Dolly Sods is a wilderness area contained within the Monongahela National Forest in Eastern West Virginia.
Lets address that name first. Long story short, it’s named after a fellow named Johann Dahle (pronounced Dolly) who settled the area in the 1780s. “Sods” is a term used to describe a mountain top meadow or bog. This is an apt description of the area.
Deb and I heard about Dolly Sods while buying our initial backpacking gear from REI. It was immediately short listed on our “places to go” list.
It turned out that June 26, 2015 was the date for Dolly Sods. Originally we were supposed to run the Charlevoix Half Marathon in Northern Michigan, however a broken hand on my part derailed training, so we deferred that until next year and decided to not let the all of a sudden clear weekend go to waste.
The drive is around 5.5 hours from Columbus, so we left around 10am intending to get there by 4pm. I figured that would give us plenty of time to do the first hike and have camp setup before dark. We intended to do a 3 day / 2 night hike, with mileages of 6 / 10 / 5 for a total of 21 miles. We planned to start at the Bear Rock Trailhead. This trail is identified as trail 522 on the official forest maps.
The drive was without issue, and we arrived roughly on time. A word of note here, Forest Rd 75 goes up hill for over 4 miles, and is a narrow gravel road. I’m not so sure I’d take a sports car up it.
As you approach the summit of Forest Rd 75, you’ll see the entrance to the park.
Right around the corner from this sign you’ll find a parking lot. You will be tempted to park here to start your hike. After all, just off the trail is a sign that looks like this:
It says “Bear Rocks” and has a trail right beside it. Looks legit, right?
You will be just as wrong as we were if you decide to start your hike here. Turns out this is some sort of preserve with the same name as the trail you want. We hiked out about 1.25 km before hitting a dead end. Literally. Sign posts that said “Forest Land Boundary.”
We back tracked all the way back to the parking lot and noticed about 400 meters south of the parking lot was a couple of trucks parked. We walked down there and found this sign:
This is the sign you want to see. The trail is clear and goes directly west. We started hiking at 5:37pm, and what was originally a 5.5 mile day was now going to be 7 miles thanks to our little detour in the Preserve. We felt good and had plenty of time still, so were completely unworried about it.
The trail starts of very rocky. This sort of terrain lasts until shortly after the intersection with trail 526 (Dobbin’s Grade).
After passing Dobbin’s Grade, we went downhill for a bit longer and had our first creek crossing. On the other side of the creek is a nice campground in a grove of pine trees. Immediately after leaving the campground, you climb through a forest for a bit. Upon exiting the forest, you have a totally awesome trail across open fields. I don’t recall if this is the last 3rd of Bear Rocks Trail, or the first part of Raven Ridge Trail after Bear Rocks dumps you out on it.
Later on down Raven Ridge Trail, you walk through an area that looks like it’s someone’s garden. Lovely little pink flowers, and the terrain shifts to broken white rocks. A hint of what’s to come.
As you start to head south on Raven Ridge, the area opens up on a plateau of sorts. There are large wind swept rock formations all around, broken rocks on the trail, and lots of wind. It would be a pretty miserable place to be in the winter. In the summer however, it was beautiful.
There was perhaps a mile of this scenery on Raven Ridge Trail before you enter groves of pine trees again. It was inside of these pine trees that we set up camp for the night. We hiked about 7 miles the first day, counting the 1.5 miles of “wrong trail” from the beginning. On the trail proper, we did about 5.4 miles. Our camp site was off of Raven Ridge Trail, heading south, right before the branch for Dobbin’s Grade trail.
We started to setup camp, and tried briefly to start a fire, however we lacked the right sort of accelerant, and everything was damp. It had clearly rained a lot in the previous days.
As darkness fell, and our fire starting proved to be fruitless, the rain started to fall. It was probably 10pm by this point, so we got in our tents and snuggled up for a long night of rain. In fact the rain was so incessant that it was hard to sleep due to the noise of the rain hitting the rain fly.
Neither of us slept very well, but somehow dawn came and the rain continued. Finally around 9am the rain seemed to lesson, but not stop. We started to pack up and it very soon became clear that everything we had was going to be soaked.
I had checked the forecast before we came, and the forecast did say there was a 100% chance of rain on the day. With that knowledge and with soaked everything, we decided to take an alternate route back to the car and head home instead of trying to spend another night out there.
By 10 am we were hiking again, and within a few minutes we were at Dobbin’s Grade Trail, and it was there we were greeted with what seemed to be a shallow creek instead of a trail. Deb showed her opinion of this development.
That was the sort of terrain that we had for the rest of the day. Turns out that a lot of the trails double as creek beds when it rains. Well, that was my impression anyway. The rain continued for another hour or two before letting up. By then we were 3 miles in. Seems slow, right? Well that’s because earlier on the trail we had a pretty serious creek crossing to do.
The water was flowing very quickly, and the creek ended up being mid thigh. It took us about 30 minutes to figure out the best way to cross. I ended up going across, putting my pack down, going back over to get Deb’s pack, then crossing behind her. We made it without any issues more serious than totally soaked boots.
So we’re 3 miles in, and in a valley of sorts. The rain has stopped, and I’m getting a little warm. We see a sign for the Upper Red Creek trail. It’s picturesque. There’s no rain. I snap a picture.
We stopped here for a few minutes to take off our shoes and socks and wring them out. After taking the picture, we get going again, and wouldn’t you know it? Another creek crossing to deal with. This time the current isn’t as strong, however it proves to be even deeper, this time up to man-zone height.
Then we hit what might be charitably called the Sods. Or rather, swamp land. Very wet, very soft, very stinky. You had to be really careful lest you find yourself knee deep in muck in a single step. Thankfully this part wasn’t too terribly long, though it felt like it.
After exiting the swamp area, I figured we were getting close to Bear Rocks trail and that the worst of it would be behind us. As we were hiking, the creek rushed by below as our trail started to climb. I took a picture.
As a reward for this line of thinking, we were greeted with our third creek crossing of the day shortly thereafter! This time the current was moderately strong, and it was deeper yet, this time hitting the bottom of my pack. Deb managed to get over by bending a tree about 2 inches diameter over the creek. I held the top of it so she could use it as a support.
The trail climbed quickly over that, and in short order we were at Bear Rocks Trail. We turned east and continued climbing up to the trail head. This trail was also a creek bed now, but thankfully it was only a couple of inches deep.
We made it back around 1:30 pm, feeling pretty good and glad for the experience. It started raining as we were getting things packed into the car.
About 7 hours later we were home, safe and dry!
I believe we hiked around 13 miles for the two days, with nearly half that hiking through water. In spite of that, neither of us had any issues with the comfort or performance of our gear.
Each of us did fall. I fell on the first day while crossing the first creek just a mile or so into the hike. I stumbled and hit the embankment on the other side. Deb fell shortly after the second creek crossing, and she had some bushes hit her in the eye, but thankfully with no consequence.
We will definitely be back to Dolly Sods. It’s a beautiful place with some great trails, even in the rain!