Visiting this wilderness area in West Virginia could make you feel as if you're in a different country or on top of the world. This rugged area looks more like Canada than the United States -- at least the eastern portion of it.
I am talking about the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, which covers two counties and a national park. The climate here is different than any other part of West Virginia because the elevation ranges from 2,700 feet to 4,000 feet. It has a very unique "island" of wild country that is surrounded by the Appalachian hardwood forests. These unusual plant communities are just one of the reasons to visit Dolly Sods. When you reach the highest elevation, the vegetation changes. Here you'll find heath barrens, azaleas, mountain laurel, rhododendron and blueberries. However, these plants will not grow any taller than chest high. Lower elevations can see a different type of vegetation, which includes sphagnum, bogs, one-sided red spruce, twisted yellow birch, heath barrens, grassy sods, rhododendron and laurel thickets.
The area is comprised of northern hardwood forests and laurel thickets in the lower elevation. Red spruce and heath barrens can be found at the extreme elevations. Nature specialists, nature junkies and even simple nature lovers can find bogs, beaver ponds and rock barrens. In addition, the headwater of Red Creek can also be found here as well.
Dolly Sods is part of the eastern Continental Divide, from which point water flowing west will end up in the Gulf of Mexico and water flowing east will end up in the Chesapeake Bay. This Continental Divide also affects the weather patterns in the area. The western portion of the Allegheny Front gets the most rainfall, while the eastern side is in the "rain shadow" and doesn't receive as much rain.
There is a lot of history that can be found out here some of which dates back to 1746. Thomas Lewis was a surveyor who was establishing the limits of Lord Fairfax's Virginia estate. He described in his dairy what this rugged piece of land looked like. Of course, over the years it has changed. During the mid-1800's the Dalhe family used the open grassy area (which they called 'Sods') for their sheep grazing. The German name later became the present name "Dolly," and that is how the wilderness area earned its name. During the late 1880s, fires ransacked the area. Most of the trees, some up to 12 feet in diameter, were cut down. The deep humus layers that had covered the forest floor dried out. Local locomotives caused sparks that ignited the humus. Much of the Sods burnt down to the rocks.
Congress created the Monogahela National Forest in 1920. Within the next 20 years, the Forest Service and Civilian Conservation Corps began to reforest the Dolly Sods area. Munitions can still be found in this wilderness area, when the U.S. Army used the area for practice back during World War II. A note to the wise: If you happen to come across one of these DO NOT TOUCH IT. Instead report it to the district ranger in Petersburg.
Part of Dolly Sods was designated a wilderness area in 1975, and officials are letting nature take its course. This portion contains more than 10,215 acres to explore -- a backcountry lover's dream. However, most of the trails should only be used by experts with backcountry hiking experience, because many of the trails are rough, steep and rocky. Many a tourist and native has gotten lost here. Some were not found for weeks.
There are a few other parks in the area. Canaan Valley, Blackwater Falls and Fairfax Stone are all nearby. These parks offer something different for nature junkies like me. There are attractions for all ages. The Purple Fiddle is a local hangout frequented by the locals. Here you'll find good food, talk to your friends, and listen to bluegrass bands play on stage. If you are into more international food, there is a place by Blackwater Falls. This place offers German, Italian and American cuisine. These two places are worth checking out.
Plus, many volunteers visit each year to help protect and preserve the state parks. The Society of Environmental Professionals (the group I'm a part of at WVU) travels each year to Canaan Valley to help plant spruce trees. We also helped build a fishing peer that is handicap-accessible.