Epic Weekend Road Trip Itinerary from Washington DC: Exploring Dolly Sods, West Virginia
Updated: Sep 6
All of West Virginia is an outdoor lovers’ dream, but there's something about the Eastern part of the state that calls me back over and over. From the vast, untamed nature in Monongaleha and George Washington National Forests, to the beautiful overlooks in Blackwater Falls State Park, there are endless adventure opportunities for everyone. I've visited in every season, but I especially love it as a summer road trip when it's warm enough to jump in the many rivers and streams! A fall trip to the Dolly Sods is hard to beat though too. The foliage rivals New England for sure. Then again, the West Virginia mountains covered in snow and frozen waterfalls are a sight to see too! I guess you can say Dolly Sods, WV is a great road trip destination year-round.
The unique and rugged landscapes really make you feel like you’re in another country when in reality, you’re within 3 hours of Northern Virginia and DC. A big highlight of Eastern West Virginia is the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. With 47 miles of secluded hiking trails, untamed wilderness, hidden gems, and big views, it’s a real treat to explore! A high-altitude plateau, Dolly Sods is located in the Allegheny Mountains, part of the Monongahela National Forest. It is actually the highest plateau east of the Mississippi River! That isn't all that makes the Sods unique, though. Dolly Sods Wilderness is also known for its remarkable variation in ecosystems and plant life that is reminiscent to what grows in eastern Canada.
You could easily spend a week near Dolly Sods, WV and still not explore everything, but these are my top recommendations to help you plan an epic weekend trip full of outdoor adventures! I'll cover the best places to hike, explore, eat, drink, and sleep near the Dolly Sods area!
WHERE TO HIKE & EXPLORE ON YOUR DOLLY SODS ROAD TRIP:
Hiking Inside Dolly Sods Wilderness
Let me start by saying that Dolly Sods Wilderness trail system can be a bit "complex" for a few reasons. If you look at a trail map, there aren't actually many entry points- making it difficult to access a particular trail without first hiking several miles. If you do some googling or all trails searching, you'll find that there are several longer backpacking loops where you can hit a good portion of the trails. The Dolly Sods North Loop (~11 miles) comes highly recommended for the best views, and was our original plan until we realized we'd hit about 15 miles total with our planned detours.
There are several hikes in the 10-15 mile range, which is a reasonable day hike if you have the time and stamina (we did not). The difficulty of the Sods really isn't in elevation gain, but rocky and muddy trails that can be difficult to navigate at times. For those looking to backpack, there are several dispersed campsites off the trails to accommodate you. There's also Red Creek Campground, just a few miles from Bear Rocks Preserve, that connects to the Blackbird Knob trail- a common access point. This is on the Eastern side of the Sods (Northern section). You can hike in about 2.5 miles on the Blackbird Knob trail before reaching other connecting trails like Red Creek (highly recommend). There are also a few entrance points farther south on the Eastern side. My best suggestion would be to determine which trails are of most interest to you, and then map out the best route for hitting them. If you're trying to do day hikes, just beware that because the Sods are largely untouched, there's really only one major road, and it can take upwards of an hour to get from one side to the other. In lieu of summarizing other people's expert opinions, here are two great resources I used to help plan our hikes.
SO, where did I actually hike, you ask? I've barely scratched the surface of Dolly Sods Wilderness myself. I can tell you that the areas I've seen are amazing, and I definitely want to explore the whole place!
Hiking Blackbird Knob to Red Creek Trail
We were going to do the North Loop with a short detour down Red Creek Trail and the addition of Rocky Ridge Trail. That kind of went out the window, and we ended up taking the Blackbird Knob trail to the Red Creek Trail, where we hiked down to a secret, walk-behind waterfall. Then, we returned the way we came, for a total of about 9 miles. The Blackbird Knob Trail is beautiful and largely forested for the first 3 miles or so. I feel it's important to note that Blackbird Knob is NOT an actual summit. It's just a point in the woods, so don't go looking for it like we did. Red Creek trail runs quite a ways and is FULL of waterfalls- named and unnamed. DO go chasing waterfalls here.
