- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2003

“Did you call ahead to make a reservation?” the clerk asked at the five-room motel where my companion and I had stopped on our first night in Petersburg, a small town near the vast Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.

“A reservation?” I asked incredulously, staring at the lodging, which consisted of tiny shacks arranged behind the large trash bin of the local pizza parlor.

The clerk smiled. “Just checking,” she said. “Take any of the five rooms. … They’re usually empty. We don’t get many visitors.”

Her comments could apply to virtually every place in Monongahela, a 900,000-acre range surrounded by the towns of Petersburg, Franklin, Elkins and Neola in northeastern West Virginia.

Less than four hours from Washington, Monongahela is one of the finest outdoor recreation areas on the East Coast, yet it remains relatively unknown to most D.C. residents, largely because it is overshadowed by Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

When I mentioned to outdoors-enthusiast friends that I would be visiting Monongahela, I drew mostly blank stares. No matter. As we discovered one summer weekend, Monongahela National Forest offers rugged and remote hiking, some of the most unusual vegetation and landscapes in the East and an array of wild flora and fauna — and it is always far less crowded than Shenandoah, whose Skyline Drive too often resembles the Beltway at rush hour. Monongahela even affords a few surprises, such as unexploded shells near some of the trails.

Seneca Rocks

After driving into West Virginia from the District, we spent an evening at the surprisingly comfortable five-room motel and then headed south to Seneca Rocks along state Route 28, a road that wound through dense forests and lime-green hills. A few black cherry trees stood out against the forest cover.

In recent years, the cherry trees, which make exquisite furniture, have become some of the most coveted timber in America. In 2001, seven men were caught trying to steal black cherry hardwoods from Monongahela Forest, where some timber is protected. On the open market, their lumber haul could have fetched $250,000.

A cluster of jagged quartzite rocks and jutting sandstone rising 900 feet straight out of the ground, Seneca is probably the best-known attraction in the forest, yet at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, it was only moderately crowded, a far cry from Shenandoah. A few families stared up at the 400-million-year-old rock face, and a group of young men lugged hefty bags full of ropes, boomboxes and enough metal gear to push Bethlehem Steel out of bankruptcy. Rock climbers, no doubt, who had come to measure themselves against Seneca’s face, considered among the toughest climbs in the East.

Instead of ascending straight up Seneca’s face, a task well beyond our exercise-starved arms, my companion and I wound our way to the top of the rocks on a 1.3-mile trail that climbs Seneca from the rear via a series of rocky switchbacks. At the top, we were rewarded with a clear view that stretched east to the Virginia border and west to Spruce Knob, at 4,863 feet the highest peak in West Virginia.

Most of the land I could see was covered with forest, the trees broken only occasionally by tiny towns, isolated churches and Victorian-era farmsteads. The West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club has protested the limited logging permitted in Monongahela National Forest. Yet I saw neither examples of the scarring clear-cutting so common to national forests in New England, where timber companies can leave raw gashes in the land, nor vestiges of West Virginia’s long history of mining.

Worn out from the short but steep hike, we relaxed at the bottom of the rocks with a quick dip in Seneca Creek, which burbles through the forest and once was the lifeblood of local Algonquin, Tuscarora and Seneca communities, who used to gather at the water’s edge to trade goods.

Refreshed, we stopped in at the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center, a small complex of huts that constitutes the forest’s main visitors center. At the Discovery Center, a molasses-mouthed retired local — for him, “hi” was a four-syllable word — recommended hikes in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, about an hour away.

Dolly Sods

As we drove northwest toward Dolly Sods, we passed bikers pumping their way up and down the rolling West Virginia country roads. Though not well-known outside a core constituency of committed cyclists, the northern part of Monongahela contains some of the best biking in the Mid-Atlantic, hundreds of miles of bouncy forest paths, old railroad beds and paved roads meandering through shady forest cover. What’s more, small bed-and-breakfast accommodations throughout the forest cater to cyclists, arranging support teams, planning trips and serving hearty breakfasts — the kinds of meals in which low-fat means substituting bacon for sausage.

By the time we reached Dolly Sods, a 10,000-acre backcountry preserve that would take months to explore thoroughly, the narrow but paved state roads had turned into rutted gravel tracks with few markings. Coming around a curve, my companion accidentally drove my car into a ditch, forcing us to push the vehicle back onto the road. The difficult, slow going allowed us more time to gaze out at Dolly Sods’ unique, otherworldly terrain.

Like a piece of the Arctic Circle plopped down in West Virginia, the Dolly Sods area often is 10 to 20 degrees colder than other parts of the state. In part, the icy conditions are due to high altitude — the region ranges from 2,600 to 4,000 feet, significantly higher than the surrounding land. What’s more, Dolly Sods lies atop the Allegheny Front, the eastern continental divide, which blocks weather patterns, forcing cold winds, snow and rain onto the sods.

