With Record Visitation, Dolly Sods Approaches Gridlock

By Rick Steelhammer

With temperatures in the mid-40s and wind gusts strong enough to force visitors to take occasional stutter steps to maintain their balance, there was no doubt last Sunday that fall had arrived at the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

During the previous week, autumn colors had faded from bright red to a rusty purple in the huckleberry-dominated heath lands atop the 4,000-foot-high plateau at the north end of the 17,371-acre wilderness area. On the previous day, a cold, wind-driven rain battered those who ventured here.

Despite the sub-par weather, by 11 a.m. last Sunday, the small parking area here was full, and 129 overflow vehicles, displaying license plates from New Mexico to Maine, were jammed along both sides of Forest Road 75, the rocky, potholed U.S. Forest Service road providing access to the site. The parking situation left only one lane of the narrow dirt road accessible to vehicular traffic, causing drivers traveling in opposite directions to occasionally stop and wait for oncoming traffic to clear before moving forward.

Recently arrived day-hikers and backpackers trekked a quarter-mile or more up the road from their make-do parking sites to reach either the Bear Rocks Trail, which crosses the north end of the Dolly Sods Wilderness, or trails accessing the adjacent Bear Rocks Preserve.

The latter site, managed by The Nature Conservancy of West Virginia, is a 477-acre tract of sandstone boulders and cliffs topped with wind-swept red spruce trees overlooking the North Fork Valley. The Bear Rocks Preserve and neighboring 727-acre Allegheny Front Preserve, also managed by The Nature Conservancy, were designated a National Natural Area by the National Park Service earlier this year.

“Last Sunday, we had intermittent gridlock here for the better part of the day,” said David Johnston of nearby Dry Creek, as he prepared to greet visitors setting out on the Bear Rocks Trail. Parked cars lining both sides of the road in the Bear Rocks area constricted traffic to one car width in a number of locations, he said, creating one-way traffic through the bottlenecks and occasional stand-offs between drivers traveling in opposite directions over who had the right of way.

“The weekend before that, when the blueberry bushes were at their peak colors, there were similar situations,” Johnston said. On one of those days, Johnston said, overflow parking at Bear Rocks stretched a half-mile down Forest Road 75 from the parking area, stalling traffic for so long “I gave up trying to get here from Blackbird Knob,” a trailhead a few miles to the south.

“Visitation to Dolly Sods has been steadily increasing over the last decade, but has really exploded last year and this year,” Johnston said, due to the arrival of COVID-19 and a trend toward using outdoor recreation as a way to practice social distancing with family and friends. Visitation has also been spurred by recent stories and images about the appeal of spending time here that appeared in the Washington Post, on YouTube and in other media outlets.

“When I was a kid, my grandma lived in Keyser and we came up here a few times, and I remember it being a very unique area,” said Aaron Peach of Annapolis, Maryland, among the crowd of visitors arriving at Dolly Sods last Sunday.

After watching a number of videos of people backpacking at Dolly Sods in recent years, Peach returned to wilderness area in May for a backpacking trip. On Sunday, he returned for another backpacking loop, this time accompanied by Mark Chomas, a friend from New Hampshire, making his first visit to the Sods.

“Things are busiest here on summer weekends and during the fall leaf season,” said Johnston, who would know, having spent most of his weekends in recent months greeting visitors at the busier trailheads in the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

Johnston coordinates the activities of 39 volunteers taking part in the new Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards program, created earlier this year to address the effects of record use of the area. The program came about through a partnership between the Monongahela National Forest, which manages Dolly Sods, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

Straddling portions of Grant, Tucker and Randolph counties at elevations ranging from 2,500 to 4,700 feet, the Dolly Sods Wilderness offers visitors landscapes more often associated with the American West or Canada than the central Appalachians. In its higher terrain, wide-open expanses of heath barrens stretch across the surface of the rocky plateau, which is dotted with beaver ponds and highland bogs and bordered by segments of red spruce forest. At lower elevations, steep canyons carved by the headwaters of Red Creek and its tributaries shelter dense rhododendron thickets and stands of northern hardwoods.

Dolly Sods and 14 other remote tracts of U.S. Forest Service land east of the Mississippi became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1975, when President Gerald Ford signed the Eastern Wilderness Act into law.

