Dolly Sods Wilderness
Davis, West Virginia
A wilderness that resembles Canada more than the lower 48.
by Christopher Burk, Outdoor Travels
Located in West Virginia's Tucker and Randolph counties, Dolly Sods is an area of high elevation wind swept plains on the Allegheny Plateau. Areas within the area are designated Dolly Sods Wilderness, Dolly Sods Scenic Area, and Flatrock and Roaring Plains. With elevations ranging from 2,600 feet to over 4,000 feet, the climate and plant life in the wilderness resembles northern Canada. It is a unique 'island' of wild country surrounded by Appalachian hardwood forests.
The Dolly Sods Wilderness, designated in 1975, is an area set aside to allow natural forces to take their course. Ultimately, this area may return to the primitive conditions observed by Thomas Lewis in the late 1700's. Its 10,215 acres are a mecca for backcountry lovers. The primitive trails are not designed nor maintained for the casual hiker; they are rough, sometimes steep and rocky, and often have very few markings or blazes. The Wilderness is an easy place to get lost.
The south-eastern region of the Wilderness is primarily covered in 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 south-western and north areas of the Wilderness are characterized by hanging valleys and rolling hills, with many open "parks" and beaver ponds. The highest areas are covered with heath barrens, where azaleas, mountain laurel, rhododendron and blueberries seldom grow taller than chest high. These plants provide a fantastic floral display from May through July. Cranberries and the insect-eating sundew plant flourish in the bogs of floating sphagnum moss found in shallow depressions.
One of the most magnificent things about Dolly Sods is that it has a rapidly changing climate. In the summer, temperatures can reach above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but can also drop to lower than 20 degrees without warning. The precipitation in Dolly Sods can reach more than 55 inches yearly and the snowfall may reach 150 inches. Many trees and shrubs in the sods have distorted appearances due to the heavy glazes of ice and deposits of rime frost that break them down. The strong winds that come continuously from the west cause the red spruce trees to have branches only on the east side. The frost and snow that accumulate throughout the year add to the effects of the winds and cause the growth of the branches on the west side of the tree to be permanently stunted.
There are many different types of wildlife that inhabit Dolly Sods. Small mammals such as shrews, moles, bats, mice, jumping mice, and voles live in this area along with larger mammals, such as opossums, raccoons, woodchucks, striped skunks, beavers, muskrats, minks, many different types of squirrels, rabbits including the snowshoe hare, and weasels. Red and gray foxes, bobcats, bears, and white-tailed deer have also been seen in Dolly Sods. Over one hundred species of birds including purple finches, bobolinks, and dark-eyed juncos, are able to survive the dramatic climate changes, but some do move to lower elevations in the winter to escape the deep snow. And even though most amphibians and reptiles are cold-blooded and prefer to live in the lower, warmer climates of the sods, Cheat Mountain salamanders, Wehrle's salamanders, red spotted newts, redback salamanders, northern two-lined salamanders, northern dusky salamanders, water snakes, snapping turtles, rattlesnakes, and copperheads snakes live in the cold terrain of Dolly Sods.
Dolly Sods Scenic Area
Today, approximately 2,000 acres along Forest Road 75 are managed by the U.S. Forest Service as the Dolly Sods Scenic Area. The area is the most accessible and most visited part of the Sods. Berry picking, hunting and sightseeing are popular pastimes here. Forest Road 75 crosses the Scenic Area from south to north. Towards the south end of the Scenic Area, the landscape is more forested with occasional openings or vistas. The Overlook gives visitors sweeping views of the North Fork Valley 3,000 feet below. Just north of Red Creek Campground is another overlook. Here, every August and September, volunteers count and band thousands of birds as they migrate over the Allegheny Front. And at the north end, the often photographed Bear Rocks continues to inspire visitors as they did Thomas Lewis in 1746.
Flat Rock & Roaring Plains
Fewer people visit this area compared to the Wilderness. The Flatrock and Roaring plains provide bogs, berries and windswept plains similar to those found in the Wilderness. The trails in this area are marked with blue blazes and signs are found at all trail junctions. Horses may be encountered on some of these trails.
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. This landscape is the result of geographic isolation caused by the high mountains and man's attempts to tame this rugged area. The plant life and climate on this high plateau resembles northern Canada, and many species found here are near their southernmost range. The high plains area was once covered with 7 to 9 feet of humus. This humus layer was formed under a beautiful forest, consisting of red spruce trees, hemlocks, balsam firs, basswood, where the average tree was four feet in diameter. Unfortunately, extensive logging and fires have eliminated any traces of the once magnificent forest.
During the 1880's, railroad logging made the spruce and hemlocks accessible and the huge trees, some up to 12 feet in diameter, were cut down. The seven to nine foot deep humus layer covering the forest floor dried out once the protective tree cover was gone. Sparks from railroad locomotives or logger's warming fires easily ignited this layer. Fires ravaged the area, burning everything down to the rocks underneath. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted red pine and other conifers in the area in the 1930's but in the inhospitable climate and present rocky soil of Dolly Sods, the trees now struggle to attain 12" in diameter. About the time the slash fires raged, local farmers burned the plains to create grazing land or "sods". The pioneer Dahle family used these sods for grazing sheep. Their German name became the present "Dolly" of Dolly Sods. Grazing continued on the Sods until the late 1970's.
In 1920, Congress created the Monongahela National Forest in which Dolly Sods lies. In the next two decades, much of the Sods were purchased and the Forest Service along with Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began to reforest the area. The current road system and 700 acres of red pine and red spruce plantations were established in the 1930's as part of their conservation efforts. During World War II, the U. S. Army used Black Bird Knob and Cabin Mountain as artillery targets. Old mortar shells from those exercises can occasionally still be found in the Wilderness and Scenic Area. They should be considered extremely dangerous. If one is found, DO NOT TOUCH. They are unstable and may explode. Report it to the District Ranger in Petersburg.
In 1975, Congress officially designated 10,215 acres as the Dolly Sods Wilderness. 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.