The Nature Conservancy’s Bear Rocks Preserve is remote, rugged, high-elevation West Virginia mountain land with an often-severe and quick-changing boreal climate. It’s atop the Allegheny Front, the predominant ridge of the Appalachians and the “eastern” continental divide. This ridge has a rim of sandstone cliffs and giant rock outcropping with a 2,000- to 3,000-foot drop below to hills and valleys. To the east, there are breathtaking 30-mile views where seven mountain ridges are visible on a clear day. Along the rim are stunted red spruce trees with flag-formed limbs pointing to the east as a result of the almost-constant and often high-velocity winds.
Large, striking and uniquely shaped white sandstone and quartz rocks are found throughout the Bear Rocks Preserve area. These wind- and rain-sculpted boulders rise up out of the heath barrens and tundra-like areas. In addition to the sculpted boulders are “rock streams” that formed during glacial periods and can be hundreds of feet long. Large areas of heath barrens and peat bogs, more typical of Canada, are scattered along the west side of the Allegheny Front.
The preserve is located at the north end of Dolly Sods Wilderness off Forest Road 75, a gravel road with some potholes and rocks that must be avoided. At the north end of Road 75, there’s a parking lot for about 30 vehicles; trails into the preserve are north of the parking lot. This area is about 40 minutes south of Davis, West Virginia, which can be accessed best via U.S. Route 48. Excellent overnight accommodations are available at Canaan Valley State Park and Blackwater Falls State Park, which are also outstanding photo locations.
Weather At Bear Rocks Preserve
Bear Rocks Preserve is known for its frequently severe, ever-changing climate. Strong prevailing winds bring clouds from the west and, while rising to clear the Allegheny Front, are cooled, causing mist and rain totaling over 60 inches a year. Afternoon thunderstorms are frequent. In the warmer months, high winds and temperatures in the high 40s and the low 50s at daybreak on the Allegheny Front can drop the wind chill to near freezing, requiring winter clothing. By the same afternoon, one can adequately dress in a shirt. The first snow typically occurs in late September or October.
For over a half mile along Allegheny Front at Bear Rocks, there are giant rock outcroppings punctuated by flagged red spruce trees, providing the opportunity for hundreds of compelling compositions using these foreground elements. Looking east, the valleys, hills and distant mountain ridges provide interesting middle and background elements. This is one of the best sunrise locations in the east. The high elevation combined with cool morning temperatures often provide fog and cloud formations where the play of light can be dramatic.
Hiking west of the Allegheny Front, there’s a vast expanse of heather punctuated with boulders and trails created by blueberry pickers. Beyond that are the headwaters of the red creek, which is a huge peat and cranberry bog with large patches of cotton grass. Then, moving further west is a grassy bald containing a few red spruce trees and stunted windswept easterly leaning deciduous trees. Hiking south into the Dolly Sods Wilderness, one can travel through three climate zones in a day.
This is truly a wilderness presenting a great variety of topography and habitat with very distinctive features waiting to be photographed. For the outdoor photographer, it’s an inspirational experience.
Best Times To Visit Bear Rocks Preserve
Spring provides many great photo opportunities with large expanses of azaleas in early June and Mount Laurel in late June, followed by rhododendron in early July. In late August, summer wildflowers appear in the wetlands and bogs that are found throughout the area. Fall is the most popular time because of the blueberry plants whose leaves turned deep red in early October, as depicted in the photograph featured here. The road to this area is closed during winter months.
Contact: The Nature Conservancy, nature.org.
See more of Kent Mason’s photography at WVphotographs.com.