Sods.

The Sods is unique in that ALL the trails are worth hiking. Each offers something special - from the beautiful rhododendron and views of Red Creek along the Red Creek Trail, to the former beaver ponds and open plains of the Breathed Mountain Trail. The area is worth exploring. However, for me, the high plains region offers something special. It's the only place I've visited on the East Coast where I could almost imagine I was in Alaska.

Trails in the cove hardwood region follow old railroad grades. Trails in the high plains region follow railroad grades in some cases, or head cross-country. Some of these cross-country routes can be rocky underfoot and difficult to follow in the snow. Trails are marked with old ax blazes, though some blue paint blazes may still remain. It is highly recommend that hikers take topgraphic maps with them when they enter the Wilderness, since in spots the trails can be difficult to follow to the uninitiated. The crossing of Red Creek at Little Stonecoal and Big Stonecoal Trails can be treacherous, if not dangerous, during high water. (The crossing of Red Creek on the Red Creek Trail further upstream can be interesting too.) A "high water route" can be located at the western end of the bridge on State Road 45 at Laneville. The high water route, informal at best, eventually hooks up with the Little Stonecoal Trail on the west bank of Red Creek.

 

Permits

Not required.

 

Hunting

Allowed. The area is heavily visited by hunters during hunting season. Backpackers/hikers traveling during this season should wear blaze orange or brightly colored clothes.

 

Mountain Biking

Strictly prohibited in ALL USFS Wilderness Areas.

 

Cross-country Skiing

Suitable for semi-experienced skiers. The area can be accessed from ski trails entering the Wilderness from the west at the Big Stonecoal Trail intersection with Cabin Mountain.

 

Campfires

Legal, but not recommended. In the late 1980's, one of the premiere backcountry camping areas was burned extensively by visitors who did not extinguish their campfire. Many acres of red spruce forest were scorched along the upper Big Stonecoal region, and the camping area was destroyed. Please, use your backpacking stove and either an oil or candle lantern for light when you're visiting the area. Campfires are not appreciated or welcome. The USFS encourages you to follow the "Leave No Trace" ethic when you visit this heavily used backcountry area.

 

Access

The Dolly Sods Wilderness Area is located in the Monongahela National Forest, roughly 15 miles west of Petersburg, West Virginia.

There are a number of ways to access this unique area. Most visitors will approach the area from the east, out of the town of Petersburg. From Petersburg, take WV 28/55 south. One mile past Smoke Hole Caverns, look for the brown Forest Service sign on the left side of the road pointing to the turn-off to the Wilderness area onto State Road 4. Follow the paved road steeply up a fold in the hills. At the first "S" turn in the road, look for the turn off for FS 19 on your left. It is signed and easily located. This will give you access to the southern part of the Wilderness area at it's intersection with FS 75.

If you bypass the FS 19 turn off and continue on State Road 4, you'll arrive at the second access into the Wilderness at FS 75 after roughly 7 miles. The turn off is to your left with a church on the corner. This will give you access to the northern part of the Wilderness. A third choice is to access the Dolly Sods from the west at lower elevation at Laneville (a small collection of cabins on Red Creek). From WV Rt. 32, take State Road 45 (a dirt road) to Laneville. At Laneville and the boundary of the National Forest, State Road 45 becomes FS 19. Major parking areas are located at Laneville (very crowded during holidays) and Red Creek Campground (also crowded during holidays).


Click on the map to browse

 

Guidebooks

Hiking Guide to the Monogahela National Forest (1988) which covers all the backpacking areas in West Virginia, can be ordered directly from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Jump to the PATC Guidebook page, where you can securely order this guide online.

 

The Map

Warning about the USFS Map: Monongahela National Forest's current map of the Wilderness (which is contained in a green brochure available at the trailheads) contains significant errors that can confuse and potentially get you lost in the backcountry. In July 1998, I picked up a copy of the brochure as I headed into the backcountry, and surveyed it closely. The route shown to Blackbird Knob is "short" and incorrect, the Red Creek Trail is shown heading up the east fork to Blackbird Knob Trail when in fact it heads up the west fork then up to Blackbird Knob, and the intersection of the Breathed Mountain Trail is not shown connecting to the Big Stonecoal Trail when in fact it does. Those are the major errors, and many others can be found on the map as well. It is virtually useless as a guide to the backcountry. Don't use it, unless you know the backcountry like the back of your hand and can spot the errors on the map.

PATC has received special permission from the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy to post an early map of the Dolly Sods area drawn prior to the time it was officially designated a Wilderness Area. The map originally appeared in a small hiking booklet published by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy in the early 1970's (now long out of print), and is the map I have often used to explore the more remote reaches of the Wilderness. The upside is that the map accurately shows the location of the trail routes in the Wilderness, including routes not typically known to the hiking public (including stretches of the "new" area acquired by the USFS north of the Wilderness proper). The downside is that there are features on the map that no longer exist. For instance, the Bell Knob Fire Tower, a feature that used to be visible from many areas of the backcountry, no longer exists. Some of the hunter shacks shown on the map have been removed as the USFS has taken over ownership of the lands north of the Wilderness. Some of the trail routes shown are not heavily used, and might be very challenging to follow, or overgrown. So while the map shows the trail routes accurately, it should be used with sensible prudence, and most certainly in conjunction with the Hiking Guide cited in the previous section. In short, this is not a map to be used by the uninitiated. However, this is a map that has valuable information that you won't find anyplace else, including those contained in the guide cited in the previous section.

Hikers who decide to download and use this map are very strongly encouraged to acquire the guidebook and read the trail descriptions closely while referencing the map. The map has been scanned at high resolution to enable printing on printers up to 600 dpi, which is why the file size is so large. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy maintains their copyright to the map, so it may not be sold or published. The Conservancy agreed with PATC that it would be better to make an accurate, detailed, but slightly out of date map available to the public rather than one that is clearly and noticeably incorrect. You can thank the Conservancy for their interest in your well-being by purchasing the guide cited above, which they helped develop.

Right click on your mouse and "Save to disk" or "Save Link As..." to acquire this TRAIL MAP (1,705K) of the Dolly Sods Wilderness. For those who are bandwidth challenged, here's an Adobe Acrobat version (465K) that is not as sharp, but much smaller in size. It can viewed and printed with the free Adobe Acrobat Viewer. You can also download this higher resolution version (1,578K) if you want a better quality Acrobat printout and you're not bandwidth challenged. You won't find these maps anyplace else.

(NOTE: The high resolution map is for saving and printing, not viewing online, which may not work due to the size of the map.)

 

Read these trip reports with pictures to gain a further appreciation of what the area has to offer:

Dolly Sods Wilderness - October 7-8, 2000

Dolly Sods Wilderness - July 13-14, 2002