The Dolly Sods Wilderness of West Virginia

“Aww f&@#,” says my wife of almost 4 months, “Are you kidding me?! Thirty degrees!”

My wife has just woken up after a nap while I drive up an unpaved mountain road.  This reaction to the frigid weather is just the beginning.  What began as an ascent surrounded by brilliant fall colors of numerous deciduous trees has given way to red spruce forest.    As my Jeep reaches its destination at about 4,000 feet in elevation it begins to hail.

Red Spruce among the boulders of the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Red Spruce among the boulders of the Dolly Sods Wilderness

My wife is from South Florida.  She loves blue seas, palm trees, the everglades, and sunshine.  If it gets below 75 degree, well, it’s cold.  So you can imagine her reaction to seeing the sky send us the ominous hail.   

If only someone purchased for me some head phones that block out extraneous noise as a wedding gift.

(Note to wife:  Just kidding, honey.  I love you very much.)

It is the first week of October and most areas around the Chesapeake Bay are hovering in the low 60 degree range.  Mild weather, crisp air, and delicious apples are peaking in taste.  But on the far western boundary of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed lies an area that is unlike any other in the entire watershed.  This area is more akin to a Canadian ecosystem.  High above on the Allegheny plateau, we are camping in the Dolly Sods Wilderness of West Virginia. 

There is no Dolly, but there are plenty of sods and it is one of my favorite designated wilderness areas.  The wilderness lies within the Monongahela National Forest and parts of the Dolly Sods are preserved by the Nature Conservancy.  Water that drains from the eastern border of the wilderness flows into the Potomac River and eventually makes its way to the Chesapeake Bay.  The weather is unpredictable and can change from calm to snow or from rain to flood, and sometime all four within an hour.  This capricious quality is highly influenced by the Potomac River.  Because of where the Dolly Sods is located along the Allegheny Plateau it receives Canadian wind from the Northwest that collides with warmer air rising from the Potomac.  The end result is very extreme, and very windy, weather.  Along the rim of the plateau many spruce trees have taken on a flag form appearance due to the constant bombardment of fierce, cold winds.  The banshees like wail of the wind against my tent on this particular camping trip inspired me to originally write this piece around Halloween time.  

The Forest floor of the Solly Sods showing plants more common in the arctic

The Forest floor of the Solly Sods showing plants more common in the arctic

To view the vast landscape of the Dolly Sods is nothing short of breathtaking.  Upon first glance you might think you are standing in the expansive Alaskan tundra because of similar flora and fauna. Besides spruce and fir trees, there are miles of blueberry and huckleberry bush, sphagnum and reindeer moss, cranberry bogs, heath barrens, and incredible wind swept boulder formations. 

The area has had an interesting history.  Most of the old growth spruce forest is gone due to logging (most of the vegetation you see is second growth forest) and in the 1940’s the area was used by troops in the US Army as grounds for artillery and mortar training.  Live mortars may still exist in the sods, two were recovered in 2006.  Land to make the wilderness was acquired over the years by the nature conservancy (parts of it are overseen by the US Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy). 

Fall foliage in the lower elevations is incredibly spectacular.  Rivaling that of New England, the leaves turn in mid to late September and among the best I have ever seen.  In the higher elevations, the tundra like appearance is striking.  The miles of blueberry bush turn scarlet red contrasted amongst the green of the spruce.  Along the more moist areas strands of Balsam Fir are found as well. 

Fast forward to our current camping trip.  My wife, while complaining she cannot handle cold, is quite resilient and we had the tent up in a matter of minutes.  We hiked, camped, made s’mores, froze, and had another wonderful time there.  The hiking in this area is always great but one must be careful as many of the trails are not, or barely, marked.  It is recommended that one take topographic maps made by the US Geological Survey, but do not let that deter you, as the Bear Rocks Preserve area of the wilderness is easily accessible.  However if you are a backpacker the area offers some of the wildest and most beautiful camping opportunities.   

Previous trips to this area were always cold-but nothing like this.  With the wind chill the temperature hovered around 15 degrees.  Water that filled the openings in the boulders was now ice.  Any skin exposed to the elements became numb.  When the conditions are less than comfortable I find myself becoming more conscious of trying to create work that tells the story of the watershed.  There is something about feeling a tad uncomfortable that makes me more goal-oriented in the field.   

