On March 30, 2009 the United States gained more than two million acres of new wilderness. No, it wasn’t through the quiet annexation of Canadian territory - it was through legislation that set aside the federally-owned land as “designated wilderness.” Of all those acres, the first 37,000 were in my home state of West Virginia, and I decided to celebrate the occasion by visiting each of the new wilderness tracts in the state. The second trip of my endeavor was a forty-mile, two-and-a-half-day circuit through the Dolly Sods North and Roaring Plains West wilderness areas in the Monongahela National Forest. The experience left me with very wet feet, but also with cautious optimism about the future of my wild home.
A large circuit through the wilderness areas, a total of forty miles. Roughly fifteen miles each of the first two days and just over ten on the final morning. Map by Jordan Klemick.
The law that created the new wilderness was the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. Aside from creating or expanding wilderness areas in nine states, it also gave protection to over 1,000 miles of “wild and scenic” rivers, established new conservation areas and scenic trails, and made permanent the National Landscape Conservation System, which incorporates into one plan myriad land protection designations in the American West. It represented the integration of 160 smaller bills and was the most significant legislation of its kind in years.
One of several water falls cascading down the Sods' rocky slopes.
It is ironic that such good news for some of the country’s most wild and pristine land came from an in-filled, over-developed former swamp on the Maryland-Virginia border, but it passed by wide margins in both the U.S. House and Senate. It was the result of years of hard work by wilderness advocacy groups and lawmakers friendly to the cause. After codifying the bill into law with his pen, President Obama captured its importance in an Oval Office address:
“It is fitting that we meet on a day like this. Winter’s hardships are slowly giving way to spring, and our thoughts naturally tend to turn to the outdoors. We emerge from the shelter offered by home and work, and we look around and we're reminded that the most valuable things in this life are those things that we already possess.
As Americans, we possess few blessings greater than the vast and varied landscapes that stretch the breadth of our continent. Our lands have always provided great bounty -- food and shelter for the first Americans, for settlers and pioneers; the raw materials that grew our industry; the energy that powers our economy.
What these gifts require in return is our wise and responsible stewardship. As our greatest conservationist President, Teddy Roosevelt, put it almost a century ago, ‘I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.'
That's the spirit behind the bipartisan legislation I'm signing today -- legislation among the most important in decades to protect, preserve, and pass down our nation’s most treasured landscapes to future generations.”
A colorful moss-covered maple.
A wilderness designation is the greatest level of protection that public land can receive and still be accessible to backcountry hikers and backpackers. It came into being in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and was poetically described by the Act as a place that
“[In] contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is… an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is… an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which… generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable [and] has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…”
It may not be surprising that the bill was co-authored by Wilderness Society advocate Howard Zahniser. It doesn’t match the writing of Meriwether Lewis, John Muir, or Edward Abby, but it’s not bad for a piece of legislation. It still describes the kind of places that are surely worth visiting.
For their part, the federal agencies that manage designated wilderness areas have interpreted the definition to generally mean no roads, no motorized vehicles or bicycles, no permanent shelters, and only minimal, if any, trail markings. Management practices generally shun convenience and comfort. The minimal exceptions that are allowed are made in the name of resource preservation and not ease of use. When read, such guidelines sound almost hostile towards the visitor, and to some degree that’s exactly what they are. Wilderness is not land under human dominion… it is where one is merely a “visitor who does not remain.”
Boulder fields and flagged red spruce for which the northern Sods are known.
Aside from its strict management guidelines, what makes wilderness designation so important is that it is statutory. There are other federal lands that are governed by a similarly strict regulatory guideline, known as Management Prescription 6.2. The management of these areas, however, is subject to regulatory whim, and recent years have shown what vastly different approaches successive administrations can take towards undisturbed land. Designated wilderness can only be changed by an act of Congress, and until there is a constitutional amendment safeguarding our “great blessing,” the protection is as permanent as it gets.
Unfortunately for West Virginia and the rest of the eastern United States, the National Forest Service initially found no land east of the Mississippi River that it felt primitive enough to be designated as wilderness under the original act. There was scarcely an acre in the East that had been left entirely undisturbed by logging, roads, or some other kind of development. Fortunately, Congress recognized both the need for such protection in the East, as well as the “wildness” of even second or third (or fourth) growth forests and passed the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act of 1975.
