Snowmelt gathers in Red Creek, which flows through the heart of the Dolly Sods Wilderness. Photo: Ludovic Moore of AKA Flash Photography
Perched high upon the Allegheny Plateau at 4,000 feet, Dolly Sods offers sweeping, Canadian-esque vistas and a destination that is (for most non-Nova Scotians) seemingly out of this world. The Dolly Sods Wilderness is populated by fields of cranberries, blueberries, and huckleberries, rhododendron, hardwood forests, marshy bogs, open grassy sods strewn with large boulders, and stunted and flagged red spruce trees gnarled from the strong winds of the high plains.
The ‘sods’ refer to the large open fields which were once used for grazing and blueberry harvesting by the Dollys, or Dahles, German descendents of Johann Dahle, who settled the area in the 1780s after deserting the British Colonists. Hence the name, Dolly Sods.
Here are three winter-worthy adventures in the Sods:
1. Snow cave camping in northern Dolly Sods
You can backcountry camp anywhere in the Sods, so long as you are 100 yards away from the road. Our favorite spot is the Upper Red Creek Trail. Because of high winds and snowfall, Dolly Sods has many snowdrifts. Dig into the lee side of a drift, and you can dig a snow cave, complete with a kitchen and multiple bedrooms.
“It takes a while to dig a snow cave, and you get a little bit wet, but once you get in your snow castle, it’s worth it,” says Chip Chase, owner of White Grass Ski Area.
Head to Timberline Ski Resort, grab a one-way pass and take the lift up to Salamander Run, or ski-hike up from the bottom. Head to the large, sharp curve known as Governor’s Turn, and from there, a trail will head east for a short 150-foot jaunt through the woods that will drop you at a four-way trail junction in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. Take Blackbird Knob trail a few miles east to Upper Red Creek Trail. Through the midsection of Upper Red Creek Trail strong winds carve out incredible snowdrifts that can be ideal for snowcave camping as late as into the spring skiing season.
2. Cross-country ski Breathed Mountain Trail
Along Breathed Mountain Trail you’ll see gorgeous sections of lush green forests scattered among wide open plains and boulder fields left behind from the glacial era. With enough snow these large boulders will be buried in the snow so you can ski right over them. Keep your eyes peeled for the rare snowshoe hare.
3. Snowshoe Red Creek Trail
The southern portion of Dolly Sods is more thickly wooded, allowing the snow to be protected from the harsher winds of the open sods. From Dry Fork on Lanesville Road, take the Red Creek Trail north to the Fisher Spring Trail. These two trails weave through thick Red Spruce forests dotted by occasional open mountain meadows. They often cross the (hopefully) frozen Red Creek.
Bring a scraper for your skis. With the many creek crossings, they are likely to get wet and freeze up.
Exploring the Sods in winter is best after the snow has accumulated and hardened for a few days, allowing you to stay up on top of it easily. Even more ideal is immediately after a fresh snowfall later in winter, allowing for fluffier snow to accumulate on top of the already established base layer.
The Dolly Sods is a federally designated wilderness. It is likely you won’t see other people, cell phone service is spotty, and the trails are often not marked or blazed at all.
An area trail map is an absolute must: Try wvhighlands.org for some printable maps. You can also get maps at the U.S. Forest Service in Elkins and the Potomac Ranger Station in Petersburg.
Nearby Winter Wonderlands
Canaan Valley State Park is right next to the Dolly Sods Wilderness and offers an equally impressive yet distinctly different geography laced with trails and adventure.
Blackwater Falls lies just to the north, spilling its tannin-colored waters powerfully over the edge of the rocks–a sight that has attracted people for centuries.
Dolly Sods is bordered by Timberline Ski Resort as well as White Grass Ski Area, a cross-country ski playland.