I created this video to give one a basic overview of the area.  I hope you enjoy it.  I have more video I plan to show and edit in the coming year.  It is wonderful that an area like this flows water into the Chesapeake Bay.  That this most diverse and unique environment is part of the watershed makes me appreciate the grandeur that is the Chesapeake that much more.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.  As always feel free to contact me about the watershed and my photographs.

Sharing the Adventure


A friend of mine, whom for blogging purposes we will call “D”, has no interest in wilderness or photography.  He is not moved at the sight of a wild animal on a large museum exhibition print, nor stimulated at the prospects of seeing one in the landscape.  Camping, hiking, and getting off the grid are foreign concepts in his universe of video games, social networking, and communication by text.  Not that these activities serve no purpose, but turning off the Wi-Fi now and then is a good thing.  So you can imagine my surprise when “D” told me he wanted to begin training for an obstacle race.  Not just any obstacle race, but one featuring a motley crew of zombies, Spartan warriors, and perhaps a chance encounter with a future “Mrs. D.”  Whatever inspires you……

I suggested he join me on a mountain hike to begin his training regimen.  He agreed to this proposition as long as he did not have to wake up early.

Now late May into June is a most exciting time in the natural world as the sounds of the songbird fill the forest with their music and the gentle trickles of spring rain flow through waterfalls and streams. This harmonious symphony would not be complete without the sounds of all the newborns! Coyote pups howling, the chirping of newborn Robins, and the steps of a whitetail deer fawn following its mother through the forest; each sound epitomizes the seasons of rebirth and growth.


The mountains of Virginia and West Virginia provided the backdrop for many of my recent adventures, and I had scoped out different locations for my landscape work, with some requiring a few hours of hiking before I could even set up my tripod.  So you can imagine “D’s” distress when I made him wake up at 1 AM so that I could be at a location before sunrise.  Our only light source came from headlamps, along with commentary from “D” complaining about the trauma I was putting him through, making this hike seem like a regrettable enterprise.  When we finally made it to the location I was pleased to find that Mother Nature decided to cooperate with me.   



“These clouds are fantastic, with this light and……”

As I stopped midsentence I realized I had been talking to myself as I had not heard a response from “D” for a few minutes.  I looked over and D was just fixated on the clouds.  

“It’s beautiful,” he said, “I’ve never seen clouds like that before.” 

Gorgeous sunrise:  check.



 I had hoped that we would come across a bear on our hike because seeing mega fauna would hopefully inspire “D” to appreciate wildlife.  I discovered a few den sites this season which provided ample opportunities to view and photograph bears.  When we heard the cracking of dead leaves on the ground I immediately thought a bear was near but it was a whitetail deer and a newborn fawn.   I instructed “D” to stay low and watched their behavior closely to avoiding causing any distress to the mother.  Instead of exiting they strayed closer and “D” was able to see first hand the attentiveness and care the mother showed to its offspring.

                                                                                                                Cute Baby Animal: check    


Later on we came across a rather macabre looking scene of a bloody squirrel tail.  This unfortunate incident for the squirrel resulted in nourishment for another life; nature can appear cruel, but it is the cycle of life.  I surveyed the area to see if the hunter was still around but what we saw instead was much more profound.  Two fledging Barred Owl chicks were staring at us from their nesting cavity.  The answer was clear; the squirrel provided what these chicks need to survive in their first critical months of being on this Earth.  What initially began as disgust on “D’s” part transformed into childhood enthusiasm.  He had never seen a wild owl before, and now he had seen two chicks!  

Nature presenting life lessons: check.


What started out as a pain for “D” turned out to be a great day.  Was it life changing?  I certainly hope so, but until then at least I have the satisfaction of sharing the outdoors with him.  I do know he appreciates nature photography more because he visits this website.  

I did receive a text message from him though, to which I gladly re-post:

“Are you free to go hiking this week?”

So he is using the technology to schedule a wilderness outing?  I am cool with that.

Until next time, be good to each other