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Hiking the Dolly Sods

Written by: Craig “Goatman” Buckley

The Dolly Sods Wilderness Area is an anomaly. If I were dropped there from a flying saucer, disoriented and bewildered, my first thought would be that I was dropped somewhere up north in Canada, Maine, or possibly Alaska. When the wind picked up over the sphagnum bogs, rattling the blueberries and putting a chill in my bones, my first thought would not be, “Feels like a nice West Virginia wind!” although that is exactly what I would be feeling. When I hiked and hiked over the sub-alpine meadows (or “sods” as they’re known around these parts) without gaining or losing much elevation at all, I would question everything I knew about mountains and their incessant ups and downs. If I wasn’t completely insane at this point, I’m sure I would find one of the many beautiful campsites along the rocky creeks of the plateau and lay myself down in pine needles for a much needed nap and hope that someone might happen my way, perhaps with food or a map or an explanation of exactly what was going on in this crazy world. And perhaps they would, but I wouldn’t count on it.

You see, the Dolly SoDSCN6622ds is a 17,371 acre wilderness area located in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia in the middle of the Allegheny Mountains. It’s not exactly the middle of nowhere, but it’s not far off. The area consists of a number of rocky, high altitude plateaus (around 4000 ft. at the highest points) cut through with creeks, which in turn become beautiful waterfalls as they descend. When you enter the Dolly Sods from the trail head, you will be fording streams and climbing a few thousand feet along switchbacks and ridges before reaching the meadows at the top. In years of back country travel, I haven’t seen much like it. The forest disappears as you hike and you enter an area of tall grass, stunted trees, gnarled brush, wildflowers, boulders and bogs. Wildlife teems. In one afternoon, I spotted deer, mice, chipmunks, turtles, garter snakes, innumerable birds, and even a black bear traipsing about the tree line. The views are wide open and there’s a lot to see.

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The Dolly Sods, however,  is not for everyone, as the park sign says. Orienteering skills are a must. The trails here are marked only by footprints in most areas and the few signs that exist are mostly at trail junctions. The creek crossing are serious. Visiting in the spring, we were required at various times to ford cold water that hit above the knee. The bogs are muddy and the boards over them, where they exist at all, are slippery and broken. At times, the trail enters boulder fields that require balance, stamina, and a keen eye for trail finding. During World War II, after the area had been logged and burnt to the rock in the years before, the army used the sods as an artillery and mortar range. That’s right: there could very well be live bombs (though we saw none, fortunately). Bears, bombs, and bogs equals, simply: know what you’re getting into when planning a trip through the Dolly Sods.

DSCN6649Now that you’re scared that bears with bombs in their mouths are coming to trade you explosions for food, I will assure that backpacking in the Dolly Sods is great, every bend and turn. The campsites are numerous and idyllic, water is plentiful, and the views are worth the route finding. Lion’s Head Rock on Breathed Mountain is a spectacular rock formation with a vista of the rolling hills of the Monongahela. Getting there is the best part. I can say truthfully that I haven’t had as much fun hiking as I did in the Dolly Sods since south-bounding through Maine on the AT. It is that good of a hike, as beautiful as it is challenging. Stop reading this. Go hike.

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The Highline Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana.

The Highline Trail is one of the most rewarding experiences to be had in any National Park. Located in Glacier N.P, Montana, the Highline offers exceptional wildlife encounters, stunning panoramic scenery, and crisp mountain air. The Trail head at Logan Pass is located about 30 miles up the Going-To-The-Sun Road from the west entrance of the park. If you can manage to crawl out of your tent early enough, the drive is a breathtaking 45 minutes past Lake McDonald and up the mountain pass. “Early enough” is on the road by 7am; the National Parks website states that “the parking lot at Logan Pass usually fills between the hours of 9:30am to 4:00pm, though this can vary during peak weekends.” If you don’t leave camp early enough, the drive will be less breathtaking and more stop and go while being forced to focus on the tail lights four feet ahead of you the entire drive. You’ll then have the annoying challenge of driving in circles at Logan Pass while you wait for someone to vacate a parking space. Take my word for it: it’s worth the early wake up call. Another benefit of hitting the road at the crack of dawn is that wildlife is generally more active in the cool mornings.

A bear sow and her two cubs (pictured below) were walking down the middle of the road without a care only 40 feet away from our car. They unhurriedly made their way over the rock wall and down the mountainside. There were also mountain goats (pictured below) frolicking around in a pull off up near the pass. Later in the day, we saw people going bonkers over goats that were barely visible as tiny white specks off in the distance. As a morning time saver, I recommend either having lunch made the night before or taking the fixings with you to prepare once at the pass. There are a few short hikes up by the visitor center at Logan Pass. Don’t bother with these as they pale in comparison to everything you will see on the Highline Trail. Pack extra water, a good lunch, and a few warm layers; it can get chilly in the shade. The trail begins right from the parking lot at Logan Pass. The namesake of the trail becomes immediately apparent as you begin the hike. Your first couple steps take you onto a slender trail that is hewn into the cliff side. While the trail is more than wide enough to traverse safely, there is a rope anchored to the wall for safety. Before long the sheerness of the terrain transforms into a more gradual steepness that carries you past more wildflowers and hoary marmots than you can count (that’s a challenge!). You are also expected to share the trail, as slow as that can be sometimes.

The road, which parallels the trail for a time, begins to drop away into the valley as you start to climb. You will likely cross a glacier6few snow fields as you ascend up the mountain pass. As you crest the final ridge of the climb, you are greeted with a magnificent view of snow covered mountains rolling away into the distance. It’s all downhill from here, or mostly anyway. There is even a chalet up in the mountains that you can stay at with a reservation. The chalet is perched on a hill side overlooking the valley and surrounding mountains and also marks the descent point.

There is a short side trail that takes you up higher for an even more panoramic view if your legs will permit. If you have trekking poles, now is the time for them. The drastic descent can be brutal on bad knees so plan accordingly. You can rent trekking poles in Apgar village. Before long, the trail will level out and dump you back on the Going-To-The-Sun Road at “The Loop”. This marks the end of your hike. There is a free shuttle service that will happily ferry you back to Logan Pass, however, it may take a half hour for a bus to come by with enough room for your party. As you settle into your seat and pull out of the Logan Pass parking lot, you get to watch and laugh as people fight for your now vacant space. Due to traffic, the drive down is markedly slower than the drive up but the view is no worse for the wear. The mountains, which were enshrouded in morning shadow, are now aglow with late afternoon sunshine. Also, there is beer in Apgar.

 

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