Dodging the Crowds at Dolly Sods

In October, I hiked Dolly Sods Wilderness to check out the fall colors.

Dolly Sods Wilderness is a rugged place. The area is largely a plateau on the Allegheny Front with elevations ranging from 2,500 to over 4,700 feet. It absorbs a constant assault by the elements, especially the wind. And that’s not to mention the after-effects of the human element. Logging, fires, and livestock grazing decimated its red spruce and hemlock forests. And during World War II, the military used the area for artillery practice. In fact, the United States Forest Service warns hikers to stay on marked trails to avoid encountering unexploded ordnance that may still exist in the area.

But for as rugged as Dolly Sods is, it is equally beautiful. Open meadows lead in and out of pockets of shaded spruce forests blanketed in soft beds of pine needles. A mysterious scene that could have been dreamed up in a storybook.

Once-chiseled bedrock now seems to bubble up from the ground. The surface of these ancient boulders are smoothed and pitted from centuries of wind erosion. Stunted spruces, nearly barren on their windward sides, stand in open meadows like permanently fixed weathervanes. And smaller deciduous trees grow bent with tangled limbs that reach outward like a mess of hair dancing in the wind.

I spent a day and night backpacking the northwestern section of Dolly Sods. I was hoping to see something different and to avoid the crowds near Bear Rocks Preserve. For a lot of photographers, Dolly Sods has become synonymous with Bear Rocks. In fact, Bear Rocks Preserve is a property owned by the Nature Conservancy that is adjacent to Dolly Sods. But it is no less a photography hotspot in West Virginia. If you’ve seen a landscape of pitted rocks surrounded by heath barrens and distant mountains, there’s a good chance you were enjoying a photograph of Bear Rocks. Unfortunately, that notoriety creates extremely crowded conditions, especially in the fall. After reading a couple reports of hundreds of cars jammed into the forest road in the northeast section of Dolly Sods Wilderness around Bear Rocks, I opted for a section of the wilderness that is slightly less popular.

Fortunately, there are a few different options for getting onto the trails at Dolly Sods. I decided to start my trek at the Blackbird Knob trailhead from Forest Road 80. The nearest entrance is in the western side of Dolly Sods. The adjacent Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge offers overnight parking in a lot off of the forest road by permit. The permit is free but must be reserved in advance. I had no trouble getting one of the last remaining permits with a day’s notice, although the refuge advises backpackers to apply at least four days in advance. The overnight parking lot is about 1.5 miles from the trailhead with about two-thirds of that distance on the forest road. The trees along the forest road had some of the best fall color of the entire trip. And traffic on the forest road was relatively light, especially considering that I went during the peak for fall foliage in the area. So I had no complaints.

I hiked the Rocky Ridge Trail and the Raven Ridge Trail on a warm, sunny day. What stands out most about this part of Dolly Sods is the variety of scenes in just a six-mile stretch. The Rocky Ridge trail is a steady incline that took me from marshy bogs to mountaintop (yet similarly soggy) meadows. Along the way, I enjoyed expansive views of Canaan Valley to the west and meandered around and over towering bedrock that juts out from the earth. The Raven Ridge trail offers similar variety. The trail winds in and out of developing red spruce forests and open meadows.

After completing my hike out, I decided to backtrack to a couple areas that I noted as promising photography locations for sunset. I spent some time testing out compositions and waiting for sunset. The landscape really came alive as the sun fell closer to the horizon. Everything with a red or orange hue seemed to explode with vibrant color. And the warm sidelight from the sun fell beautifully across the distant mountains.

Almost immediately after the sun set, the temperature dropped and the wind came howling out of nowhere. It was an abrupt change from the warm and calm daytime conditions. Fortunately, I was prepared with extra layers and hand-warmers. I raced to set up camp and bundled up for the night.

When I say it was windy, I mean it. Even with my tent fully staked to the ground, I thought I might get blown away. The slapping of my tent’s rain fly in the wind made sleeping difficult, but I intended to make an early start anyway. Just before dawn, I set up to photograph a few more compositions that I had noted during my hike and started to make my exit.

Dolly Sods Wilderness is a popular spot. It’s inevitable that you’ll bump into quite a few fellow hikers while you’re there. But because of its size and diverse scenes, you can have a great adventure away from the crowds at Bear Rocks Preserve and see something a bit different. The western side of Dolly Sods has a variety of scenes that offers a different take on a well-documented part of West Virginia. It’s also a great spot for a quick overnight backpacking trip with a conveniently located overnight parking lot off of the forest road. If you have any questions about the trip or want some advice, don’t hesitate to contact me. And thanks for reading.