Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Memorial Day Weekend in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia

The Buckeye Botanist lives! It's been an absurd amount of time since I was last active on here and for that I apologize. I could go into any number of reasons or excuses but suffice it to say life gets hectic and busy. As usual, I have more than enough topics and adventures to share on here and have a long back log going all the way back to this time last year to catch up on. But there's no better time than the present and with a phenomenal long Memorial Day weekend in the rear view mirror, I find it best to go ahead and reminisce on it now with the details fresh in my memory.

Flame azalea in full, spectacular bloom in rural West Virginia 

My partner Kara and I have different work schedules and don't have weekends that coincide entirely with one another very often. Memorial Day weekend is the rare one that allows us to get out together and we took full advantage this year with an adventure to the wonderment that is the Dolly Sods Wilderness in eastern West Virginia. If it sounds familiar, I posted on its fall splendor a couple years ago. In fact, I loved it so much I went back with a good friend of mine last fall and still need to do a post on that trip some time in the future, but one thing at a time.

Misty mountains in the Dry Fork of the Cheat River valley

Kara had never been to Dolly Sods before but heard me gush over its beauty countless times so it was an easy sell as a destination. We couldn't have had more fun even if the weather didn't fully cooperate. We saw a lot of the region's other natural attractions and highlights, too as you'll see coming up. Kara came away more than impressed and excited to return to dive even deeper into the region's splendor and wonder.

The nearly four hour drive down was more than scenic on its own with spectacular mountain and valley views, along with fantastic spring wildflowers still hanging on at higher elevations. It was especially nice to see favorites like rose-shell azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) and umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) doing their thing along rural forested roadsides.

Blackwater Falls, a scenic waterfall outside the small village of Davis and the Canaan Valley

Not far from Dolly Sods is famed Blackwater Falls State Park, and a must-visit when in the area. The falls was easily audible from the parking lot and had a much higher volume of water than my previous viewing last fall. Between Blackwater Falls and Dolly is Canaan Valley: the largest high-elevation valley in the eastern United States. The valley itself is covered in extensive wetlands and streams, and all come together as the Blackwater River that drains the valley through this falls.

Lindy Point overlooking the dramatic Blackwater River gorge downstream from the falls

After flowing over the falls, the Blackwater River cuts an ancient course through a dramatic gorge with some incredible views from the rim. This particular view from the Lindy Point overlook is exceptionally popular for its sunsets and unbeatable view west down the valley. A handful of miles downstream from Lindy Point the Blackwater River empties into the Cheat River, which flows north as a major tributary to the Monongahela. This of course combines with the Allegheny at Pittsburgh to create the Ohio River. It's fun to think that the same water flowing over Blackwater Falls eventually flows past me as I look out across the Ohio River from my beloved Adams County in Ohio.

Red Creek as it flows down from Dolly Sods high plateau

The Dolly Sods plateau is likewise drained by a single watershed in Red Creek. Red Creek quickly cuts itself into its own deep, impressive gorge on the south end of Dolly Sods before flowing into the Dry Fork of the Cheat River. I love seeing waterways in their wild form; rocky and swift. No dams or taming oxbows when this high up in the mountains and away from their lazy lower stretches.

View across the Allegheny Mountains from Bear Rocks atop Dolly Sods' high plateau

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.

Kara enjoying the view east across the rolling mountains ridges and deep valleys

Spring is late to arrive at such a high elevation and harsh climate. The landscape still looked somewhat winter-like in the Bear Rocks boulder fields and heath barrens but for the deciduous trees beginning to leaf out and early blooming shrubs just putting forth their first flowers. Kara was instantly dazzled by the view out across the Allegheny Mountains towards Virginia from atop the plateau's eastern edge. I told her to wait until she visited during peak fall foliage; it's on a whole other level!

Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
Minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa)

The harsh, highly acidic nature of the plateau's landscape makes it a haven for hardy, cold-tolerant shrubs from the heath family (Ericaceae). A quick five minute walk around can reward the astute observer with well over a dozen ericaceous species such as lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), velvet-leaved blueberry (V. myrtilloides), azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) and cranberries (Oxycoccus spp.). The most exciting denizen of the heath barrens for this botanist is the Appalachian endemic minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa). Its foliage is reminiscent of the deciduous azaleas but its flowers a unique yellowish-orange bell like that of a blueberry.

Open rocky heath barrens and pockets of spruce forest atop 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 much 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, basswood, yellow and black birch, cucumber magnolia, 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.

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)
Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

Before heading out for our weekend of camping and exploration, I held onto the slimmest of hopes some of the elusive painted trillium (Trillium undulatum) would still be in good shape. While the vast majority I found had already replaced their flowers for a maturing fruit capsule, a few were in prime photogenic shape and the best botanical find of the weekend. This species is excruciatingly rare in Ohio and one I've laid eyes on precious few times, so every encounter is met with ineffable joy. Kara can attest I practically skipped the whole way back after discovering these treasured beauties.

