In the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, lies the Monongahela National Forest. The Dolly Sods (open mountain top meadow) Wilderness occupies a small portion of this area. It is one of the highest points in West Virginia and as a result the vistas are unlike any other on the East Coast. The rocky landscape, spruce forests, and sphagnum bogs is a scene normally found in Canada. Needless to say, when I heard about this place, I knew I had to experience it. I finally got the opportunity on March 22, 2015. I set aside the first three days of my vacation to explore Dolly Sods. I went with Min, an old college friend and the one who actually introduced me to the Old Rag Mountain hike in Virginia. I have been on numerous camping trips in all forms: drive in sites, canoe portages and off-road but never a backpacking camping trip where I would have to carry everything in. I knew that this one was also particularly going to be challenging with temperatures in the 19-22F range requiring bulkier clothing and heavier packs. We averaged just over 45lbs per pack.
The forecast predicted three days of clear skies however we took this with a grain of salt; the mountains were prone to abrupt changes. We started our trek that Sunday morning on the Bear Rock Trail. Walking away from our car and into the howling wind, we knew we were in for a tough trek. We were the only ones in the whole area, not another human in sight, and no other cars parked. Our progress was slow as we marched through boggy meadows and icy rocks. The spruce forests were like little oases, a place where clear streams ran and the cold wind broke. We met our first stream and took a short break to appreciate the pristine camp site.
We knew it was too early to set up camp, so we pushed on through the meadows and bogs. By 4:00pm, we decided it was time to start setting up camp in one of the spruce forests. The creek in these forests had unfortunately frozen over and we were too far away from the next flowing water source to make it in time before nightfall. We decided to set up camp and melt the snow and filter out the sediment as our water source. This was made possible with an axe and folding bucksaw. In such a dense forest, these tools went hand and hand, allowing us to process the numerous downed spruce trees. It appeared that wind and the elements caused several to snap at the base, we quickly limbed the trees and got a large fire going to warm our wet socks and prepare dinner. To clarify, we DID NOT chop any down. This is a pristine wilderness area and we hope that everyone who visits pays the same respect to the Dolly Sods.
We woke up early the next morning to make up for lost ground the previous day. We found that in some parts, the trail was surprisingly difficult to find. The presence of rock cairns made the job easier left by previous hikers. We traveled across beautiful vistas and proceeded through a rock scramble where we rested our backs.
It was a good thing we decided to camp where we had the previous night because the next water source was miles away. We navigated our way up a creek with fresh flowing clear spring water. It was certainly a welcome sight.
One of the highlights of the trip was crossing Stone Coal Run, the largest body we encountered since crossing Red Creek at the beginnning of our journey. We took a break and drank as much as we could and filled up our water bottles. As a method of filtration, I prefer my Platypus. The bag holds 2L and is able to filter all of it within minutes. It has served us well in the past and is particularly useful at a campsite with abundance of water. We filtered about 60L while in Algonquin Park without any issues.
Around this area, were some prime camping spots, all unused. We pushed on to head towards the red creek crossing. It was here where we decided to camp for the night. Completely secluded with tons of fallen spruce trees to process. We washed up and set up our camp.
At this point, we were both pretty much spent. We decided it was time to go to town on our food. We cooked and ate several meals, including: curry and rice, Min’s korean noodles, bannock, and a lot of snacks. We were grateful for the running stream to provide us with ample drinking and cooking water. It was truly an oasis.
Learning from our previous cold night, we took no risks and layered on all clothing before climbing into our sleeping bags. We slept straight through the night without any disturbances. The next morning however, we awoke to 2 inches of snow.
Our next leg involved crossing the stream and continuing on home. This was surprisingly difficult with the snow covering most of the trail in the dense forest. There were several occasions when we had to set down our packs and scout in different directions until one of us found the trail. At the sight of the main road, we breathed a sigh of relief, our feet were wet, cold and sore and our backs ached. On the walk down the main road, we ran into the only person we saw during this entire trip. He was a young guy who carried very little gear. To our surprise he told us that he was hiking across the country. He had made his way through Delaware and DC already. He decided to take 9 months off and make a solo trip on foot. Forest Gump style I guess.
At the arrival of the Bear Rock Trail sign, we knew we made it. The trip was a hard one and our bodies were pretty much done. The views and scenery were simply amazing. I must give credit to the people of West Virginia and the forest rangers, this was one of the best kept wilderness areas I have ever been to. The camp sites were immaculate and I did not see signs of garbage or debris anywhere, this made the experience so much better. Overall, our trip to the Dolly Sods was everything I hoped it would be and much more. I’ve read about the area and seen photos and videos of the Dolly Sods but nothing compares to seeing it with your own eyes. I would go back in a heart beat, preferably when it gets a little warmer.