The lion’s share of federally protected land in West Virginia is part of the Monongahela National Forest. The MNF consists of over 900,000 acres and is well known for its hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and white water rafting. Before 2009, the MNF had about 78,000 acres of designated wilderness in the Cranberry, Dolly Sods, Laurel Fork, and Otter Creek wilderness areas. The Big Draft, Roaring Plains West, and Spice Run areas are now added to that list, as are large extensions to the Cranberry and Dolly Sods wilderness areas. I planned to visit each over the summer.
Clean, clear water from a mountain spring.
Unfortunately, there were also eleven other proposed wilderness areas, including the North and East portions of the Roaring Plains, that didn’t make it into the final bill. These areas will likely continue to be managed under the 6.2 “backcountry recreation” management prescription for the near future. It’s the approximately 88,000 acres under this management that stand the best chance of later becoming designated wilderness. Before this year, new wilderness hadn’t been added to the state since 1983, and hopefully it won’t be another twenty-five years before more of these lands are permanently protected.
There is perhaps no place that better exemplifies both the kind of abuse that our eastern forests have borne as well as their great potential for recovery. Dolly Sods gained its name from the Dahle family that once pastured their animals there, but it was at one time entirely covered with large red spruce and balsam fir. The land suffered fires, clear-cutting, and the incursion of railroad tracks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During World War II, the Sods were used for artillery practice by the Army, and live mortars have been found there as recently as 1997. Nothing says “wilderness” like a chance to really put that bomb proof gear to the test.
Relic of the Sods’ former life. At least it appears to be from the old rails and not from the explosives that once called this place home.
Despite their misuse, the Sods are now one of the most popular wilderness areas in the East. The spruce are gradually making their way back to the northern Sods, which are dominated by spagham bog and blueberry heath. It’s actually this new growth, combined with the elevation of the Sods’ high plateau, that make it unique to the region. The Sods are frequently compared to Canadian muskeg, and experience severe weather because of both their elevation and position on the Allegheny Front, a ridge that disturbs weather patterns and constitutes the Eastern Continental Divide in the region.
With the new expansion, Dolly Sods has 17,371 acres of wilderness, a substantial increase from its original acreage of 10,215. While it is surrounded by National Forest land to the east, west, and south, these lands have been put to other uses, and it has likely reached the extent of its expansion.
Crossing into the Dolly Sods Expansion.
To the immediate south of Dolly Sods and across the Red River Valley are the Roaring Plains. They are slightly higher than the Sods, reaching as much as 4,700 feet, and are wrapped to the east and south by the Allegheny Front. With over 3,000 feet of relief above parts of the surrounding valleys, the Plains are known for their beautiful views and nearly constant winds.
Overlooking the Red Creek Valley with Breathed Mountain overlook on the right.
The Plains have their own mixed forest, but have more coverage than do much of the Sods. They are also rockier, with boulder fields that ride along the area’s ridge. They have received less formal protection than the Sods have, but have also received less attention, so it’s easier to find solitude.
Only the 6,792 western acres of the Plains have been designated as wilderness, but the recognition of this initial section is an important first step towards the preservation of the surrounding area. The 8,346 acres of the east and north Plains will likely continue to be managed under the 6.2 prescription. With continued advocacy and appropriate management, the Plains may some day see a wilderness expansion like that of Sods.
Given the chance to visit both the Sods and the Plains in one trip, and on a weekday for even more solitude, I was more excited to make this trip than any other wilderness area I would visit. I planned for a more relaxed pace than I normally schedule, leaving plenty of time for exploring.
Four hours and only a few missed turns after leaving my Pittsburgh apartment, I arrived at the Red Creek trailhead near Laneville, West Virginia. The weather forecast for my trip had recently gone from three days of sun to three days of likely rain and thunderstorms, so I flicked on my weather radio expecting the even, robotic narration of the National Weather Service. I found only static on all seven channels. I would later realize that I was on the outskirts of the National Radio Quiet Zone, created for the benefit of the nearby Greenbank Radio Observatory. At the time, it gave me the satisfaction of feeling more remote, if less certain about the weather.
