The Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, or simply Dolly Sods, is a part of the Monongahela National Forest. Most of it is in Tucker County, with small sections in Grant and Randolph counties. The 17,371-acre Wilderness area is only part of the 32,000-plus acres known as Dolly Sods.
Thomas Lewis first explored this area in 1746 to find the limits of Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax or Cameron's, land grant from the British Crown. This area was generally avoided even by the most adventurous of the early settlers because it was filled with bears, panthers, impassable laurel brakes and dangerous rocky cliffs. There have been early stories of hunters venturing too far alone into this wilderness and never returning.
Dolly Sods is the highest plateau of its type east of the Mississippi River. The average elevation is about 4,000 feet. The highest point is Mount Porte Crayon (4,770 feet), located on the Randolph County line near Harman.
On this ridge of the Allegheny Front is a portion of the Eastern Continental Divide. Most of the drainage goes west by Red Creek, a tributary of the Dry Fork River. This is part of the Mississippi River watershed. Drainage on the east side flows into the south branch of the Potomac River, which is part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
The name Dolly Sods derives from a German family named Dahle, who homesteaded in this area. Burning the logged areas produced good grass for grazing sheep. These open fields were known as "sods." The locals changed the spelling to "Dolly;" thus, the area became known as Dolly Sods. Repeated burning, however, killed the grass. The Dahle family moved on, leaving behind the Americanized version of their name.
Dense Red Spruce, Hemlock and oak forests once covered the high areas of Dolly Sods. Many of the trees were as much as 90 feet high and measured more than 10 feet in diameter at the base. The largest documented tree ever cut in West Virginia was a white oak in this region. It measured 13 feet in diameter at a height of 16 feet above the base. It was nearly as large as a giant sequoia and probably about 1,000 years old. Centuries of accumulated needles from the evergreen trees created a blanket of humus 7 to 9 feet deep.
Railroad logging made the hemlock and spruce forests accessible in the late 1880s. The huge trees were cut, clearing away this virgin forest. The humus dried up when the protective tree cover was removed. Sparks from the steam locomotives, saw mills and warming fires easily ignited the dried humus layer and extensive slash left behind by the loggers. Fires repeatedly ravaged this area early in the 20th century scorching everything down to the rocks. All burrowing forms of wildlife perished and this area became something that resembled a wasteland.
During World War II, the United States Army used this area for training artillery and mortar troops before they were sent to Europe to fight. In 1997, a trained crew surveyed the trail locations and known campsites for shells. They found 15, some that were still live. All of these were detonated at the site.
Today, there are areas of recovering red spruce forest in Dolly Sods, along with twisted yellow birch, maple, hemlock, black cherry and mountain ash trees. The views of the windswept open meadows have some similarity to the Alaskan Tundra-like landscapes.
The term "sods" now refers to the boggy areas due to abundant snowfall. The Sods averages more than 100 inches of snow each winter. During the winter of 2003, 209 inches of snow fell in the area. In the high spots where strong winds blow continuously from the west have caused trees to have branches only on the east side.
Because of the high altitude, the climate is cool and the plant life is similar to that found in Canada and parts of Alaska. The snowshoe hare or rabbit found in Dolly Sods is also native to these areas. Additional game animals found in Dolly Sods include black bear, whitetail deer, wild turkey, bobcat and ruffed grouse.
Deer hunting in Dolly Sods is popular with hunters who want to take a deer at long range using rifles chambered for heavy magnum type cartridges. This may be one of the few areas in the state where 300 yards is considered "point blank."
The Dolly Sods Wilderness has about 25 miles of hiking trails, many of which follow old railroad grades and logging trails. In June, a person can see a spectacular display of mountain laurel in full bloom. In mid-summer, many people go there to pick blueberries and huckleberries.
From my own experience, I have found the best way to get to Dolly Sods is to go east on U.S. 33 to Seneca Rocks, then go north on West Virginia 28/55 to Jordan Run. From Jordon Run, turn left, and follow the instruction signs to get to national forest Routes 19 and 75.
Traveling to Dolly Sods can be difficult in an ordinary passenger car. These forest roads are graveled, crooked, narrow and rough. Dusty conditions can be encountered during the summer months. I found this out going up there on a July 4. The forest roads are not plowed during the winter months; therefore, winter travel is not recommended.
Berry picking, hiking, hunting and sightseeing are popular pastimes in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area, but there are certain conditions that need special considerations. The weather can change suddenly and storms can be severe, even life threatening. Dense fog can settle in the high areas without warning and cause the most experienced outdoors person to become disoriented. Freezing temperatures can occur any day of the entire year. Dress for these conditions and be prepared for sudden changes.
The hiking trails can be muddy and wet, so wear proper footwear. Bring your own drinking water; otherwise, treat the water from the streams and springs before drinking to kill harmful bacteria. During the hunting season, all visitors are encouraged to wear high visibility or blaze orange-type clothing. State law requires all deer hunters to wear 400 square inches of blaze orange during the firearms season as a safety factor.
To find out more about the Dolly Sods Scenic and Wilderness Areas, go to the Monongahela National Forest Office at 200 Sycamore St. in Elkins. Brochures are available at no cost and topographical maps are available at about $6 each.