Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Foggy and Soggy Dolly Sods Wilderness

For a number of years the Dolly Sods Wilderness in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia has resided near the top of your blogger's list of must visit places come autumn.  Life always seems to find a way of getting notably busy this time of year and a free weekend to escape can be a very rare thing.  Thankfully, this year finally provided the opportunity to shoulder my gear and head off deep into its wilderness with good friend and fellow nature blogger Michael Whittemore.  No one's words of encouragement to visit Dolly Sods have been louder than Mike's, as he's made this annual trip to the region for several years now and knows much of the area very well. We've managed to get together for some botanical outings a couple times a year for a while now and they never fail to disappoint, especially this past weekend.

This is quite the long and photogenic post so I'll do my best to keep the words short and let the photos do the talking.

Foggy heath barrens and boulder field near Bear Rocks, Dolly Sods Wilderness

Dolly Sods Wilderness is located within the immense Monongahela National Forest and is one of the state's most iconic and well-known natural treasures.  It sits atop a high plateau on an escarpment known as the Allegheny Front, which acts to separate the Appalachian Plateau and the Ridge and Valley physiographic regions.  The plateau rises some 2,700 to 4,000 feet above sea level in the Dolly Sods area and creates some of the most charismatic landscapes in the state.  Wind-swept boulder fields, heath barrens, stunted trees, ancient sphagnum bogs and an association of disjunct northern flora and fauna all merge together to make Dolly Sods as diverse as it is distinct.

Residing at a high elevation combined with sitting on an exposed escarpment, Dolly Sods gets more than its fair share of intense and inclement weather.  Rain, sunshine, snow and fog can all happen at a moment's notice and often in fast-shifting combinations.  The wind adds another layer of atmospheric complexity to the landscape and never, ever seems to stop blowing.  In fact, the Allegheny Front is said to be one of the most consistently windy places east of the Mississippi.

Fantastic fall foliage

Mike and I's four and a half hour drive from the Athens area to Dolly Sods was filled with some of the best fall foliage I can ever recall witnessing.  Near constant fog from the daylong drizzle added a shroud of mystery to much of the scenery and really caused the colors to pop.

Foggy drive up onto the subalpine plateau of Dolly Sods

We arrived late in the afternoon and geared up to make the several mile trek to our campsite for the night.  A fine mist fell as dusk descended into darkness and the foreign landscape closed in around us.  I've packed into camp in the black of night before and always appreciate the uniqueness of the next morning's experience of finally seeing where you are and what you walked through the night before.  

Mike and I established camp under a large red spruce and settled down to a nice dinner with lively conservation and the hopes that the forecast rain never materialized.  It wasn't long after we called it a night and retired to our tents that the sky opened and refused to close.  The rain steadily fell until daybreak and thoroughly saturated everything outside ourselves and gear.  A hearty and hot breakfast did just the trick to get us going and ready for a long day of trekking through the muck and fog.

Open meadow among a scattering of red spruce and northern hardwoods forest

Northern Long Sedge (Carex folliculata)
Flat-topped Aster (Doellingeria umbellata)

Walking through the interior of Dolly Sods on the Blackbird Knob trail takes you through a series of open grassy meadows dominated by scatterings of red spruce (Picea rubens) and an assortment of shrubs, forbs and grasses such as huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), mountain oatgrass (Danthonia compressa), northern long sedge (Carex folliculata), flat-topped aster (Doellingeria umbellata) and wrinkle-leaved goldenrod (Solidago rugosa).

