With a world-wide pandemic and all, 2020 has been crazy year and it’s not even over yet. In spite of all that’s happened, David and Jenney Kiel, like most of us, still have been able to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. This article on two little-known wilderness areas east of the Mississippi is their latest contribution to Truck Camper Adventure.
Our excitement always peaks when we finish the steep climb up Forest Service Road 75 (FS 75) and pop out on the Eastern Continental Divide at the Bear Rocks Preserve in our Phoenix Pop-Up Camper. Bear Rocks Preserve is a popular destination located in Monongahela National Forest (MNF), West Virginia. It is small at only 477 acres, but is a place of such extraordinary beauty that it may be the most photographed spot in all of West Virginia! It certainly is our favorite. We almost always stop on our way to the Red Creek Campground where we camp to enjoy the fantastic wilderness hiking in the adjacent Dolly Sods and nearby Roaring Plains Wildernesses, both located on top of the beautiful Allegheny Plateau. FS 75 provides access to the Dolly Sods area from the North and East.
The Dolly Sods Wilderness is a large wilderness by Mid-Atlantic standards at 17,371 acres. It has 47 miles of challenging wilderness trails to waterfalls, cascades, lush forests and eye-popping cliff top views that we have enjoyed over the decades. The trails are maintained to wilderness standards. There are no bridges across Red Creek and the trails can often be rough and muddy. In high water, Red Creek and its many side creeks can be impassable.
Man has had a heavy impact on Dolly Sods. Originally, the area was covered by vast dense spruce forests interspersed with a few natural open heath bogs. When the Dahle family settled the area in mid-1800s, they used the few original open sods for grazing their sheep. The Americanization of Dahle is the source of the area’s name, Dolly Sods. The old growth forests were clear cut at the dawn of the 20th century. The sparks from timber trains caused numerous fires during the deforestation, often burning the dried-out humus topsoil down to the bedrock. Instead of magnificent spruce-pine forest, now sweeping bogs and heaths are prevalent on the wind-swept Allegheny Plateau with dense second growth mixed forests in the canyons.
The Dolly Sods area is made for people like us who love hard day hikes in a wilderness, and then the joy of returning to an evening around a campfire with good food, beer, and the comfort of a truck camper. Rigs like our Phoenix Pop-Up are the obvious choice to deal with the dirt forest service roads, and the 12 small tight camping spots in the primitive Red Creek Campground plus the few nearby boondocking sites.
The parking at Bear Rocks Preserve is shared with the Dolly Sods Wilderness’ Bear Rocks Trailhead. Bear Rocks Trail provides easy access to the wide-open bogs with their wind and ice sculptured rocks and flag trees that dominate the northern section of Dolly Sods Wilderness. Unfortunately, the easy access and striking beauty, make this a popular destination on good weather weekends. Parking can be hard to find.
Red Creek Campground is about 2.4-miles south of Bear Rocks along FS 75 and is the only Forest Service campground adjacent to the wilderness. The Blackbird Knob Trail takes off from the campground providing easy access to the deep canyon and Red Creek with all its falls and cascades. Camping often fills up by Thursday PM and if you aren’t camping, trail head parking can be tight on busy weekends.
Further south of Red Creek Campground along FS 75 are the Rohrbaugh and Fisher Spring Trail Heads providing access to the southern sections of Dolly Sods. Rohrbaugh Trail passes through a lush green forest, often wet and muddy, but finally breaks out with sweeping cliff top views across Red Creek Canyon and the cliffs on the far side at Lions Head Point. Fisher Springs descends down to the cantankerous Red Creek with a hard-to-find pretty little water fall that requires wading up Red Creek. Finally, FS 75 ends at FS 19 which provide access to the Dolly Sods and Roaring Plains Wildernesses from the south and west.
There is no direct car access to trailheads in the Roaring Plains Wilderness, so you have to hike through the Flat Rocks section of the MNF from South Prong and Boars Nest Trailheads along FS 19 to gain access to Roaring Plains. The trails are significantly less crowded than Dolly Sods but rougher. Though they aren’t quite as spectacular as Dolly Sods, the remoteness more than makes it worth it. There are a few “unofficial” hard to follow trails that require expert navigation but provide access to remote locations with dramatic views along the Eastern Continental Divide.
Unfortunately, there is no legal access to the northern boundary of Dolly Sods Wilderness and only one easy access on the west side. The west side is generally less crowded but no less scenic. The dirt FS 80 road winds up the side of Cabin Mountain through the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Near the top, the road forms the boundary between the wilderness and the wildlife refuge and ends at a small parking lot with an information sign. Follow the blocked road for another half mile and you arrive at a large trail junction with the old wilderness information sign. Three trails take off from here, each providing a different wilderness experience and offer opportunities for hiking loops. Going north on Rocky Ridge Trail takes you to the top of the rocky Cabin Mountain and Harmon Knob with views and topology similar to bear rocks. Taking the Berthed Mountain Trail drops you into the interior of the wilderness to the confluence of the Left and Right Branches of Red Creek with their concentration of cascades and waterfalls. This is a popular backpacking destination. The Big Stonecoal Trail also takes you into the interior passing the Big Stonecoal Falls, always pretty, but in high water, spectacular. Just beyond Big Stonecoal Falls, is Lions Head Point with its named sake shaped rock and fantastic views. On our visits we have never spotted a single man-made object as you peer into Red Creek Canyon.
Dolly Sods receives an average of 150 inches of snow in the winter closing road access. Thus, in winter we change our strategy and explore on snowshoes. The secret to keeping this comfortable is West Virginia’s “Canaan Valley State Park and Resort” on the west side of the wilderness. They keep their campground open in the winter, so with its electricity, it is easy to stay comfortable in the below zero nights in our Phoenix pop-up camper. It’s less than a 10-minute drive to one of the two nearby ski slopes where we purchase a Nordic Ski pass which gives access to the top via the ski lift. Then we just snowshoe into the wilderness. Or you can go to the friendly White Grass Cross Country Ski Area, purchase a pass and get a steep, but fun and legal climb to the top.
We recommend caution in the winter. Winter makes for a fantastic snowshoe through ice encased trees, deep snow, and eye-popping views along the western ridge top boundary of the wilderness, but it can have bone-chilling temperatures that for the unprepared can be dangerous. For the really hardy souls, prepared winter for adventures, venturing into the interior of the wilderness offers isolation, views, ice covered riverbanks and frozen water falls along Red Creek. If you Google “images of Dolly Sods” you find hundreds of pictures of Dolly Sods’ interior in the summertime, but few, if any, in the winter.
Since we just barely scratched the surface of the numerous hiking opportunities, we recommend Purple Lizard’s “Dolly Sods and Seneca Rocks” map available on Amazon. It covers much of the best areas in the northeastern sections of the MNF including Dolly Sods. Another great source of information for Dolly Sods and surrounding area is Bruce Sundquist’s guidebook, “Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide,” now in its 9th edition. A final source is the hard to find set of maps created by a fantastic local landscape photographer and hiker, Mary Ann Honcharik. Her maps can be found for free and include most of the viewpoints, cascades, waterfalls, and all the official trails and many unofficial trails. They are a bit old and are not officially field checked, so use with common sense.