Man’s intervention also has played a part in creating Dolly Sods’ condition. Fires from railroads cut through West Virginia burned most of the sods to a charred crisp in the 19th century, and what grew back was a swatch of tundra; a sub-Arctic plain of peat bogs; heath barrens; low, stunted trees; and thick underbrush.

The National Forest Service calls Dolly Sods “a little bit of Canada placed a hair too far south,” and the early settlers in the region, hardy men and women who had trekked all over the East Coast, described the Sods as some of the most arduous terrain they ever encountered.

Thomas Lewis, a settler, noted: “The swamp, which is very uncommon in places of ye kind, is prodigiously full of rocks and cavities … covered over with a very luxuriant kind of moss of a considerable depth …. We had very difficult access.” Even today, the area remains tundra unprotected from the elements, and wind and snow sweep across Dolly Sods, freezing local plants.

Among these early pioneers, the Dahle family ultimately lent their name to the wilderness area. Though many visitors think the area is named after a person named Dolly Sods, in actuality, Dolly is a corruption of the family’s name. Locals began calling the area Dahle’s pastures, or sods, and the name stuck.

Dolly Sods’ cold, windswept conditions also foster the kind of acidic soil conditions perfect for hardy flowering bushes more common to northern Canada. Rhododendron, blueberry bushes, mountain laurel and cranberry plants dot the backwoods paths running through the sods.

Seeking a hike that offered a view over the entire sods, we climbed a small peak. The 3,000-foot mountain was heavily forested, but near the top, harsh winds had blown down even the smallest trees, creating a patch of barren granite perfect for a late-afternoon meal.

From the outlook, we gazed over Dolly Sods, taking in the extensive highland tundra — most of the wilderness area lies above 2,500 feet — and hundreds of small creeks trickling east toward the Virginia border. Because of its location atop the Allegheny Front, which stops rainstorms, the sods get tons of precipitation — in some areas, more than 60 inches each year.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Monongahela Forest contains the headwaters of five major river systems, including the Potomac, the Monongahela and the Williams, as well as some of the most difficult white-water rafting and kayaking runs on the East Coast and several bridges suitable for bungee jumping.

In fact, white-water boating has become so popular that two major Web sites, www.wvwhitewater.com and www.wvrafting.com, have sprung up to help rafters and kayakers pick guides and outfitters. Meanwhile, bungee-jumping addicts flock to West Virginia every October for the famous Bridge Day at the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville.

Dolly Sods’ cold and damp weather also seems to suit migratory fowl, which use the area to break up their long trips between the Arctic and the Antarctic.

Camping that evening in a field of tundra, we sat outside our tent as the temperature dropped, watching several small eagles soar overhead, most likely on their way to the coldest reaches of the globe.

A warning

The next morning, we woke extremely early, aware that we had to budget extra time for any Dolly Sods hike because most trails in the wilderness area are backcountry footpaths with few signs.

The one sign we did see reminded us more of war-torn Laos, where we both had worked, than of rural West Virginia. The signboard said, “Warning: Do not touch any unexploded ordnance.”

Puzzled, I looked in my guidebook and discovered that Dolly Sods served as a World War II training ground for artillery gunners, who used the area as a stand-in for the forests of France and Germany and littered the sods with 57mm and 155mm howitzer shells, blasting away into the forest. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers has removed most of the unexploded shells, and the area is considered safe, if still a bit frightening.

Undeterred, we set off on a tramp around the edges of a long peat bog underneath wide, shady magnolias; towering hemlocks; and thin, reedy white birches, northern and southern species of trees that overlap in West Virginia. Like most hiking tracks in Dolly Sods, this remote and waterlogged trail forced us to become intimately acquainted with mud.

The trail passed through large mud puddles; over wooden boards placed amid muddy swamps; up muddy, eroded hills; and past beautiful, delicate reindeer moss patches splattered with mud.

During the entire walk, we never encountered a single person, a sharp contrast from my days tramping in New England and Virginia, where hikers swarm over every major mountain and fights occasionally break out over trail crowding. Indeed, the sods offer a type of solitude that doesn’t exist anymore in the Northeast or Shenandoah.

According to locals, black bears love the Dolly Sods mud — and the local blueberries, no doubt — and frequently venture into the wilderness area to roll in the bogs.

Several general stores near the town of Harman display evidence of the bears’ love of mud: stuffed bears gunned down by savvy hunters, who flock to the area in late fall to shoot bear, turkey and deer.

At one general store, the manager, a squat local who seemed to revel in tales about dangerous local animals, regaled us with his stories about close encounters with bears and others, encounters that often seemed to end with a bullet in the animal’s hide.

We didn’t spot any bears, but we did see several large owls as well as hares and small snakes.

As we feared, the lack of trail markings, combined with our generally poor sense of direction, helped us get thoroughly lost after about 90 minutes wandering along the bog.

After fretting for a bit, we used the mud to our advantage, retracing my heavy boots’ imprints in the thick, lusciously wet earth to find our way back to the parking lot, where we eagerly discussed the hot showers we would enjoy at the motel that night.

Joshua Kurlantzick is foreign editor of the New Republic magazine.


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