I’ve loved visiting Dolly Sods Wilderness for years, and I was very excited to go on my first ever backpacking trip here and explore more of this beautiful area. Growing up, I would usually visit with my family on fall trips around Monongahela National Forest where we would also stop at places like Green Bank and Seneca Rocks. In visiting Dolly Sods, we would drive up to Bear Rocks and climb out onto the rocks to take posed pictures where it looked like we were falling. The views up here are absolutely astonishing, and it’s one of the places to visit in West Virginia.
On our All Girls backpacking trip (video here), we started from the Bear Rocks Trailhead and went about a mile before turning onto Dobbin’s Grade – a former logging railroad grade. We camped along Dobbin’s Grade the first night then continued onto Rocky Ridge and Raven Ridge the next day. We camped along the Bear Rocks Trail that night and exited the wilderness on Day 3. I loved this experience and definitely want to go backpacking again in the future, so for this post, I wanted to talk about this recent trip as well as some general information about visiting Dolly Sods.
About Dolly Sods
Dolly Sods Wilderness has a variety of plant life at the varying elevations, but, for me, the iconic Dolly Sods plants have always been the red spruce trees that only grow on one side because of how strong the wind is from the other direction (this is mainly visible near Bear Rocks). Of course now, after going backpacking and seeing more of the area, I will also think of the rhododendrons, mountain laurel, and blueberry bushes that bracketed the trails. The name “Dolly Sods” comes from the grassy fields, which were called sods and were used by the Dalhe family for grazing in the 1800s. In the 20th century, the military used Dolly Sods for training maneuvers and artillery practice. Leftover shells along the trails were tracked down and exploded in 1997, but there are likely more in areas that are more difficult to access, so that’s a good reason to stay on the trails. Ultimately, Dolly Sods Wilderness was established in 1975 and today includes almost 18,000 acres of land managed by the US Forest Service.
In terms of terrain, Dolly Sods is mainly a lot of rocky plains and upland bogs, both of which we experienced in depth on our backpacking trip. In writing this, I did a bit of research on the area, and it turns out that “the bogs are unique depressions of sphagnum moss, cranberries, and the insect-eating sundew plant–an ecosystem you’d expect to see in northern Canada” (Wilderness Connect). I found this a little funny because when I was sinking knee-deep in the mud, I wasn’t thinking about the unique ecosystem of sphagnum moss, but it’s good to know someone is fascinated by that. Although, I am writing this from North Carolina where I just visited a Carniverous Plant Garden, so now that I know more about sundews, it’s cool to realize that I might have seen some at Dolly Sods and not even known it!
When to Go
I’ve visited Dolly Springs in spring, summer, and fall, and it’s always a beautiful place. As it’s a wilderness area and not a place with reservations or seasonal activities, there’s not a lot of advantage to visiting at one time more than another. I will say though, that winter lasts longer at this elevation, so if you’re going in spring or fall, you may want to prepare for some snowfall or low temperatures at the least. There is definitely more traffic in the summer, especially on weekends, but it’s never been too crowded when I’ve been here. Summer definitely has the best temperatures for backpacking as well. Ideally, I’d recommend coming Monday-Friday if possible to avoid most people.
Dolly Sods is accessed by a few different forest roads, but these are not maintained and can be rough. In winter, many of them are gated for safety, so it would be difficult to visit in winter but not impossible as described on this blog I read about visiting Dolly Sods in winter. I personally haven’t been up here in winter, but I’m sure it’s a beautiful place if you are able to do it safely.
Visiting the Wilderness
While there are a few ways to get to Dolly Sods, the most convenient is usually by driving up through the Seneca Rocks area. From here, you will take WV-28 to Jordan Run Road and on to Dolly Sods Road. At this point, you’re on the forest roads, and you will take 19 until it splits. You will head to the right on 75 up to Bear Rocks, where you can get out, stretch, and wander around for a bit. These are approximate directions though, so it’s a good idea to have a GPS and/or physical map. This is really the main area, and if you aren’t doing a longer hike, this puts you right at the Bear Rocks area to walk around and take in the views. If you are hiking, most trail heads start along this road. Growing up, Bear Rocks was the part of Dolly Sods that I was familiar with and it’s still the place that I really associate with visiting the area. There are narrow trails that all basically loop together and take you out to the rocky outcroppings on the edge of the ridge. The view from here is unmatched, and climbing on the rocks is the quintessential Dolly Sods experience. After finishing out backpacking, we were pretty tired and ready to get lunch, but before we could do that, we had to stop and walk around Bear Rocks because you can’t go to Dolly Sods without doing that.
