Appalachian Travel: West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness Area is Heaven on Earth

Discover the joys of backpacking in this stunning region in the Monongahela National Forest.

Jill Moorhead
Columbus Monthly
Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest

A backpacking trip to Dolly Sods is like a real-life Super Mario Bros. game, with every 30 minutes presenting a new level of terrain. From uplands complete with azaleas, rhododendron and blueberries, to expansive wetlands, to northern hardwood and red spruce forests, to waterfalls, to sweeping terrain covered with mountain oat grass and epic vistas, the ever-changing topography of the 17,000-acre wilderness area in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia isn’t “almost heaven.” It is heaven.

Dolly Sods, a five-and-a-half hour drive from Columbus, has hidden treasures, both delightful and disconcerting. The former includes the elusive Tree of Life, Red Creek’s rock water slides and swimming holes, and a path leading up to Lion’s Head on Breathed Mountain. The “disconcerting” applies to unexploded rounds from the area’s previous life as an artillery range for the U.S. Army in 1943. (Crews cleared out most of the ordnance in 1997, and hikers should be perfectly safe if they stay on the trails.)

With a system consisting of 47 miles of interconnecting trails ranging from easy to difficult, Dolly Sods is ideal for both beginner and experienced backpackers. This allows for both short and long continuous loops and for setting up camp to do day hikes. And the aptly named Red Creek (which gets its color courtesy of tannins from decomposing red spruce and hemlock needles) runs through much of the wilderness, providing ample opportunities to source and filter water. And while some campsites are dispersed, others are clustered, offering a sense of safety and community for first-timers.

Still, backpacking Dolly Sods takes extensive preparation and planning. Prior to your excursion, it’s important to watch the weather for Davis, West Virginia, and subtract a few degrees. (It’s typically cooler in the Sods.) Some areas of Red Creek are difficult to cross, even in the height of summer, so checking water levels from the United States Geological Survey is essential in the spring, when snowmelt and rain add to its volume.

Be prepared to become one with mud. Some trails can become swamps, and the Dolly Sods Facebook group is a good place to determine which ones to avoid. (It also will post if there are campfire restrictions in effect.)

First-time backpackers should become acquainted with leave-no-trace principles that ensure human impact on the land is minimal. The best way to ease into backpacking is to go with folks who have done it before. (Scioto Grove Metro Park boasts a simple backpacking trail to test gear, and the Selinde Roosenburg Memorial Backpack Trail in Zaleski State Forest is a close-to-home option for a trial trip.)

Other backpacking prep basics include sharing routes and schedules with someone prior to entering the wilderness, which has no cellphone reception, and leaving a set of clean clothes in the car to change into after you return. And to avoid crowds, plan a weekday trip.

Wilderness backpacking requires a lot of gear. Start with the National Park Service’s “10 essentials.” Collecting these items can become costly, so if possible, borrow gear for a first-time endeavor.

What you don’t bring is as important as what you do. Less is more when you’re lugging your lodging on your back. Cotton clothing is strongly discouraged. When cotton encounters sweat, rain or a misstep into the Red Creek (it happens), the material becomes heavy and impossible to dry. Stick with synthetics or wool. And though food sources with a lot of water (fruits and vegetables) may be healthy, they’re also heavy.

Two must-haves for Dolly Sods are trekking poles and a bear bag. Trails tend to traverse through boulders or be covered in mud, and poles help with balance and finding submerged stones to step on. And the bear bag keeps food and scented products (such as toothpaste and sunscreen) high off the ground so as not to attract critters (large and small) to your site.

Dolly Sods is open for hiking and backpacking year-round, but spring does present some challenges. The roads to Dolly Sods aren’t treated for snow or plowed, and there’s a gate that stays closed until mid-April. (Folks who want to explore before the gate opens can park along the roadside and hike to the Red Creek Trailhead.) Flash flooding is a risk, and bear activity is higher earlier in the season.

On the other hand, vistas become clearer before the trees gain their foliage, and nothing beats seeing the leaves emerge on the shrubs, which start to blossom in May and June.

The iconic cow atop Cool Springs Park general store in Rowlesburg, West Virginia

En Route

Getting there is half the fun. Here are a few stops to break up the drive to Dolly Sods.

TipTop, Thomas, West Virginia

This stylish coffee bar and bakery adorned with local artwork features small-batch roasts, gluten-free and vegan-friendly fare and plenty of canned West Virginia microbrews. TipTop also has its own line of canned lattes and sells branded swag and stickers to add to your Nalgene bottle.

Artists At Work, Elkins, West Virginia

A full-time cooperative and gallery founded in 1993, Artists At Work boasts regional arts and crafts—such as jewelry, pottery and paintings—from more than 20 West Virginia artists and designers. The artist members of the cooperative serve as the store’s staff, and you’ll likely get into a lively conversation during any visit to the shop.

Cool Springs Park, Rowlesburg, West Virginia

Should you take Route 50 to or from Dolly Sods, you won’t be able to avoid two things: masses of motorcyclists and Cool Springs Park, an eclectic experience that requires an hour to take in. Inside, a diner serves American fare amid a gift shop and general store that sells everything from farming supplies to produce to quirky souvenirs. Outside, you’ll find a collection of antique tractors, a family-friendly climb-aboard train and the store’s signature rooftop cow.

This story is from the Appalachian Spring feature package in the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.