The West Virginia Wildflower Pilgrimage gives naturalists from across Appalachia and Dolly Sods an inside look at the Canaan Valley and surrounding wildlands.
The pilgrimage plays out over two days each spring with bird and wildflower experts leading dozens of excursions across the region — but even among the numerous trips, Bill Beatty’s Dolly Sods wilderness hike stands alone.
“Okay, let’s do this!” Beatty shouted to the 17 people along for his hike. “We’re gonna head down towards the bog and get our feet wet.”
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The trail runs along Alder Run Bog, through a red spruce forest, up and down rock fields, across a stand of 85-year-old red pine, and through expanses of rhododendron thickets and chokeberry meadows before cresting out on the Allegheny Front.
Beatty, a naturalist, writer and photographer, designed this route he calls the “Allegheny Vista Trail,” which became the first to win a “4” difficulty rating in the pilgrimage. A “4” means, “Extremely Difficult: Very rugged terrain, rocky trails. Must have sturdy hiking boots and be extremely fit. Must discuss with leaders.”
The Dolly Sods Wilderness hike remains the only one during the pilgrimage in which participants are required to come up and speak with the leader ahead of time. Beatty needs to know they’ll be able to complete the hike.
“You know, people would come up to me and say, ‘We walk in the mall three days a week, five miles,’” Beatty said. “And I used to let them go on. But now if someone says that, to me, I say, ‘This isn’t even close to what you experience in the mall.’”
That doesn’t dissuade experienced hikers like Margot Cavalier, who came down from Pittsburgh after first experiencing the wildflower pilgrimage in 2019. The 2020 pilgrimage was canceled due to the pandemic.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been hiking up by Dolly Sods, and I’m anxious to go with a bunch of people who know what they’re looking at,” Cavalier said. “I’m beginning to know what I’m looking at, but it’ll be great to go with some pros.”
Beatty was joined by Conley McMullen, a botany professor at James Madison University in western Virginia, and Martin Tingley, a U.S. Forest Service biologist who really knows his birds, mosses and lichens.
McMullen and Beatty quickly established a storytelling banter, in which McMullen inserted dry puns and quick-witted lines into Beatty’s trail stories. At one point, Beatty stopped to point out a flowering bluet, noting that the plant has 28 common names within West Virginia. One hiker asked for the perennial’s family.
“Rubiaceae,” said McMullen.
“Madder family,” Beatty added.
“It does matter,” rejoined McMullen to a rise of chuckles that gave way to laughter.
Beatty led the group across Dolly Sods, lecturing on the way about the ancient red spruce timbered by earlier generations and replaced in one area by red pine. While winding his way through dense thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel, Beatty noted the hike largely followed paths that were probably cut by hunters years ago.
After tromping across a bog and up through forests, the trail emerged into a summit covered with chokeberry. Even Beatty got turned around.
At the end, the group emerged on the Allegheny Front, gazing down at a valley below. That’s when one of the hikers noticed a rainbow down in the valley. It appeared faint at first, but became more vibrant as the sky changed. Members of the excursion hustled over to get a look before it disappeared, gasping in awe and whooping in delight.
The experience, and especially the unforgettable rainbow ending, left the hike’s participants worn out — but also exhilarated.
“That was phenomenal, wasn’t it?” said a delighted Cavalier. “That fog-bow at the end of it? I can’t believe it. It was just fantastic. I just turned 68 and it kind of makes me feel like you know what? While I can do this, I got to push myself.
“It’s wonderful to be out here. You just feel so alive, you know?”
This story is part of a recent episode of Inside Appalachia, a podcast from West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Find it wherever you get your podcasts.