As I mentioned, this was my first time going backpacking, and despite some of the difficulties, I would absolutely go again. The first day on Dobbin’s Grade was incredibly muddy, and we all sank in at some point. I actually got stuck knee-deep in the mud twice and one time lost a shoe – we were able to dig it out. While I don’t hate mud, this was literally a bog, and the mud was like quicksand. I’m incredibly grateful to have gone with family as the fact that we were all struggling made the mud funny rather than dispiriting. To see how troublesome this mud actually was, I really recommend checking out Kristi’s video here, which is a compilation of our falls. Once we’d figured out how to escape the mud, we came to our second problem-solving task of the day: Finding the trail. Apparently at some point in recent history, part of Dobbin’s Grade was rerouted around what appeared to be a beaver-dammed pond in the middle of the old trail. As All Trails did not reflect this change, we had a bit of an adventure to find the new version of the trail to get around the pond. After a bit of stress there, we came to our campsite, which was tucked in among some red spruce trees whose short, lower branches served as excellent places to hang wet clothes while we made camp and washed off in Red Creek nearby. After our dehydrated dinners, we had the trip’s first special treat: A little Jiffy Pop skillet we heated over the fire. So, the first day ended with a beautiful sunset over the trees and handfuls of popcorn around the fire.
Our second day of hiking was the longest – about five miles. While experienced backpackers go a lot farther in a day, this was plenty for me. Ordinarily, five miles would not feel like that much, but with thirty pounds on my back, it got a lot harder. But as we came out of the mud and onto Rocky Ridge and Raven Ridge, the heavy backpacks became absolutely worth it for the beautiful landscapes and the mountain-laurel shrouded paths. I have never seen so much mountain laurel in my life, and I loved it! Without the mud to deal with, our main problem on this day was water; Red Creek where we’d stayed is called Red Creek for a reason, and the iron-heavy water was very slow to filter. Because of this, we didn’t have quite as much water as the first day, and the water we had, even after being filtered was a kind of disgusting yellow color. It tasted fine though, so the only problem was in the afternoon when, while on the sunlit ridge without shade and not quite to our campsite, we got very low on water.
But really the scenery on this day’s hike made up for the hot, dry afternoon, and because we started early, we all reached camp by four in the afternoon and found ourselves with a clear-running spring. The first thing I did on getting to camp was drink most of a bottle of water. And the second thing I did was setting up my chair in the creek and sticking my feet in the freezing water. This night’s campfire treat was some amazing crème brûlée that Kristi packed for us (the recipe is in this video). This was probably my favorite thing I ate on the whole trip, so I really recommend it! During the first night, we – or at least I – heard a lot of birds (turkeys?) chattering through the night, but on this second night, it was just the steady trickling of the creek outside.
I woke up early on the third day of the trip. Probably my biggest issue with the creek is that when I was still very tired and not thinking entirely straight, the babbling water sounded a bit like people talking. My tent was also further away from the other ones, so it seemed probable that they could be up and talking softly, and I was just too far away to hear any words. So, I got up and was out of my tent almost a full hour before anyone else. But watching the sunrise through the still morning woods and seeing the camp turn from pre-dawn grey to morning gold was worth being up so early. After breakfast and packing up camp, we hiked the last mile of Bear Rocks Trail to the parking lot where we’d started. We ventured out on Bear Rocks to take in the views from this side of the ridge then made the drive into Elkins for a filling lunch at Scottie’s Restaurant.
All in all, I had a great time on this backpacking trip and loved getting to see and experience more of Dolly Sods. For anyone considering a visit, I’d recommend also checking out some nearby places around Monongahela National Forest that I talk about here. Also, in visiting a wilderness area and especially when backpacking in one, it’s important to take precautions. As I mentioned, there are unexploded artillery shells in the area, so it’s not a good idea to go off the trails or away from established campsites just in case you discover one. Additionally, the streams can rise quickly when it rains, so it’s good to be aware of that especially when camping near the streams. Dolly Sods is a beautiful place to visit though, and I hope this can inspire a visit!