I changed into my hiking duds, locked my car, and exchanged small talk with a photographer heading out for a day hike. With that, I started into the original Dolly Sods Wilderness. I was eager to start my route and walked quickly through the mixed forest. I made an unavoidably wet crossing of Red Creek and encountered the first of three modes the wilderness trails would take: rock. In some parts the trail became so rocky and steep that it felt like little more than an overgrown talus field from some long extinct mount. It was hard on the feet, but made for some nice waterfalls on a parallel stream.
As I headed north to higher elevation, the dense hardwoods became sparser, and the forest that was there became increasingly dominated by spruce, pine, and fir. Trail conditions also changed, and I met the trail's second phase: water. My shoes had started to dry since my earlier crossing, but they were again soaked and would remain that way for the next two days. Streams that had rushed through the valley and trickled beside the trail on the climb now meandered across and sometimes down the path.
I also walked up and into the fog that had been hanging overhead that morning. As I hiked across the boundary of the existing wilderness and into the new expansion, an area known as Dolly Sods North, the clearing around the trail widened and mist started to float by under a light breeze. It obscured views that would have been to the west, but gave the area a quiet, ethereal feel. The strange atmosphere heightened the sense that I was walking into a foreign place. As beautiful as the main wilderness had been, it was this terrain that was most remarkable for the region, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Continuing on, I came across large boulder fields of the area’s white sandstone. I must have spent over an hour off trail, scrambling among the rocks. Moist lichen made them slick, and I was lucky I could I carry my light pack with me as my route in certainly wasn’t going to be my route out. For my trouble, I was rewarded with more fog, but also a good view of the rocks and flagged red spruce that rose between the outcroppings.
A trail that looks deceivingly dry, though just bog and cursing lay ahead.
As I hiked on, the winds picked up and I took shelter behind a rock shelf for a quick lunch, donning my rain jacket to break the chill. Heading east and then south, I came across the final and worst trail condition: bog. The nastiest was on an old railroad grade, and unlike the ground that just had standing water, some areas of bog looked deceivingly solid. No sooner would you plant your foot than you would be in real danger of losing a shoe!
By this time it was getting late, and I was lucky to find some solid ground and an established campsite to occupy for the evening. I set up camp, made dinner, and hauled my odorants up over a branch. That night, the damp soup I had been walking through would pour down all around me, and I was glad to have a full coverage shelter.
Bundled up against the strong westerly wind.
The morning was overcast, but with good visibility after losing its veil of the previous day. As I ate my breakfast I contemplated a large aluminum pot that sat discarded next to the fire ring. It was huge, probably between two and three gallons in capacity, and had a hole in its bottom. It was smack dab in the middle of the wilderness, miles from the nearest road. I had picked up some small bits of junk I found at the site, but was perplexed by what had led to the abandonment of this monstrosity. Either a seriously heavy, solo hiker had left his bathtub after it sprung a leak, or a whole group had made the collective decision that they couldn’t be bothered to take it back out. Either way, I discovered one more benefit of a light load - it leaves plenty of carrying capacity to pack out even the most obscene garbage.
Packing out Paul Bunyan’s discarded mug in improved visibility.
As I crossed back into the main wilderness the sun made its first appearance, and I took the opportunity to dry out and eat lunch. The trails had turned back into stone, and I was treated to some gorgeous vistas of the Red Creek Valley. I hiked down and across the creek twice more, welcomed by basking river snakes. The trail here, as elsewhere in the old wilderness, was marked by nothing more than cairns, which hid among the rocks of the river’s shores. After finding my way across and up a steep climb, I came to some fresh springs with water that, thankfully, didn’t bear the slight spagham aftertaste of that in the north Sods.
Hoping to make it into the heart of the Roaring Plains by that night, I hiked quickly to the southern border of the Sods. I was lucky to find a trashcan at the trailhead, and bid farewell to my aluminum stow-away. I walked a short distance of forest road and entered Roaring Plains East. This was one of the proposed wilderness areas that hadn’t made the final cut.
As I walked on, I saw some of the reason why. There had been a few bridges in the north Sods, evidence of its long life before designation, but the beginning of this trail was practically a boardwalk. It surely kept day hikers’ feet dry, but was out of place. Moving past the tracts of planking, the trail eventually turned back into the familiar rock and water. I made a ballet of hopping from island to island, for entertainment value more than anything else. My feet were still soaked.
Navigating thick brush and a narrow trail.
