Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dolly Sods: Rocky Ridge Loop (Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia)

Stumbles Recommended!

Dolly Sods is a slice of northern Canada's rocky, windswept plateau in West Virginia.  It is a wild and beautiful place - and very muddy and windy.  Long backpacking and day hiking loops abound, as do good campsites.  It truly is a "wild" outside the national parks, and Rocky Ridge's 10.8 mile loop is a great introduction to what the region has to offer.

During my mid-November visit, I hoped to catch the tail end of the fall foliage season.  But fall comes late in the city, and the fact that DC trees are filled with oranges and reds meant that it was pure winter in Dolly Sods.  Fortunately, I had come prepared.  (See Logistics, below.)  It was so gray that most of my photos look black and white, but it didn't matter:  I can't wait to get back and explore more of the area.

 Not quite the weather I was hoping for when I got out of the car.

Rocky Ridge Loop
This 10.8 mile loop (map here) travels into the boggy valleys on the Dolly Sods plateau, fords several creeks, then climbs through scrub brush and stands of pine trees to the surreal Rocky Ridge and Raven Ridge trails, which offer excellent views of the New Canaan Valley along a rocky and wind-carved path.   Warning: the trails are not blazed.  While there are good signs at most junctions, you must bring a map with you. 

Bear Rocks to Dobbin Grade: The trip begins at the parking lot for the Bear Rocks Trail (TR 522) on Forest Road 75.  The trailhead is well marked.  Immediately, the trail dips into a small valley and continues for about 1.2 miles until reaching a junction with the Dobbin Grade Trail (TR526).  In this first mile, the path is extremely broad and somewhat muddy.  Turn left (south) on Dobbin Grade Trail.

Dobbin Grade to Rocky Ridge:  On the very useful USNF map, Dobbin Grade Trail parallels a creek for the first half of its 4.3 miles.  What the map doesn't show you is that the trail is often in the creek or a tributary.  You will get wet.  You will get muddy.  At the same time, you will see far-reaching views across the plateau.  It didn't look like much on my cloudy day visit, but I can't wait to see it in spring.

One of the creek fords.  Yep.

 After fording Red Creek, the Dobbin Grade Trail slowly climbs through several stands of small pine trees.  They are a lovely winter scene but more than a little spooky for this solo hiker.  I kept myself company by shouting out "Heeeeyyyyy BEAR!" on a regular basis.

My, what wet boots you have, my dear.
There are two tricky spots in the last mile of Dobbin Grade Trail.  First, you will encounter an unmarked junction at the edge of a grove of trees.  To the west of the junction, you will see one fork of the trail heading up a hill.  Take this left (west) turn to continue on 526.  The other forks of the trail lead to campsites.  Second, the end of Dobbin Grade Trail is not clearly marked.  You will come to an intersection clearly marking Dobbin Grade Trail but not identifying the intersecting paths.  Make make a sharp right to get on Rocky Ridge Trail (TR 524).  Just remember that you should end up heading north and, after 100 yards of so, you will start coming across trail markers stating that you are on TR 524. 

Rocky Ridge to Raven Ridge:  The Rocky Ridge Trail soon lives up to its name.  Most of the trail skirts an edge of the plateau, offering great views and a myriad of spots to stop for a snack on a warmer day.  It is extremely windy on this section of the trail, as shown by the bent of all of the trees.   Watch your footing on the boulders.  At the national forest boundary, the trail turns sharply to the right at a well-marked junction, where you join the Raven Ridge Trail (TR 521).


Raven Ridge to Bear Rocks:  Raven Ridge Trail continues in the upper Canada-esque environs, with near constant views across meadows sparsely populated with boulders and conifers.  The area is so open in places that you might want to just shout out loud for the fun of it.  As an added bonus, this is the best maintained section of the trail.  It is well-marked and there are even a few boardwalks for the muddy sections.  After the sopping wet Dobbin Grade Trail sections, this is quite a treat for the approximately 1 mile of the loop that uses this path.

Bear Rocks to the Trailhead:  Shortly after an intersection with Beaver View Trail, the Raven Ridge Trail reaches another well-marked junction with Bear Rocks Trail (TR 522).  From here, take Bear Rocks Trail 2.4 miles to the car.

The sun!  Just as I'm getting back to the car (on the top of the ridge).

No joke.

In case you didn't pick up on this already, Dolly Sods is wet.  The sign at the entrance states, "All trails in Dolly Sods are ROCKY, WET and MUDDY!"  It isn't overstating the situation.  Consider wearing neoprene socks in cold weather.  In addition, the plateau can easily be 20 degrees colder than the surrounding area, with high winds.  I wore three layers (long underwear, softshell, and rain gear) plus gloves, hat, and hood, and that was enough so long as I was moving.  Bring extra clothing, food, and water.

Directions to the trailhead:  From Petersburg, WV, take 220 N to 55 W to (turning right) Jordan Run Road.  There will be a small sign at the intersection for Dolly Sods.  After 7 miles, turn left at another small Dolly Sods sign onto Forest Road 75.  FR 75 is a teeth-clattering, unpaved road.  The trailhead and parking area emerge when, after 5 miles on FR 75, the road takes a sharp turn and opens onto the plateau for the first time.