By Carolyne Whelan,
Most of the natural world in the Appalachian Plateau that isn’t sculpted to the needs of humans can be characterized by tall, assuming maple and oak trees of varying genus and vines like English ivy and wisteria. The Appalachian mountains are some of the oldest in the world and as such, are stocky and rounded from erosion. This all creates a feeling of both mystery and claustrophobia, crossing creek beds and constantly going up and down short pitches of slowly eroding mountain. When a friend took me to Dolly Sods Wilderness, located in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, I was shocked that this park was such a short 3.5 hour drive from our home in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Heading to Dolly Sods Wilderness, the small towns like Thomas, Davis, and Maysville are all emblematic of what one would expect in Appalachia: tight, winding roads pouring through farmland and across countless creeks, past abandoned, roofless barns and empty gas stations, small white churches with big red doors and inevitably, especially in the summer, a community barbeque or picnic fundraiser. Thomas is the first sense there’s something special in this corner of West Virginia; it’s a college town without a university, a self-sustaining artists’ community with galleries, live music, coffee shops, and a brew pub. Even still, driving along the winding, forested roads in the Monongahela Forest, the final stop at the Bear Rocks Trailhead at Dolly Sods feels like having walked through the closet into Narnia.
Dolly Sods is perhaps the most southerly region in the Western Hemisphere where one can find sub-arctic tundra. The plant life here resembles what one might find in Canada, with tie-dye patterns of lichen on ash-grey boulders and plants that aren’t otherwise found regionally. Even more interesting is that trail by trail and turn by turn, the landscape shifts from marsh to thick forest, cliff face to expansive prairie, marsh to waterfall.
I went hiking with my friend Megan and our pals Krik and Stony from Black Owl Outdoors. We started at the impressive Bear Rock trailhead, and headed west along Bear Rock trail, TR 522. The start of the trail was optimistic, open, and sunny. We passed a few groups of hikers during that first stretch of trail, one of the few times we would see other humans in the park. The trail became marshy for a while, and I switched from my hiking boots to sandals, knowing they would be much quicker to dry once we reached camp. As we peeled off to Dobbin Grade (TR 526) and Upper Red Creek (TR 509), the terrain changed from marsh to creek crossing, staying foot-wet and slick. I broke my toenail off and put Stony’s first aid kit to good use, and took advantage of the fresh water and flat shallow rocks in the creek where I could rinse my wound.
We set up camp along Red Creek Trail, TR 514. This is a popular place to camp, due to the many open, flat camp sites, many trees for shelter, protection, and hammocks, and proximity to water for drinking and swimming. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we packed away our gear and laced up our boots for a 12-mile day along the ridge of Breathed Mountain. We stopped for a lunch at a waterfall along Red Creek, hugged the mountain face as black spiders skirted between the rocks under our feet, and wove in and out of exposed plain, swamp forest, and demanding spruce, maples, and firs. We hiked along Rocky Point (TR 554), Big Stonecoal (TR 513), and Blackbird Knob (TR 511). The sunlight began to wane before we found a proper campsite, but ultimately we found a perfect spot along Rocky Ridge (TR 524). The trail had climbed high and was exposed to wind, but we were sheltered in a circle of trees that provides some great hanging with a perfect view of the valley to the East the next morning as the sun rose. We watched it set in the West before cooking some sweet potatoes, sharing chocolate, and swapping yarns. The winds came in from the East just before sunrise and rocked my hammock. Once the wildlife settled in for the night, it had been the best night sleep I’d gotten in months, and if it weren’t for that gentle wind rocking me awake, I never would have caught those brilliant golds and oranges I had set up my camp specifically to see.
The next morning, we had a short day ahead of us so we took our time making coffee and breakfast before packing up. We hiked up the remainder of Rocky Ridge, met up with Raven Ridge (TR 521) which hugs the periphery of the Wilderness along private land, and finally caught the end of Bear Rock which took us back to where we started. Along these last trails, the hike is away from water sources so water needs to last a little longer than in other parts of Dolly Sods, so be prepared and filter extra water if possible. Back on Bear Rocks, the trail crosses the creek again for more water availability, and there are also a number of great campsites available. For those who wish to spend a shorter time walking in the woods, following Bear Rocks deeper than Dobbin Grade would be a good alternative to a multi-day excursion.
Back in civilization, Megan and I stopped at the Purple Fiddle for food and celebratory drinks before heading back to Pittsburgh. I’m excited to head back there in two weeks, to see the leaves change; it is supposedly one of the most spectacular sites for fall foliage outside of New England.