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)

Another Ohio rarity that calls Dolly Sods home is the adorable bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). This creeping woody sub-shrub is predominately a species of the Great Lakes region and Northeast but occurs at high elevations in the Appalachians and sporadically out in the Rockies. Here in West Virginia it's at its southernmost distribution in the east, a relic of the last glacial epoch that brought it this far south.

The sights from atop Dolly Sods never get old no matter how the season or how many times you see them

Our weekend started off sunny but was overcast and eventually rainy for the second half. Fortunately, Kara got to see the vista views before the rain and fog set in and shrouded the landscape in mystery. My first time at Dolly was in a steady rain and pea soup fog, making views anything more than a hundred feet or so in front of me non-existent.

Wild Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra eximia)

If it weren't for the aforementioned painted trillium, the surprise discovery of wild bleeding hearts (Dicentra eximia) in excellent flower would have taken the botanical cake. Many may recognize this plant as something you see in the garden and/or landscape setting but is actually an indigenous species to the Appalachians. It's rather uncommon throughout its limited range and most prevalent in the Virginias. It was a life plant for me and a beyond exciting find. Best of all is the fact that Kara is the one who saw it! She called me over to see a "really neat pink flower we hadn't seen yet", which made me ponder what it could be, as this wasn't on my radar for this trip. It was nestled in a mossy crevice between boulders and an impressive spot by her. I think she's developing quite the sharp eye for plants!

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

A short time later it was my turn to point out a thrilling pink flower in the pink lady's slipper (Cypripedium acaule). We ended up seeing quite a few over the weekend and it was quite rewarding to share a beloved orchid of mine with Kara that she'd only seen in my pictures. Her first impression of it was the kind of flower Georgia O'Keeffe would have enjoyed painting. I wouldn't disagree!

This past winter I got really into the mosses and have only grown to love them more and more. I plan to do a fun post on the topic at some point, sharing the great diversity of species I've come across so far. One that really grabbed my attention while at the Sods this weekend was the scads of knight's plume moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis) all over the pace. It's an extirpated species in Ohio but a common moss in the northern boreal forests and high elevations further south. I'm sure to have seen it before but never knew its name, let alone noticed so this time around I was able to properly make its acquaintance and put it on my life list.

Looking out over a large expanse of muskeg atop the Dolly Sods plateau

It wouldn't have been a proper trip to the Sods without a bit of exploring the plateau's extensive muskeg complexes. The bog landscape is even slower to wake up from its winter slumber and still had a deadened look to it. However, it won't be much longer before it greens up and its summer time flora comes alive and paints the saturated sphagnum with color.

Few-flowered Sedge (Carex pauciflora)
Sphagnum moss with spore capsules

The few signs of life within the muskeg were emerging sedges, including the rare and extremely disjunct few-flowered sedge (Carex pauciflora). It's almost solely a species of the northern peat lands but for this small area of eastern West Virginia hundreds of miles to the south. Yet another example of a glacial relic perched atop these special bog-laden mountains. Despite most all the other sedges barely starting to bloom, the few-flowered sedge was already showing maturing perigynia.

The ever famous and impressive Seneca Rocks

As our weekend at Dolly came to a close, I decided to take a long, scenic way back to catch a few other places I wanted Kara to see and experience. First up was a quick stop at the ever-impressive Seneca Rocks not far to the south from the Sods. Had there not been rain on the horizon or us already exhausted after a long weekend of hiking and exploration, I would have convinced her to make the hike to the top for an unforgettable view. There's always next time!

Your blogger atop Spruce Knob last fall

We continued on from Seneca Rocks and made the long, winding trek up to Spruce Knob, West Virginia's highest point at nearly 4,900' above sea level. The weather conspired against us and by the time we reached the summit the clouds, rain and fog had moved in making any extended views impossible. So while we struck out, I'll save face by sharing a photo of your narrator atop Spruce Knob from my visit last autumn. Definitely an alpine feel, at least for being in the East!

We ended our tour of the region on a misty scenic drive down the backside of the mountain into the Gandy Creek valley, following it 20 some miles on a gravel road back to the main highway. I asked if Kara was impressed and would ever come back with me and she responded with a resounding, "Yes!". Music to my ears as I could come back to this area of eastern West Virginia time after time and never grow tired or weary of its charm and unbelievable scenery. I'm already planning a return trip later this summer and again in the autumn. Speaking of autumn, I'll have to post on that trip sometime in the future. It's well worth my time writing and your time reading! I certainly hope to get back in the spirit of blogging more often and sincerely thank all my valued readers for your patience and understanding!

- ALG -


  1. Awesome. Glad you're back to the blog!

  2. Great Job.It is good to see you back to the blogs.Seeing and reading all the info my wife is wanting to visit Dolly Sods now

    1. You two simply must sometime soon! I'm glad to be back and hope to keep posting.

  3. What an incredible place of astonishing beauty and diversity. Thank you for letting us see it through your eyes.

    1. Thank you for reading, Keith! Glad you enjoyed it and hope you can see it with your own eyes one day!

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks, TFG! It's good to be back and I hope to keep the streak going with frequent posting, at least for a while.

  5. thanks for sharing your trip to Dolly!