Monday, November 5, 2012

Winter in Dolly Sods

Dolly Sods Wilderness is an amazing place.  The higher portions of the wilderness are over 4,000 feet in elevation, which doesn't sound like much, especially to anyone who has spent time in the western U.S., but it has more in common with the White Mountains in many ways, than with the rest of the Mid-Atlantic.  The lack of elevation surrounding the plateau that makes up the wilderness makes the weather up there a force to be reckoned with.  It is windy in Dolly Sods in the best of weather, particularly on the ridges in the northern section.  In July, I described temperatures 25 degrees lower than in a town 10 miles away.  I have needed my down jacket in the middle of summer.

Winter, however, is a completely different ballgame. The weather can be completely different up there than it is in a town just a few miles away and it can change in the blink of an eye. Traveling in Dolly Sods this time of year is not to be taken lightly.  The wilderness gets slammed by every nasty weather system coming from the Great Lakes or moving up the coast, including one nor'easter hopped up on hurricane steroids. More than thirty inches of snow fell last week at White Grass, which sits in the valley below Dolly Sods to the west.

But as we discovered yesterday, winter can also be enchantingly beautiful.  A group of us had talked about a snowshoeing expedition into Dolly Sods for a couple of years and it just hadn't happened.  Finally, yesterday morning, everything worked out and we set out on snowshoes with Horizontal Tread, climbing a ski run towards the wilderness boundary.  The climb was a little easier than we expected and after 45 minutes, we were there.  We turned north, roughly following the Rocky Ridge trail, weaving our way in and out of snow-covered trees until we broke out onto the open highlands that Dolly Sods is famous for.  It was spectacular:  a frozen arctic plain under a brilliant, striking blue sky.  When we stopped, we could hear the hoar frost crackling on the trees.  After a break for lunch, we headed for the edge of the plateau, where we got a great view and got to experience some good, frigid Dolly Sods wind.  From there, we just followed the edge of the plateau north with no real destination in mind, until it was finally time to head back.

The return trip was mostly downhill, so, even though I didn't want to leave, we made much better time than on the way out.  In five hours of hiking, taking pictures, looking at the different snow formations, and generally meandering, I would estimate that we traveled around five miles.  Maybe.  The weather was as nice as we could have asked for:  high 30s, brilliantly sunny, and only mildly windy.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
The plateau that is Dolly Sods North.  This is looking east into the wilderness area.  I must have taken 20 pictures at this spot on the way in and on the way back out.  It was one of the most beautiful places on the hike.
 The sign near the wilderness boundary.
 Big Stonecoal Run.
 Michael brought his pulk sled along to test it in steeper terrain.
 Michael (L) and Horizontal Tread with hot mugs of hot chocolate.
 Heating up water for hot chocolate.
Headed up to the western edge of the wilderness area.
 Hoar frost.
 Massive hoar frost on a small, wind-beaten tree.  The frost is four or five inches across.
Animal (possibly bobcat) tracks in the snow.
 Looking west off of the edge of the plateau.  The wind blows hard enough that it had scoured the snow off of the rocks at the very edge.
 Interesting wrinkle patterns in the snow.
When we were on our way back, we came around a corner and the snow had a brilliant shine on its surface, probably from melting and re-freezing.
Snowshoe boot shot.


  1. there is no place on earth like Dolly Sods, its truely Almost Heaven, the most beautiful place on earth.