Bear Rocks Preserve
Bear Rocks Preserve is actually adjacent to Dolly Sods Wilderness and is one of the most photographed places in the state of WV (for good reason)! It makes up part of the Eastern Continental Divide. The preserve is managed by The Nature Conservancy, and is the 600th National Natural Landmark in the United States. It is easily the best place in WV to catch a sunrise, and is equally as beautiful at sunset too. This isn't really a "hike," but more of a "jaunt" from the parking lot to a big rocky outcropping. You'll find "the rock" rather quickly, but you are able to wander along the rocks to find a spot all your own.
Best Hiking Near Dolly Sods, WV
North Fork Mountain trail to Chimney Top
There are so many great options, but my all-time favorite hike near Dolly Sods is Chimney Top via North Fork Mountain Trail. This 5.3 mile out and back hike near Cabins, WV is a leg burner (gaining 2,000+ feet of elevation in 2.5 miles), but has some of the most spectacular views in the Mid-Atlantic. The exposed cliffs and ridge line views really make it unique, plus there's a 360 degree view at the top! Make sure you climb up the rocks at the summit to get a good view of the chimney! There's also a great viewpoint as soon as you reach the ridge line.
Seneca Rocks Trail
If I had to choose a second favorite, it would be Seneca Rocks! Think Angels Landing, but without the chains (and without Walter's wiggles). The hike up to the top of Seneca Rocks isn't all that difficult (about 1.5 miles and 850 ft elevation gain), but climbing out onto the rocks is a rush like no other. You can walk out a ways before it gets very narrow (and dicey), where I wouldn't recommend going any farther. The best views are from out on the rocks, but there is an observation platform just before them if you aren't much of a thrill-seeker. From out on the rocks, you can sometimes see people climbing, which is way cool. If you'd rather not hike, the view of Seneca Rocks from the Discovery Center is still worth the visit!
Chase Waterfalls at Blackwater Falls State Park
Just West of Dolly Sods in Davis, West Virginia, a waterfall paradise awaits you at Blackwater Falls State Park. One of the things I love about this park is how accessible it is for all ability levels. Many of the main attractions like the 57-foot Blackwater Falls and Pendleton Point require just a short walk to reach. Blackwater Falls has a main overlook as well as a handicap accessible overlook. Both are beautiful and wprth seeing! There are also plenty of opportunity to make your own adventure exploring several of the waterfalls and viewpoints the park has to offer. I would definitely recommend (at the very least) Elakala and Douglas Falls (both of which can be accessed via a short hike). Some other great points of interest are Lindy Point and Balanced Rock. Lindy point is very short hike (less than 1 mile out and back) and is a must-do for sunset. Blackwater Falls State Park has great lodging too if you're able to stay a while!
Hot Tip: Download WV Tourism's mobile passport to check in to the waterfalls on their brand new WV Waterfall Trail and win prizes!
Visit Douglas Falls
Just outside Blackwater Falls State Park near Davis, WV is the beautiful Douglas Falls. It's a very quick hike if you have a 4x4 vehicle to make it down the rough dirt road. Just keep in mind the trail down to the base of the falls is steep and can get very slick. Keep going down the trail to see Kennedy Falls. You'll also find Albert Falls right alongside the road (just before Douglas).
Whether you opt for a much longer hike or drive most of the way and take the short trail to the top, Spruce Knob is a must-visit. It is the highest peak in the state of WV at 4,863 feet above sea level. Climb up the observation tower for some incredible views!
More Recommendations For Your Road Trip:
Canaan Valley State Park
Canaan Valley Resort State Park has some fantastic hiking trails, in addition to a scenic chair lift ride. Depending on when you visit, you can see incredible fall foliage, or hit up the ski slopes! The lodge is also a great place to stay, as it is pretty central to many of these locations and provides easy access to the towns of Davis and Thomas.
Just 10 miles from Seneca Rocks and 8 miles south of Petersburg, WV, Smokehole Caverns lies right along the North Fork. You can tour the incredible underground formations or try your hand at gemstone mining! Smokehole Caverns is open for tours year-round, and also offers lodging at Smokehole Cabins. I have not personally been yet, but I've heard great things!
WHERE TO STAY NEAR DOLLY SODS WILDERNESS:
There are plenty of opportunities to backpack and camp here if you like to be off the grid. If you like being "off the grid" with a hot shower and a cozy bed, you came to the right place. I was hosted by two incredible (yet different) properties in this area, and I'd highly recommend them both as a home base for exploring. You decide which one suits you best!
