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Dolly Sods Wilderness Area

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.


Weather and Snow
"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. During winter, the only dependable access into the area is at Laneville. (See map). 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. Snow coverage can last most of the winter months in the high plains region.

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.

About the area......

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.

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.

Trails worth hiking?

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 topographic 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.


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.

Click here for Trail Map of Area.........

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