Open rocky landscape of the Dolly Sods plateau

Dolly Sod's plateau was formally an extensive old-growth red spruce forest dotted with cranberry sphagnum bogs, heath barrens and rhododendron/laurel thickets rather than the more open landscape it is today.  Intense logging through the 19th and into the early 20th century removed just about all of the spruce forest and burning practices kept the newly-opened areas as grassy meadows used for grazing.  Over the decades much of the northern hardwoods forest has returned with species like red oak, beech, sugar maple, red maple, basswood, black cherry, cucumber magnolia, yellow birch, black birch, and hemlock prevalent throughout. Red spruce has come back in scattered spots but not even close to its former grandeur.  I can only imagine what that magnificent spruce forest must have been like with specimens five plus feet in diameter and nearing 100 feet tall.  It's been said the primeval red spruce forest of the upper Red Creek valley (modern-day Dolly Sods) was the finest of its kind in the world.   

Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia)
Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia)

Our timing couldn't have been better for a lot of the fall color changes going on and none, in my opinion at least were as memorable as the scrub or bear oaks (Quercus ilicifolia).  This shrubby oak species doesn't occur in Ohio and is one I'd only seen once before in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.  Its shades of green, orange, yellow and red seemed to blend together and create a kaleidoscope of color on their gnarled and bonsai-like forms.

Fog rolling back onto the scene

Cranberries and mosses
Teaberry and lichens

Dolly Sods is the kind of place where it can take you an hour to walk 100 yards, there's just too much to take in with every step.  You can get lost on the distant horizon and its rolling mountains as easily as you can staring at the lilliputian world on the rock strewn ground below.  Ground cover plants like teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), large cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), bristly dewberry (Rubus hispidus) and an assortment of mosses and lichens were never in short supply.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa)

The odd fall-flowering witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in full bloom

One of the most diverse aspects to the flora of the region is its plethora of shrub life, some of which are northern disjuncts typically found hundreds of miles to the north.  Species like the odd fall-flowering witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), mountain holly (I. montana), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum) and speckled alder (Alnus incana) were all frequently encountered in the open, rocky meadows and barrens.  One of the best finds was the Appalachian endemic minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa), a rhododendron-like shrub of the heath family and a lifer I could finally mark off the list.

Scarlet huckleberry, green spruce and gold aspen
Mike walking through a scattering of autumn color

Your narrator is of the opinion that no other plant in the entirety of Dolly Sods has the same output and intensity of seasonal color quite like the huckleberries and blueberries.  You'll definitely be seeing more of their scarlet perfection further below.

Fantastic texture of an assortment of reindeer lichen (Cladonia spp.

One of the best hallmarks of Dolly Sod's intact biodiversity and overall health is the assortment of lichen life present. Lichens are excellent barometers of an area's overall air quality, as they quickly disappear as pollution levels increase.  The reindeer lichens (Cladonia spp.) were some of the most common and in favorable, undisturbed sites spread across the ground like coral reefs in a tropical shallow sea.

Ferns under the pines

One of my favorite parts of our jaunt through the shifting landscape of the sub-alpine plateau was an area of red pine forest near our trail head's parking area.  Its under story was comprised of a thick duff of pine needles and a network of hay-scented fern (Dennstaedita punctilobula) colonies.  It had the feel of a miniaturized temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest with the addition of the never-ending fog.

Stiff Clubmoss (Spinulum annotinum)
Running Clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum)

Dolly Sods was definitely a favorable habitat for an ancient lineage of vascular plants in the clubmosses or lycopods.  These evergreen fern allies are one of most fascinating groups to study and I greatly admire them for essentially being living fossils.  Numerous species from a scattering of genera such as Dendrolycopodium, Diphasiastrum, Huperzia, Lycopodium and Spinulum were all present and frequent throughout the forests and heath barrens.

Fog and fall foliage across the landscape of the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Foggy drive up to Bear Rocks

The blog title for this particular post is "foggy and soggy" for a reason.  Except for maybe an hour or two in the morning and then for very brief moments in the afternoon, the fog and mist never broke and kept the world enveloped in its soup.  I'd loved to have seen this incredible place under a blue sky and sunny conditions but there's always next time and I'll certainly never forget the unique atmospheric conditions of my first visit.