The altitude here was higher than that of the north Sods, but it had kept more of its tree cover, which was primarily coniferous. The first part of the trail followed a wide ridge with the Allegheny Front to the east and a valley of the inner Plains to the west. As the trail turned east, I had to decide between going off trail to stay on the ridge or sticking to the beaten path. Given the lowering sun, the dense brush of the cross-country option, and the fact that it was my first time in the area, I decided to see what the marked trails had to offer. If there’s one thing I will change for my next trip, it will be to stick to the ridge to catch more of its dramatic views.
Just into the Roaring Plains West Wilderness. Established campsites feel too civilized, but protect larger sections of forest when an area sees high use.
Heading east, I dropped into heavy rhododendron thickets. Giving rise to the state’s flower, the plant was common on the route, but not in such abundance. I pictured what the trail would look like later in the summer, covered in a blanket of large pink blossoms. Turning onto another section of forest road, I imagined what it would look like if it were allowed to fall into disuse, with green sprouts erupting through its tracks.
I crossed over the utility road that followed a buried natural gas pipeline and signaled my entry into the section that had been newly designated - Roaring Plains West Wilderness. After only a few hundred feet, I made camp for the last night of the trek, falling asleep to the white noise of a rushing nearby stream.
I woke with the sunrise and ate my oatmeal as I started to hike. It was my last day, and I figured I could get back to my car by noon. I was once again on flat, more open terrain, but the surrounding bushes were more substantial than they had been in the north Sods. Contrary to their name, the Roaring Plains were also calmer this morning than the Sods had been two days earlier.
Fast food on the second and final morning.
The marked trail kept me further from the ridge than I would have liked, and I hurried to a section that would take me closer to the view. Among a tall stand of pines I finally saw an overlook and realized what I had been missing. The sky was overcast, but the coverage also provided the contrast for a thick field of sunshine to illuminate a valley two ridges over. Looking south, much of the thickly forested land of the closest valley and ridge was still within the new wilderness and would likely remain unchanged well into the future.
A view from the Plains’ famous ridge. Overcast, but with a ray of sun.
After enjoying the view for a while, I headed north and down, down, down into forest similar to that of the lower Sods and much of the rest of the state. The brush here became sharp, and I rolled down my trekking pant legs to save my skin. There was more rushing water, but by now my thoughts drifted away, split between reflections on the trip and anticipation of returning home.
As the trail flattened out, it became apparent that I was now leaving the wilderness to walk a thin right-of-way slicing through private land. The barbed wire that flanked the trail’s right side reminded me of what happens to private land and how lucky I was to have spent so long hedged by nothing but the terrain. The final trailhead I came to was marked with only a small sign, and I walked awkwardly onto the public road - my head still in the woods. The sun was shining, and I made the two-mile jaunt back to my car.
At first glance, there may be little difference between “designated wilderness” and other wild backcountry. Neither the Sods nor the Plains gained a single new tree or mountain spring the moment Congress finally recognized and designated them as wilderness. There are surely other, more remote places in this country where man has had less impact than on those areas I visited. The real difference that I noticed on this hike was a psychic one. On too many trails I’ve felt a faint melancholy when I consider the future of the land I walk over. I frequently come across signs for available acreage, or worse… soon to be available condos. When walking in these new wilderness areas, as troubled as their past has been, I get a feeling of cautious optimism. In all likelihood, these areas will actually get better with time. I imagine my great-great grandchildren being able to return to the north Sods, and walk all day shaded by red spruce too large for them to wrap their arms around.
Private land adjacent to the end of the trail - a bit prickly, but still a lovely view.
- The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009
- The Wilderness Act of 1964
- The Wilderness Society
- WV Wilderness Coalition
- NFS Monongahela National Forest 2006 Management Plan
- Dolly Sods: WVU Extension Service Backgrounder
- David S. Johnston (Dolly Sods & Roaring Plains)
- Mary Ann Honcharik (Dolly Sods)
- Jonathan Jessup (Dolly Sods & Roaring Plains)
About the Author
Devin grew up and went to college in Morgantown, West Virginia. He now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his wife Leslie, where he attends the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Katz School of Business. The trip that brought him back to the outdoors after a brief hiatus was a 128-mile row down the length of the Monongahela River, racing coal barges and dodging lock spillways.