I knew about Dolly Sods 18 years ago at least. In 2002, our family took a short vacation nearby. If I remember correctly—a big if—I set foot on the Sods ever so briefly with my youngest daughter in a carrier on my back. Then I decided that walking into a wilderness, barely prepared and toting a 20-month-old, was unwise, and I returned to my car and filed the Sods mentally under “another time”.
Over the years, Dolly Sods sprang to mind now and again when I got to thinking about a new place to hike, but somehow they never quite fit the bill. Finally, this fall, they did. The Sods seemed near and far enough, big and small enough, south enough (!) for, hopefully, a few days of pre-snowfall hiking. I set off on the 425-mile drive from Connecticut.
Dolly Sods covers 17,776 acres—not enormous but, larger than Manhattan and without a single deli, enough to feel some space in. The Sods are a federally designated wilderness and hiker conveniences are correspondingly restricted to rough trails and scattered trail signs. I encountered no bridges or shelters.
If the Sods are wild today, it hasn’t always been so. They are not the Allegheny Plateau as it was 300 years ago. Wikipedia has a history of the Sods. It’s enough to say here that, since European settlement, Dolly Sods have been logged, burned, grazed, and used as a firing range. Some of this was the work of Johann Dahle, the German settler whose name was Americanized to “Dolly”.
HIKE ONE—BLACKBIRD KNOB, November 14th
The drive up to Dolly Sods on dirt forest roads looked just a little familiar from 18 years ago. This morning, it felt like a drive into winter. As I climbed, rime ice appeared in the trees and I had to watch the road carefully for areas of snow and ice. Readying myself to hike beside Forest Road 75 at 3,900 feet, a bitter wind forced me into abundant layers. Otherwise, this hike across the Sods and back was not about endurance. Grades were moderate, big plateau views frequent, and creek crossings pretty. I met deer and saw, I think, the tracks of a bear. By afternoon, the sun was even turning parts of the trail to mush.
START & FINISH: Blackbird Knob trailhead on Forest Road 75 (GPS 39.033651, -79.314311).
DISTANCE & TIME: 9.2 miles, 5½ hours from 8 a.m.
ROUTE: Lollipop loop created by trails, 511, 524, and 525.
WEATHER: Partly sunny; very cold early.
ELEVATION: Between 3,600 and 4,100 feet.
THE HIKE IN PICTURES:
HIKE TWO—SOUTHERN SODS, November 15th
Rather untraditionally, this hike began at its highest point, descended into valleys, and ended with a climb back to start. It was also far more forested than yesterday’s route, including stretches in dense rhododendron thickets. The highlight was the spectacular views from ledges three quarters of the way along Trail 508. I had been advised to find the unmapped trail to the top of Breathed Mountain for more views, but I didn’t see the trail and was anyway by that point (lunchtime) becoming concerned about getting back to my car in daylight. Red Creek crossings were attractive too.
START & FINISH: Rohrbaugh trailhead on Forest Road 19 (GPS 38.963086, -79.354163).
DISTANCE & TIME: 14 miles, 7½ hours from 8:45 a.m.
ROUTE: A loop made from trails 508, 510 (SW), 514 (N), 554, 513 (S), 514 (SW), and Forest Road 19.
WEATHER: Sunny, milder.
ELEVATION: Between 4,100 and 2,600 feet.
THE HIKE IN PICTURES:
GPS TRACK (blue line):
HIKE THREE—BEAR ROCKS, November 16th
Bear Rocks are located just outside Dolly Sods Wilderness, easily reached from Forest Road 75. The trail I set out on this morning—numbered 522—is named for the rocks, but it led me away from them, not toward them. This turned out to be fortuitous. Had I experienced the Rocks in the same conditions I readied myself for my hike in, they’d have been shrouded in freezing, wind-driven mist. Not just a little freezing either; the temperature was in the teens, windchill not considered. The plateau was atmospheric in these conditions, and I enjoyed my loop around Dolly’s northeast corner. And when I returned to my car and found the short trail to Bear Rocks, the mist was lifting and the wind was abating a little.
START & FINISH: Bear Rocks trailhead on Forest Road 75 (GPS 39.063622, -79.303171).
DISTANCE & TIME: 7 miles, 3 hours from 8:50 a.m. (excluding time at Bear Rocks themselves).
ROUTE: A loop made from trails 522, 521 (S), 526 (NE), an unmapped trail, 520, and Forest Road 75.
WEATHER: Misty, windy, and cold, but clearing toward finish.
ELEVATION: Between 4,100 and 3,700 feet.
THE HIKE IN PICTURES: