Dolly Sods – a day (and night) to remember

It’s been a while since my last post, and for good reason: I have been in the wilderness for most of the previous week. Saturday night I spent in Shenandoah National Park for a friend’s birthday, and the past two nights I have been camping out on my cross country car ride; all with no internet access. Since I was unable to make it across the country by bike, I decided I will now do the American thing and drive it.

I departed on Monday and made it to Dolly Sods, in West Virginia, part of the Monongahela National Forest. Dolly Sods is one of those places that I’ve wanted to explore for a long time. I first discovered Dolly Sods several years ago when I was researching hiking locations on the internet. It’s only about a 3 hour drive from the Washington DC area, but I never made it out there. I can now cross it off my list.

FYI – I did not have cell phone service at any point in Dolly Sods, so plan accordingly if you visit.

Dolly Sods

If you haven’t been here, its a very unique place. Dolly Sods is a wilderness area that sits at the top of the Allegheny Front (the eastern edge of the Allegheny Mountains). This makes it one of the highest areas in the Mid-Atlantic region. The high altitude (for the east coast) combined with relative flatness, makes the weather on the plateau quite volatile. High winds come predominantly from the west and condense the moisture in the air to create clouds and fog.

Trees are sparse mostly due to logging in the 1800s. The wind conditions on the mountain have prevented larger trees from growing back from the logging days. You can see how strong the winds can be by observing the shape of the isolated trees along the plateau. Wild fruit such as blueberries and huckleberries now occupy the higher elevations. The area is also known as a holdout for several species uncommon to the surrounding area, such as Red Spruce, due to the high elevation.

If you are coming from the east, you will most likely enter the national forest from the north on Road 75. The last 10 miles take about 30 minutes as you climb the Allegheny Front up the gravel road (about 1000 foot climb). Road 75 is all gravel, but not too bumpy.

Bear Rocks

Once you get to the top, the view opens up and if it’s clear, you can look to your right and see the nearby mountain ridges. The first parking lot (on the northern end of the park) is right around the corner. Park there! There is a huge meadow for wildlife viewing and several points to overlook the valleys. Bear Rocks Trail Head is the northernmost trail in Dolly Sods and just a short walk from the first parking area. It’s definitely the most popular trail for hiking and backcountry camping. I saw dozens of people park their cars, strap on a backpack, and set off into the forest. With the large field of view, I was hoping to see more wildlife, but the only large animals around were deer.

If you are into hiking, I recommend starting your hike at one of the three northernmost trail heads: Bear Rocks, Beaver Dam, or Blackbird Knob. I spent time on all three and each one takes you through the meadows, forests, and streams. You have to hike less than a mile from most trail heads to reach Red Creek, a good source of drinking water for backcountry camping. The water is pristine by east coast standards. There are plenty of backcountry campsites adjacent to the trails. If you are not into backcountry camping, there is also a primitive campsite for $15/night a few miles south on Road 75 called Red Creek Campground.

When I was researching the area, I remember reading that Dolly Sods was used as a test area for military artillery during World War Two. Thousands of munitions have been recovered, but there’s probably still some out there. There is a sign at the trail head to remind you not to touch anything suspicious.

A rough first night of camp

When I attempted to cross the country by bike, I stated that the first day is the hardest. That seems to be the case for any big journey. Besides a few rain showers, the weather was perfect at Dolly Sods; 75 degrees and sunny. I decided since there are no cities nearby, it would be opportunistic to camp in the meadow off of the Beaver Dam Trail instead of the forest so that I could photograph the stars. I soon realized this would be a mistake as the sun went down and the fog rolled in.

As I mentioned earlier, the weather on the mountain can be volatile. Not only were the stars not visible, it stormed most of the night. Shortly after sundown, the wind picked up and the rain came down hard. I’m estimating that the gusts came at about 40mph and at least an inch of rain came down.

The wind was enough to wake me up and force me to hold the inside of my tent for support. The rain softened the soil and the wind eventually unstaked one side of my tent. It was as if mother nature was telling me to leave. Of course it was the vestibule side that came unstaked, so my gear was starting to get wet. Once the rain subsided, I got out of my tent to observe the damage. However the wind never let up. As I exited my tent, I realized most of the stakes had been pulled out and my tent started to blow over. I was able to catch it, but it was nearly impossible to restake everything in the wind. I improvised and returned to my tent to use my bodyweight as an anchor. I then turned the tent sideways (with me and my gear inside) so that the wind had less of a surface area to hit. I spent the next 2 hours in a sideways tent.

The sideways tent idea did prove to reduce wind resistance. I was proud that my tent held up to the conditions. The fact that it blew over is a mistake on my part for not staking it properly. The lesson: don’t underestimate mother nature. Also, at Dolly Sods, make camp in the forest and not in the field.

It’s Just a Fleshwound

After an interesting night, I awoke as soon as there was enough light to pack up. The wind had not calmed so I quickly broke down my tent. Again, I was very impressed with my tent. Virtually no leaks despite several downpours, and a slight bend in one of the poles due to the wind. I had some leaking issues the last time I camped in the rain, but it appears that it may have been user error with the rainfly installation. I was able to bend the pole back (this can be tricky) so that it is almost back to normal. Anyway, I am off to continue to my next stop: The Hocking Hills.

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