Late last October, I took my younger daughter and a couple of her friends, all active 20-somethings, to visit Canaan Valley in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. Sara had hiked and camped in the adjacent Dolly Sods Wilderness as a teenager and had wanted to return ever since. It seemed like the perfect outdoorsy pandemic road trip, but as I raced around getting ready, I stubbed my toe so badly that I never made it to Dolly Sods; the kids went hiking without me.
Still, I was captivated by the area. Even getting there was a treat: West Virginia’s Route 48 (one of many projects for which the late Sen. Robert Byrd deserves credit) dips and climbs through forest-draped mountains; a platoon of white windmills marches along some of the ridges; and road cuts make visible hundreds of millions of years’ worth of geological history.
The region’s beauty exists because of — and despite — its dramatic history. The gorgeous landscape was first shaped by a combination of geologic processes and primeval plant growth, then almost destroyed by the rapacious humans who mined the coal seams to exhaustion and cut the old-growth forest into stumps. Canaan Valley (in local pronunciation, it rhymes with “inane”) is now a national natural landmark, and in addition to the Dolly Sods Wilderness, it overlaps with or abuts a national wildlife refuge, a national forest, two state parks (Blackwater Falls State Park and Canaan Valley Resort State Park, which offers golf and skiing), and a second ski resort. There are endless opportunities for scenic and recreational enjoyment.
Despite a toe I later learned was broken, I managed to get to Blackwater Falls, so named because tannins from vegetation stain the water a dark brown, and hike one of the many trails in the park, to Pase Point, which showcases a beautiful vista whose faded colors hinted at the glory they had displayed just weeks before. (Fall comes earlier at higher elevations, and we had missed the most vibrant foliage.) And the unseen Dolly Sods — widely described as “a bit of Canada gone astray,” with unmarked trails lacing its subalpine forests and meadows — still called to me.
The mystique of Dolly Sods
About that strange and charming moniker: The first part of Dolly Sods’s name is a tribute to the German immigrant Dahle family, which owned pastureland there in the 1800s. The second word is a local term for a mountaintop meadow or bog, and although it has no etymological connection to the word sodden, that was the linkage in my mind. Today, at more than 17,000 acres, the Dolly Sods Wilderness, which is part of Monongahela National Forest, encompasses much more land than the Dahle family’s original “sods.”
Dolly Sods sits high (roughly 2,500 to more than 4,700 feet above sea level) in the Appalachian Plateau near the Allegheny Front in West Virginia, which aligns closely with the Eastern Continental Divide. Water that flows to the east eventually reaches the Chesapeake Bay watershed; to the west, it makes its way to the Mississippi River basin. The Alleghenies are made mostly of layers of sedimentary rock pushed into folds by the mountain-building events that resulted in the Appalachian range (of which the Alleghenies are a part).
The altitude is responsible for the unusual vegetation, and the harsh climate works its will on the trees and exposed rocks. The land was degraded by the logging of its red spruce forests, which led to fires, and by artillery exercises conducted during World War II. Hikers are warned to stay on the trails in case unexploded ordnance remains. (The fact that the Canaan Valley area has recovered from the logging to the degree it has is thanks in part to the Civilian Conservation Corps, which replanted many denuded spaces.) The Sods now features what the Forest Service calls “unusual plant communities . . . sphagnum bogs, groves of wind-stunted, one-sided red spruce and twisted yellow birch, heath barrens, grassy sods, rhododendron and laurel thickets, and rocky barren plains.” It sounded like a very special place, and I wanted to experience it.
Eager to show my husband, Darryl, and older daughter, Rachel, the region that had so enthralled me and Sara, I planned a week-long vacation for this summer. Both Darryl and Rachel would have to work part of the time, but surely, we thought, they would at least get to hike in Dolly Sods. Yet when our trip finally rolled around in August, it coincided with a rainy spell, which was hardly ideal. Dolly Sods tends to be muddy even when it isn’t raining, so getting caught there during a downpour was something we really wanted to avoid. (Spoiler: An alternative headline for this story was, “There will be mud.”) And Rachel didn’t even have hiking boots.
Predicting the weather in the mountains is difficult, and the radar app I downloaded didn’t seem to help. The rapidly and infinitely changeable conditions made us steer clear of the Sods, but we took the opportunity to visit other sites in between precipitation.
On the first day, we escaped the rainy valley and headed to Seneca Rocks, about 25 winding back-road miles away, where the scenic landmark rises starkly, about 900 feet above the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Once a layer of beach sands that had been cemented together by weight, temperature and time into Tuscarora quartz arenite, the 425-million-year-old rocks were turned vertical when the North American continental plate collided with the African plate during the Appalachian orogeny. Over millions of years, weather eroded away the softer layers surrounding the quartz arenite, leaving the giant milestones.
Pleased to find it cloudy but dry there, we searched until we could see two climbers on the cliff face, tiny as ticks. Then we hiked the 1.5-mile interpretive trail to the beautiful view from the observation platform, calling out interesting facts to one another — lichens are two organisms! — as we trudged along the switchbacks on a route that gained 1,000 feet in elevation. When we returned to the Discovery Center and looked up to find the observation deck barely visible at the edge of the cliffs, we were pretty impressed with ourselves.
On the second day, rather than hiking the steep ascent to an overlook called Bald Knob, we hitched a ride partway on the scenic chairlift at Canaan Valley Resort. Then we took a mostly level mile-long trek through woods and meadow, which was lovely until we got caught in the rain.
