Almost Heaven: Hello, Dolly!

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3263aDolly Sods.

The name conjures a magical image in my mind: a rugged, windswept summit of jagged sandstone boulders ablaze with crimson heath. Sometime long ago, I saw photographs of this place, and I vowed that, should the chance ever arise, I would go to see it for myself. I’m not sure I even knew where it was, only that I was captivated.

Well, I know where Dolly Sods is now! I am still captivated, all the more so for having been there. It was both like and unlike the images in my mind. Though the Sods wore a deep summer green rather than the reds and auburns of fall, the landscape was indeed rocky and immense, wild and windswept.

My companions and I spent our last full day in West Virginia exploring Dolly Sods. True to form, it rained lightly most of the day, with a few heavier showers. Our original plan was to park at the picnic area – home to the shortest rustic toilet I have ever encountered – and walk a loop in the southern portion of the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3319acsPlans change quickly. The southern end of the Sods is a dense cove forest along the Red Creek drainage. We’d seen plenty of forest, and were itching to see the heath barrens, bogs and sods we had heard about, and the stunted trees Don remembered from a previous visit. So our walking tour was abandoned in favor of driving north, deeper into the Sods.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3294acsWe hadn’t driven far before the forest opened up to a heath layer with scattered small trees. Everywhere, boulders beckoned. We haven’t met a rock yet that we could resist.

The greater Dolly Sods area spreads over 32,000 acres in northeastern West Virginia, and includes a federal Wilderness Area of 17,371 acres, as well as a Nature Conservancy preserve known as Bear Rocks.

Where does the name “Dolly Sods” come from? A year ago, Don and I encountered the Smoky Mountain high elevation meadows known as “balds.” Here in West Virginia, this type of mountaintop meadow is known as a “sod”.

“Dahle” was a German family that lived in the area in the 1700s; the place name was changed to “Dolly” by the locals some time later, and originally described a small mountaintop meadow near the present day picnic area (top photograph.)

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3383acs“Someday, all this shall be yours, my son.”

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3403acsBeyond the spruce trees, a grassy hilltop meadow. A sod.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3410acsA little further north, we found more impressive boulders to play around on. Robb went gamboling over them like a gazelle, Don following along in his wake. See that crack? Somehow I found myself in it up to my knee. Don’t know how that happened. (Grateful to come home with bruises, and not a plaster cast!)

Rock scrambling is not without its risks, especially on a rainy day.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3430acsThe boulders are sandstone, much of it white. Streaks of deep rosy pink caught my eye. The lichens adorning the rocks were impressive in both their variety and sheer number. From a distance they give the rocks a salt and pepper appearance.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3435acsEqually impressive was the variety of rock formations. We marveled over the angle and the layered nature of the sandstone.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3486acsA few miles down the road we began to see the one-side trees Don remembered. These are called “flagged” trees; strong prevailing west winds encourage the red spruces to grow only on the eastern side. Weather in Dolly Sods is harsh, and changes rapidly. Daily temperature variation can be extreme. Mist, rain and snow are frequent, and the fog can roll in quickly.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3499acsYet tiny beauties thrive here. Wild Bleeding Heart and lichens.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3502acsAfter eleven miles of hilly, potholed dirt roads, at elevations ranging from 3800 to 4000 feet, we reached the northern end of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. You might think the adventure would be over.

You would be wrong.

Coming up: Bear Rocks and Bogs