I’ve never been to actual tundra, such as that which covers vast areas of Finland and Russia, but I’ve experienced the Dolly Sods Wilderness—the Appalachian version of tundra—plenty of times. There might not be any reindeer herds or permafrost, but you will find stunted trees and dwarf shrubs spread across a stark cold and windblown landscape.
It’s so windy, in fact, on the high open reaches of Dolly Sods, that the wind is blowing even when the wind isn’t blowing. Krummholzian vegetation—the German term for stunted, windblown shrubs on the egdes of mountains—sprawls close to the ground where it won’t get blown down. Exposed rocks in an array of abstract shapes scoured white by wind and rain dot the landscape. Colorful mosses clings tightly to the earth. And the ubiquitous banner trees—their branches pointing in the direction of the prevailing winds—are the iconic subjects of many a photo. These Spruce trees are managing to survive in an environment where they can only grow branches on the leeward side of their trunks, a place where even the hint of a tiny branch trying to establish itself on the windward side of the trunk has no chance whatsoever to survive. The wind blows so much across the open, higher elevations of Dolly Sods Wilderness that it’s simply too harsh for trees to grow in normal shapes and sizes.
Unlike anywhere else in West Virginia, the Dolly Sods Wilderness and surrounding areas of the Monongahela National Forest offer a landscape that you can see across for long distances without the help of an elevated vantage point. You get vistas across the landscape, instead of only views from within the forest canopy. You can pick out a landmark in the far distance, and simply hike toward it. There are trees up on the top of this plateau, but instead of endless dense forest, the pockets of trees are scattered and weathered. Being there is reminiscent of exploring the bald knobs found atop the Smoky Mountains or hiking above tree line in the White Mountains up north.
Fire and Bombs
But for all its natural beauty and unique essence, this is West Virginia, so there has to be a twist. Part of the reason that this expanse of high plateau is bald-like and tundra-esque is that a huge swath of the acreage, once farmed by the Dahle family long before it became part of the Monongahela National Forest, caught fire and smoldered all the way to the bedrock. Nearly all the virgin vegetation burned away, including the ancient red spruce groves. Meters of topsoil from eons of organic matter accumulation burned up, dried out, and either blew away in the winds or washed away in the rains.
During the World War II Era, the area now encompassed by the Dolly Sods Wilderness was used as a target range by the military for artillery practice.
In fact, signs scattered throughout the Sods still warn hikers of UXO—unexploded ordinance—bomb shells that still lay hidden under the recovering soils ad vegetation. Yep, fire and bombs helped make the landscape we so love much today. It’s a one-of-a-kind combination of both strong natural forces and powerful human history that make Dolly Sods and its surrounding lands into the otherworldly landscape we hike in today.
Will it ever be as it was before the age of man? Maybe, but it’ll take centuries of soil build-up and plant growth, before mature forest will be able to grow everywhere and swallow up those open landscapes like the Rohrbaugh and Roaring plains. But for the next several hundred years, we can enjoy and appreciate the open-country character of this recovering, sorta-bald, semi-tundra piece of the Mountain State.
Bear Rocks Preserve
The rocky promontory of Bear Rocks—technically owned by The Nature Conservancy—is the easiest and most accessible way to visit of the tundra highlands zone of the Dolly Sods region. You’ll see the words above come true as soon as you get out of your car and hike the few hundred yards to the rocks. You don’t need to tote a heavy pack or hike major mileage to enjoy a slice of some of the finest terrain and vistas West Virginia has to offer; the view from to the east from Bear Rocks is a top-ten in my Mountain State front country spots. You can reach Bear Rocks from Canaan Valley by taking Laneville Road to Red Creek, then taking FR 19 and turning left on FR 75, or from Route 28 by taking FR 75 directly to the summit.
Boar’s Nest Trail / Forest Road 70 / South Prong Trail Loop
Sometimes you want a casual hike that meanders gently alongside a picturesque stream. But other times you need to climb. For those days when you need to go up, Boar’s Nest trail gives you over 1,300 feet of vertical relief in less than three miles from the South Fork of Red Creek (2,950) to the Roaring Plains (4,290). From there, you get a lovely sample of the high, wide, and open. A 1.5-mile walk along the dirt road FR 70 gets you to the top of South Prong Trail, where you dive back down into the cover of the woods and descend through birch, maple, and beech forest back to the trailhead. This seven-mile loop is a top-notch day hike.
Blackbird Knob from Red Creek Campground
Here’s your low-logistics, out-and-back straight outta Red Creek Campground. Find the trailhead then mosey along westward and see what you can see, and maybe even scramble up Blackbird Knob itself. Turn around at the junction of Blackbird Knob Trail and Red Creek Trail when the thought of hanging out at camp and eating a sandwich starts to tug you back to the campground.
Laneville Cabin to Red Creek Campground
Does your party have at least two vehicles? Then you can set a shuttle and hike upwards through all the layers of vegetation and forest types and geology, from the lowest point of the Wilderness to just about the highest. You’ll gain 1,350 feet in elevation from your low point at Red Creek by the Laneville Cabin (2,620) to your high point on Blackbird Knob Trail (3,970) as you hike 8.3 miles through the heart of the Red Creek valley.
Laneville Cabin to Rocky Point Loop
Head deep into the wild forest and earn a primeval view. This big eight-mile loop earns you temporary possession of a jewel from the Monongahela’s crown. Yes, the view from Rocky Point is that good. Bring a map and prepare for a full, thorough day on the trail, or a substantial climb with stunning views near your high camp. From Laneville Cabin, take Red Creek Trail upstream to Little Stonecoal Trail (beware the mandatory river crossing). Then head north up Little Stonecoal to Dunkenbarger Trail. Follow Dunkenbarger NE to Big Stonecoal Trail. Take Big Stonecoal SE to Rocky Point Trail, which loops back on itself to Big Stonecoal. Continue south in Big Stonecoal and descend back to Red Creek Trail, then head west to Laneville Cabin.
Flatrock Run Trail to Haystack Knob
You’ll be gassed after climbing nearly 2,300 feet up Flatrock Run—the greatest vertical relief of any single trail in West Virginia. Be fully prepared to bushwhack and navigate through the thick of it if you aim to reach the summit of Haystack Knob from the top of Flatrock Run Trail. Start your hike from the trailhead off of Bonner Mountain Road, and bring plenty of snacks to avoid the dreaded bonk halfway up your climb. The series of cascades and waterfalls on Flatrock Run should provide plenty of places to rest and take lunch. Join the ranks of the proud hikers who’ve enjoyed the unspoiled view from the open summit of Haystack Knob, and be proud that Dolly Sods is West Viginia’s backcountry backyard.
Adam Polinski is a regular contributor to Highland Outdoors and the unofficial face of the Coopers Rock Foundation. Go find him in the woods and volunteer on one the foundation’s many trail work days.