Dolly Sods Cabin (Davis, WV)
The best way to describe the newly built Dolly Sods Cabin is modern luxury tucked away in the mountains. You don’t have to sacrifice luxury or comfort to stay among the wild. Every last detail is perfect from the cabin amenities to the prime location! This gorgeous cabin is located right inside of Dolly Sods Wilderness in a private gated area. It's just 2 miles from Bear Rocks Preserve, 5 miles from Blackbird Knob Trail, and close to several other amazing hikes like Chimney Top, Seneca Rocks, and Blackwater Falls.
-Sleeps 4 with two queen beds (1 bedroom and 1 spacious loft)
-1 luxurious bathroom with a beautiful bathtub/shower
-Outdoor deck and Finnish sauna for relaxing
-Very private and secluded amongst nature
-Easy access to hiking trails
-Enables with SMART technology (including heat and AC!)
-Pet friendly (for a small extra fee)
Harman's Luxury Log Cabins (Cabins, WV)
If I had to sum up Harman's in one word, it would be "adventure." When the owner, Todd, gave us an hour-long tour of the property, I just knew we were in one of the most unique and special places in West Virginia. With now 21 luxury cabins along the North Fork of the South Branch River, Harman's has been offering guests once in a lifetime experiences for more than 80 years. While the property and the cabins have changed dramatically (even going through a major flood) over those 80 years, the high quality of service has remained unchanged. Harman's expansive property offers endless opportunity to connect with nature- from relaxing spaces along the river to enjoy your coffee to amazing hiking adventures on or off property. One of my favorite aspects of Harman's is the opportunity to hike on private trails that are for guests only. Plus, the National Forest is only steps away. We loved hiking out to an incredible swimming hole and jump rock, as well as floating in the river just steps from our cabin. There's also world-class trout fishing here that people travel from all over to experience!
WHERE TO EAT/DRINK NEAR DOLLY SODS, WV
When you're out in the wild like this, there aren't necessarily a wealth of food options (or so you'd think anyway), however, there are some great mountain towns (like Petersburg and Davis) that might surprise you with both their high quality Appalachian cuisine and hospitality.
If you're looking for mostly drinks, I recommend trying:
-Swilled Dog (Upper Tract)- featuring hard cider.
-Stumptown Brewing (Davis)- featuring local craft beer, especially IPAs and stouts.
-Mountain State Brewing (Thomas)- also featuring a veriety of local craft beer.
*Tip: There are plenty of distilleries around as well!
For food and drinks, check out:
-Bambino's Pizzeria (Petersburg)- Great pizza to take out and enjoy at your cabin!
-Cheetah B’s (Petersburg)- excellent food (the quesadillas are fire), drinks, and incredible service.
-Family Traditions (Petersburg)- a very local diner with delicious homemade food. I highly recommend breakfast where the pancakes are the size of your face and will definitely keep you full for quite a while!
-Hellbender Burrito (Davis)- The burritos are the size of your head and SO good!
-Milo's Cafe (Davis)- Another great breakfast option with delicious avocado toast.
-Riverfront Wood Fired Pizza (Thomas)- Do I need to say more? The pizza here is fire for sure! If you've hiked all day, definitely get your own pie!
-Sirianni’s Cafe (Davis)- delicious Italian food (pizza is modeled after Pizzeria Regina in Boston!) and plenty of drink options.
-Wicked Wilderness Pub (Davis)- Great beers on tap and you can't go wrong with anything you order. If they still have the crab bombs, those are absolutely delicious. Their cheesecake is phenomenal too!
Important things to Know When Visiting the Dolly Sods
I've mentioned this already, but I'll say it again: be prepared with offline navigation for traveling and hiking in these areas. You won't have much service, and in places like Dolly Sods, you'll likely be on bumpy dirt roads. Dolly Sods in particular can be tricky to navigate, as it is very rugged and relatively untamed. Do your research in advance, and make sure you're prepared. I strongly suggest having the 10 hiking essentials with you. They include a good navigation system!
Finally, please make sure you help do your part to protect and preserve these natural areas for generations to come by practicing Leave No Trace. You can learn more about it at LNT.org.