On the third day, the girls and I visited the former logging, mining and railroad towns of Davis and Thomas for lunch and shopping. Sara and I checked out Douglas Falls outside Thomas, which crashes onto rocks stained a neon orange by acid runoff from coal operations, and the iconic view at Lindy Point in Blackwater Falls. There, a half-mile trail opens to a stunning panorama, with a chimney rock standing sentinel over a lush green V of a canyon. At the bottom is the Blackwater River; at the top, below the sky, hover the Allegheny Mountains.
All of this, plus a visit to Stumptown Ales, was great fun, but it wasn’t Dolly Sods. And on the fourth day of our trip, it poured. We never left the vacation rental, a rustic, secluded cabin in a ski community. I despaired of ever getting to the Sods.
Finally, a chance
The next day looked overcast but dry; still it was with trepidation that Sara, my husband and I packed extra socks and laced on our boots in preparation to visit Dolly Sods, wondering whether a hike along any of its 47 miles of trails would even be possible after so much rain. (Rachel had gone home to work for a couple of days.) We had picked the highly recommended Rohrbaugh Trail, because it’s rated moderate, showcases a variety of landscapes, offers a view and is reputed to drain quickly.
The drive to the trailhead in our old minivan was an adventure in itself; the narrow, unpaved road dipped into hollows and snaked up the ridge, clinging to blind curves that made me want to beep the horn at every turn. But shortly after we slipped between the trees and onto the trail, I knew Dolly Sods was going to live up to my expectations.
Despite the cliche, it was like something out of a fairy tale, touched by magic and mystery and mushrooms. Picture a narrow, stony, root-riddled path that winds through sections of dark, dense, moss-decorated forest; traverses open wildflower-, butterfly- and bee-filled meadows; and crosses whispering streams. Every time I stopped to take a photo, I would sigh with frustration, because the results didn’t convey the enchantment I was feeling. (Full disclosure: It was also wet and muddy — and very slow going. Darryl and I both picked up two fallen branches to help us negotiate the rocks and streambeds, and being forced to focus on where we were stepping made it difficult to fully appreciate our surroundings.)
Just when we were beginning to worry that we had somehow taken a wrong turn, we reached the overlook. Standing on the sandstone cliffs, we could see deep into remote Red Creek canyon and across to a famous rock formation called Lion’s Head. (I think we were looking at it from the wrong angle.) Unlike on the heavily trafficked trail to Lindy Point, we encountered only two other hikers and felt as if we truly were in the wilderness. We sat down to soak in the scenery and eat a much-needed snack. Then, because Darryl and I were too exhausted to go back the way we came, we stayed on Rohrbaugh to the slightly easier Wildlife Trail and back to the unpaved road. This put us farther from our car than I had calculated, but the route at least had no rocks or mud. We walked more than eight miles altogether, much of it atop slick rocks and roots surrounded by sludge. But we had done it. And it didn’t start raining until we were back at the cabin, easing away our pains in the hot tub.
The next couple of days were icing on the cake. Rachel came back Friday, and she, Sara and I attended a geology talk at Blackwater Falls, learning more about the tectonic forces that built the park and carved away the canyon, before more afternoon rain. Saturday dawned sunny, of course, and I took Darryl to see Blackwater Falls and Lindy Point, while Sara and Rachel hiked part of the Blackbird Knob Trail in Dolly Sods, seeing more of the heath barrens than we did on Rohrbaugh. The next weekend, Darryl evangelized to friends about the wonders of Canaan Valley, and Rachel bought hiking boots. Mission accomplished.
But one of my favorite memories remains emerging from the dense woods of Dolly Sods onto Forest Road 75 during our hike. Even this gravel lane was pretty, lined with trees and wildflowers and boulders, and featuring an overlook that provided a view back toward Canaan Valley. The sun came out, Darryl started warbling “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and both exhausted and elated, I leaned into the heartfelt hokeyness of the moment. It was, indeed, almost heaven.
Where to eat
The Sawmill Restaurant
850 Sawmill Lane, Davis
A local institution serving good home cooking. Entrees from about $7 to $15.
216 State Hwy. 32, Thomas
Excellent coffee and tea, frequented by tourists and locals alike.
390 William Ave, Davis
Brewpub specializing in IPAs but offering ciders, meads and wines. Warm wood decor; friendly, helpful bartenders. Drink in or take out; no food.
Farm Up Table
272 State Hwy. 32, Thomas
The owners have moved their food truck business to a bricks-and-mortar establishment serving fresh and creative fare. Don’t miss the Parmesan truffle oil fries. Entrees from about $5 to $18.
What to do
Dolly Sods Wilderness
Intersection of Forest Roads 19 and 75
Forty-seven miles of trails on a scenic high plateau. Roads closed to vehicles from January to April. Free.
Blackwater Falls State Park
1584 Blackwater Lodge Rd., Davis
In addition to the eponymous waterfall (plus a second), the park offers 21 trails, lodge and cabin accommodations, and, in the winter, what’s billed as the longest sled run on the East Coast. Free.
Seneca Rocks Discovery Center
Intersection of Route 33 and Route 55 in Seneca Rocks
The center, which houses displays about local history and wildlife, also offers huge windows from which to gaze upon the rocks. If you want to get closer, take the interpretive trail to the top. Free.
Canaan Valley Resort Scenic Chairlift
Park Rd. 826, Davis
Purchase tickets in Quenchers Pub for a ride that allows you to really soak in the beauty of the valley. Adults ages 13 to 59, $8; $5 for seniors 60 and over and children 6 to 12.