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Trip Report: 2020-10 Dolly Sods Wilderness, WV

The Dolly Sods Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest is located in eastern West Virginia, just north of Seneca Rocks. It hosts a unique biome, well known for its open expanses of sphagnum bogs, heath shrubs, and stunted red spruce on its windswept open-topped mountain meadows. The high altitude draws foliage seekers in early fall, offering expansive mountain vistas and streamside backcountry campsites.

Date(s)2020-10-03
TypeDay Trip
ActivitiesHiking, Foliage
Transport3 hours by Car (from DC Chinatown)
ConditionsExcellent fall weather.
DoggoOn-Leash, Some Off-Leash
GearCore Survival
Repeatability8/10
Overall9/10

I’ve been feeling a little heartbroken lately and the summer couldn’t be over soon enough. I decided to take the mud doggo in search of an early fall. To me, having grown up on the east coast with a solid four seasons, the changing color of the leaves has always been the grandest herald of summer’s departure. Fall is traditionally when I fall in love and I was hoping that it would bring me something of a small relief.

The changing of the colors is typically brought on by cooler temperatures, and thus, it tends to happen sooner the further north you go. Not being willing to drive eight hours into upstate New York, I chose to look up – to higher elevation. Parts of Dolly Sods sit above 4,000′, leading to cooler temperatures than the surrounding region. I packed up the mud wagon (Emma) and repeated the drive into West Virginia for the second time in three months.

I really thought I was being wiley by heading out to a popular fall foliage spot before the peak foliage rush. I just didn’t think too much about how people’s habits and activities have changed in the pandemic. One of the main tourist arteries through the Dolly Sods is forest road 75. It’s crushed gravel and barely wide enough to allow two way traffic when clear. Needless to say, even though most trees haven’t turned colors yet, the place was absolutely crushed with people and cars with very little movement. Come early, come late, or consider visiting somewhere else.

Check out all those cars parked in the road. It’s made 75 into a one-lane road with few places for cars to pass. Housekeeping aside, I really did just come here for the day to chase the fall. We’ll get to the pictures you’re really here for:

For this trip, I brought along my old trusty Canon T2i and learned quickly how spoiled I was by computational photography. I didn’t bring any of the right filters, nor did I have the patience to deal with constantly changing manual settings. The old ‘auto’ setting from the best 2010 had to offer doesn’t cut the mustard even some mid-range smartphones do today. And frankly I’m not so sure my hands are as steady as they were ten years ago either. Thrown into the mix are a bunch of photos from my Pixel 3, and many are touched up a bit by my eye, sorry if it’s a little jarring.

The first point of interest on my hike was the Bear Rocks Preserve. Privately owned by the Nature Conservancy, the parcel sits at the tip of Dolly Sods, which the conservancy also helped the National Forest setup. It’s an area of true beauty and probably the most exciting place the mud doggo has ever seen without sno. It helps that the place was covered in people that she really wanted to go say ‘hi’ to – she was very popular, a lot of folks asked if they could say hi to her. Some just dropped to their knees and started doing doggie babble when they spotted her from a hundred feet away. I watched her scale five-foot rock faces like a mountain goat to go say hello.

As you can see, high on the plateau above 3,800′, quite a few trees have already begun to turn, with the peak viewing days probably only half a week or so away. Nearby Bear Rocks trailhead will take you down Trail 522, offering within two and a half miles a crossing of Red Creek and views from a ‘sod’ or meadow mountaintop before heading back the same way or taking a longer eight or eleven mile circuit hike. The hike itself varies from marshy bog to boulder strewn – covered with ankle breaking sized ‘growlers.’ I was really glad to have brought my sturdy hiking boots. The mud doggo seemed to be completely unphased by the difficulty of the terrain, but we observed a number of other dogs that struggled to navigate the trails.

On one of the sods, we encountered someone else’s camp, to give you an idea about what it would be like to spend a few nights up here. The beauty of this forest is hard to describe. You can feel the season rolling up on us, the slight chill in the mountain breeze, the quiet song of the mountain, lulling you to an autumn nap among the heath.

On our way out, we just had to spend another hour or two on Bear Rocks jumping from rock to rock over the shrubs and watching the mud doggo tunnel through animal paths to find her way. We caught the sunset before we went back down the mountains and headed home to sleep warmly in our own beds, my heart just ever slightly more at ease.

David

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