Dolly Sods: A Top West Virginia Backpacking Destination

A backpacker in Dolly Sods, West Virginia.
A backpacker in Dolly Sods state park, West Virginia. Steph Liquori photos.

An Outdoor Adventurer’s Dream in Wild West Virginia

By Steph Liguori

cooking at Dolly Sods campsite
cooking at Dolly Sods campsite

Dolly Sods is an outdoor adventurer’s dream. The 17,000-acre wilderness boasts scenic mountain vistas, coniferous forests, floral meadows, and wildlife-rich bogs.

Dolly Sods: A Top West Virginia Backpacking Destination 1With an almost 50-mile trail system and mostly unrestricted conditions on tent-pitching and campsites, Dolly Sods is a popular backpacking destination. At Dolly Sods, adventurous souls can wander for the weekend (or longer) to escape the realities and stresses of civilization.

The History of Dolly Sods

In the 1800s, a German immigrant family with the surname of “Dahle” settled in what is now West Virginia. The Dahle family grazed their sheep in the “sods,” or mountaintop meadows and bogs, near their settlement.

Eventually, the Dahle family moved on, but other settlers in the area retained the name of the sod area as a mispronounced version of Dahle (“Dolly”)

Throughout the early 1900s, Dolly Sods was heavily used for logging. By 1915, Dolly Sods’ forest land was decimated, and the area was essentially ecologically destroyed.

View a Trail Map of Dolly Sods

In an effort to protect and restore Dolly Sods, the United States government purchased the area in 1916 and incorporated it into the Monongahela National Forest. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (a volunteer work relief group formed by Theodore Roosevelt during the Great Depression) completed reforestation projects in Dolly Sods.

By the early 1940s, World War II was underway. During this time, the United States military used Dolly Sods as a soldier training and vehicle maneuvering area. Leftover artillery and mortar shells used during this time are believed to still be present in the area and modern-day backpackers are warned of their potential presence.

After World War II, preservation and restoration efforts were the main focus in Dolly Sods. In the 1970s, The Nature Conservancy donated a large additional tract of natural land to the United States Forest Service to incorporate into the wilderness area.

Today, Dolly Sods is over 17,000-acres. It is still inside West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest and is managed by the United States Forest Service.

A deer next to a campsite in Dolly Sogs.
A deer next to a campsite in Dolly Sods.

Getting to Dolly Sods

The main roads leading into the Dolly Sods area of Monongahela National Forest include Jordan Run Road and the Appalachian Highway (WV-32).

There are eight trailheads for entering the interconnected trail system at Dolly Sods: one on the west side of the wilderness, two on the south end, and five on the east side. The trailheads do not have street addresses, but latitude and longitude coordinates are suitable for navigating to a backpacker’s preferred entrance, as specified below:


West Side
  • There is a trailhead located at 39.033261, -79.384744. It is one end of the Blackbird Knob Trail and the start of the Big Stone coal Mountain and Breathed Mountain Trails.

South End

  • There is a trailhead located at 38.972572, -79.398238. It is the start of the Red Creek Trail.
  • There is another trailhead located at 38.963101, -79.354188. It is the start of the Rohrbaugh Trail.

East Side

  • There is a trailhead located at 38.986799, -79.329568. It is the start of the Wildlife Trail.
  • There is another trailhead located at 39.006780, -79.327613. It is the start of the Fisher Spring Run Trail.
  • Another trailhead is located at 39.033650, -79.314300. It is the other end of the Blackbird Knob Trail.
  • Another trailhead is located at 39.053105, -79.309542. It is the start of the Beaver Dam Trail.
  • The northernmost trailhead is located at 39.063643, -79.303228. It is the start of the Bear Rocks Trail.

Trailheads at Dolly Sods

Once inside Monongahela National Forest, a system of Forest Roads, some of which are gravel and/or dirt, connect to these trailhead entrances. There are parking areas at each of the trailheads, but they fill up quickly and are often crowded.

It is important to note that cell phone service is not always available inside Monongahela National Forest, so it is necessary to have pre-downloaded or back-up maps for navigating the drive to Dolly Sods.

Bear Rocks Trailhead Dolly Sods West Virginia.
Bear Rocks Trailhead Dolly Sods West Virginia.

Backpacking in Dolly Sods

Dolly Sods has an almost 50-mile trail system that is interconnected. Backpackers can essentially plan their hikes in any which meandering way, and of any length of the distance they choose.

It is common for weekend backpackers to choose between completing a loop of the northern half of the wilderness or a loop of the southern half of the wilderness.

When deciding which loop (northern or southern) to hike, a hiker should consider these natural features and scenic spots on some of the popular trails:

Northern Loop

  • Bear Rocks Trail is a 2.4-mile rocky hike with wildflower meadows. It is also great for fall foliage viewing.
  • Blackbird Knob Trail is 4.7-miles long. It has a small waterfall, conifer forests, and vista views.
  • Dobbin Grade Trail is a 4.3-mile trail with boggy areas and scenic meadows.
  • Rocky Ridge Trail is a 3.0-mile hike with beautiful meadows and expansive views and overlooks.

Southern Loop

  • Big Stonecoal Trail is a 4.3-mile rocky hike with dense forests and small streams.
  • Red Creek Trail is 6.4-miles long. It has waterfalls and spots where stream crossings are necessary.
  • Breathed Mountain Trail is 2.5-miles long. It has streams and lush forests with ferns and moss.
  • Rohrbaugh Trail is a 3.6-mile hike with beautiful, expansive mountain views.

As for camping, there are specified campsites throughout Dolly Sods, however, backpackers can essentially pitch a tent anywhere in the wilderness (with the exception that it must be at least 300 feet from a vehicular Forest Road). Campfires and cooking are also allowed, but backpackers are cautioned to attend to the fires safely and completely put them out when done using them.

Backpacking Gear for Dolly Sods

Backpackers should come prepared for all aspects of wilderness hiking and camping. Dolly Sods is a boggy/wetland area in some spots, so hikers should expect to encounter mud and water, and possibly the need to cross a stream.

Some essential backpacking gear to consider bringing to Dolly Sods includes:

  • Sturdy, waterproof hiking shoes
  • Extra pairs of socks
  • Water and a water filtration system
  • Non-perishable trail snacks (such as granola, jerky, and/or protein bars)
  • Matches and/or a lighter for making a campfire
  • Camp cooking supplies and non-perishable food that is easy to cook (such as instant rice and/or pre-cooked sausage)
  • Tent and tent pitching supplies
  • Layered clothing that is appropriate for day-to-night changes in weather
  • Compressible sleeping pad and sleeping bag
  • Basic first aid kit (in case of scraps and/or stings)
  • Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat
  • Biodegradable toilet paper
  • Flashlight
  • Rain gear (if rain is in the forecast)
  • Camera (many backpackers like to snap pictures of the gorgeous nature views)

Backpackers should remember to leave nothing but their footprints in order to preserve the pristine nature and non-littered landscape of the wilderness.

A Top-Notch Backpacking Experience

Overall, a backpacking experience in Dolly Sods is well worthwhile. The scenic views are ever-changing and incredible, and the hikes are exciting and memorable. The meandering trail system can make a backpacker feel lost in the wilderness, without ever actually being lost. The hiking and camping experience connects backpackers to nature and reminds them to appreciate and love Mother Earth.

Dolly Sods is a welcome and peaceful escape from civilization and nourishment for an adventurous soul.

Dolly Sods: A Top West Virginia Backpacking Destination 2Steph Liguori is a freelance writer living near Washington, D.C. She is passionate about traveling and eating, and she writes about her experiences on diaryofatravelingeatie.com.