Foggy heath barrens and boulder fields of the Bear Rocks area

The majestic wind-swept heath barrens and boulder fields of the Bear Rocks area was easily the most mesmerizing experience of the whole weekend.  This sub-alpine, tundra-like landscape is one of the most harsh and acidic habitats to be found in the country. You wouldn't think much could survive in such an unforgiving place but the plant life proves otherwise.

Narrator standing on Bear Rocks, with a stunning view shrouded in the dense fog

Standing at the very eastern edge of the escarpment's plateau, Bear Rocks has some of the finest vista and valley views in the eastern United States.  Unfortunately, my turn to see those views will have to wait but a quick search of the region on Google images lets me know what lies beyond the clouds.

Rocks, tress and the fog
Huckleberries galore

The uppermost layer of bedrock on the Allegheny Front is a conglomerate known as Pottsville sandstone, a very weather-resistant stratum.  The softer surrounding rock layers of the escarpment have slowly been worn away by wind, water and ice and left the resilient Pottsville formation rocks in the patterns and forms we see today.

Rock puddle and surrounding mist
Mike among the huckleberries and fog

Wind-swept spruce with branches all to one side

Gazing out across the boulder meadows of Bear Rocks, it's not hard to surmise which way the prevailing winds blow.  Even in the fog, one can at least get a grasp for what direction they're facing by the red spruce all having their limbs swept to the east side from the westerlies that gust over the plateau.

The supremely scarlet huckleberry and blueberry shrubs contrasted sensationally against the pearl quartz studded conglomerate rocks.  It almost seemed like someone had landscaped the area and carefully placed each rock and heath shrub with purpose and vision.  The white gravel comprised of loose quartz pebbles added an extra aesthetic touch.  I can only imagine what this same site must look like in early summer when the mountain laurel, azaleas and rhododendron are in full, glorious bloom.

Foggy forested road leading down into the Red Creek valley

After leaving Bear Rocks behind, we decided to head down into the Red Creek valley to check out the views from below and see how the stream was doing after the previous night's rain.  The trail we hiked out on required you to ford both the upper branches of Red Creek and an additional smaller stream and both were a bit tricky as the water level had risen overnight.  The autumn color was really starting to turn on on the upper slopes of the northern hardwoods forest.

Looking upstream (east) on Red Creek in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Looking downstream (west) on Red Creek in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

The fog managed to break a little bit on the valley floor and gave us a short window of opportunity to get some good views of the nearest adjacent hills and the creek's raucous riffles.  Once again the autumn foliage show was impossible to ignore and made the realization sink in even more of what our eyes were missing beyond the mist.

All in all my first experience in this boreal north-like wonderland was unforgettable.  It's not too often your expectations of a place are shattered and left in the dust by the real thing.  I'm not even a week returned and I can hear Dolly Sods already calling my name.  I think a visit next spring, summer and fall is in store and I'll happily bring you, my readers vicariously along as usual.  If you've never been before or perhaps haven't been back in a long time, let this post be the spark that ignites your fire for West Virginia!


  1. The long awaited Dolly Sods blog entry did not disppoint! Your beautiful images and imaginative writing made my day. Thank you, Andrew...

    Jim Fowler, Greenville, South Carolina

  2. Your blog is like a magic carpet, Andrew! I can climb aboard and fly to such amazing sites as Dolly Sods, thanks to your spectacular photos and vivid writing. And because I know of the pleasure of your company first-hand, my delight is magnified. Thanks for your knowledge and talent and passion, dear friend.

  3. I read a book about a hike through there a few years ago. The book wasn't very good, but the location sounded interesting. Now I have a better picture of the area. Would love to go there.

  4. Andrew, just had a chance to read. Very well-written. I usually correlate length of post to level of enthusiasm for the topic; so, with that, I'm glad you loved the scenery and experience as much as I did. What a mysterious and beautiful place. Thanks for tagging along, I thoroughly enjoyed it! BOX OF RAIN, BABY!