The effort to protect and promote Dolly Sods as a federal wilderness area was among the first tasks taken up by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy following its creation in 1967.

“Since the Highlands Conservancy was one of the leaders in getting Dolly Sods designated as a wilderness area, we have a high interest in increasing our stewardship of the area to deal with issues that have arisen from high visitation,” said Larry Thomas, the conservancy’s president.

Last spring, Conservancy members and Monongahela National Forest personnel got together to begin planning how the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards program would operate.

“We brainstormed to see what kind of help the Forest Service could use from our volunteers,” Johnston said.

The goal was to help maintain Dolly Sods’ wilderness characteristics and ability to provide opportunities for solitude — two primary reasons for creating federal wilderness areas — in an era of record visitation.

They came up with a plan to:

  • Install registration boxes at trailheads leading into the wilderness area in which visitors would list their names, zip codes, number of people in their group, approximate length of stay and planned trail routes. That information will give Forest Service planners a better handle on visitation numbers and trail use patterns. The Highlands Conservancy paid for the materials to build and install the boxes, and agreed to maintain them and keep track of data recorded by visitors.
  • Post Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards at the busier trailheads on weekends to offer visitors information about trail routes and the basics of of low-impact wilderness hiking and camping, and to encourage those entering the wilderness to sign the trail register.
  • Have the volunteers conduct solitude monitoring surveys along specified trails by counting the number of hikers and campers they encounter during each of the two-hour monitoring hikes.

The first group of Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards went through a Forest Service training session in July.

“For many visitors to Dolly Sods, it’s their first time in a wilderness area, and they don’t realize it’s not just another section of the forest,” said Julie Fosbender, natural resources specialist for the Monongahela National Forest, who joined Johnston in greeting visitors to the Bear Rocks Trail last Sunday.

“Among other things, we encourage people to stay on existing trails and use existing campsites, instead of creating new ones,” Fosbender said.

Those arriving at the trailhead were offered maps of hiking trails in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, which list and explain the seven basic principles of “Leave No Trace” back-country travel on the reverse side. To minimize impact, backpackers are urged to limit their group size to a maximum of 10; refrain from camping within 200 feet of trails or streams; keep campfires small, using existing fire rings and pack out all litter and leftover food.

“I try to engage everyone in conversation after explaining that we’re working in partnership with the Forest Service to serve as a resource for people entering the wilderness,” Johnston said.

“I encourage people to sign the trail register, then I try to get some idea of what trail routes they’re planning to take, and offer suggestions if they’re open to hearing them,” he said. “If people don’t seem prepared for the weather conditions, I’ll suggest shorter, or more sheltered, alternative routes.”

No one has to sign the trail register or speak with the wilderness stewards.

“I had some trepidation about the reception we’d get when we first started doing this,” Johnston said. “But people have uniformly been willing to talk and seem to be appreciative of us being here.”

The trailhead stewards program is scheduled to end for the season by the end of October, when the wave of visitation is expected to ebb. Gates to the Forest Service roads leading to the most popular trailheads will be closed for the winter starting on Jan. 1.

“The trailhead Stewards will be back next season,” Johnston said.

Next year, he said, volunteers may tackle an inventory of campsites and a survey of trail conditions, and possibly begin trail maintenance work under Forest Service supervision.

“Dolly Sods is a unique and exceptional area, no doubt about it,” Fosbender said. “But it has a carrying capacity, and everyone who visits it has an impact, no matter how well-intentioned or skilled they may be.”

She said impact could be reduced by people discovering there are countless other unique and remote areas to explore in the 919,000 acres of the Monongahela National Forest. They include seven other wilderness areas with a combined area of nearly 100,000 acres, plus the Seneca Creek Backcountry and the Cranberry Backcountry.

“Maybe people could visit Dolly Sods and then try some of the other places before returning,” Fosbender said.

If visitation to Dolly Sods continues on its current trajectory, a permit system could become a management option, she said.

“I’ve met a lot of really nice people here,” said Wilderness Steward Frank O’Hara of Keyser.

Despite record visitation levels, “people are friendly, they keep their dogs on leashes and there’s very little litter. And if you get just an eighth of a mile off the trail, you can still have solitude.” he said.

“People love it here,” O’Hara said. “I guess the big question is if it’s going to be loved too much.”

Note:  This first appeared in the Charleston Gazette.