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Old 05-16-2017, 11:48 PM   #1
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Join Date: May 2007
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Dolly Sods Wilderness, WV, 5/5 - 5/7/17

Ever since being forced to flee for my life from dangerous flooding in the middle of the night 2 years ago, I’ve been dying to get back and more fully explore the Dolly Sods. On a recent weekend, I finally got the chance to return with my friend Sam for another 3 day traverse of the coves, bogs, barrens, and high-elevation sods of this area that for many is synonymous with central Appalachian backpacking.

We arrived at the Red Creek trailhead on FR 19 shortly before dusk, and the arrival of darkness found us stuffing the final few necessities into our packs and setting off on the old railroad grade into the Dolly Sods. At first, the trail was easy to follow. However, about 15 minutes from the trailhead, one arrives at the first cluster of campsites. With such a short hike in from the trailhead, it’s no surprise that these sites on Red Creek are heavily used, and the evidence of this use was readily apparent- the lack of firewood, the faint but unmistakable odor of human waste permeating the air, and the number of social trails that spread out throughout the forest. We ended up on such trail, a fisherman’s path that follows closely to the shore of Red Creek. We realized our mistake before long, and figured that the actual trail was likely to our right, but a dense tangle of rhododendron and mountain laurel prevented us from easily reaching it. We continued on the fisherman’s path, hoping that as it grew fainter and fainter it would lead us in the right direction… and when we eventually pushed through one final tangle of undergrowth, we were glad to find ourselves once again on the wide and well-traveled railroad grade.

(On our hike out 2 days later, we saw where we went astray. After making the very first stream crossing, the main trail makes an almost immediate sharp turn to the right while the path we continued on heads straight, towards the campsites. There was a low stone wall that someone had built to guide hikers in the right direction… we’d managed to step right over it in the darkness.)

We’d originally planned to cross Red Creek at the very first crossing, and follow the Little Stonecoal Run Trail up to a campsite somewhere near the headwaters of that creek. In our confusion in the darkness, however, we found that we’d walked right across the Little Stonecoal Run trail without realizing so, and had rejoined the Red Creek Trail upstream of that crossing. The next opportunity to cross Red Creek was at the Big Stonecoal Run Trail. Fortunately, the junction here was obvious and the ford.

Heavy rains that had tapered off a few hours earlier meant that Red Creek was running high. As we stepped out into the water, we could feel the current tugging quite strongly against our legs. In the midst of the creek, the water was up past our thighs, nearly to our waists, and it took concerted effort to lean against the current and steady ourselves with our trekking poles while trying to avoid slipping on unsteady rocks lining the creek bottom. We found a large rock just barely beneath the surface mid-stream and stood in the eddy while we surveyed the final 15 feet or so to the far shore. Here, the current was strongest- a turbulent, swelling mass of water. I thought that it was doable, provided that it didn’t get any deeper than what we’d already passed through. I reached out with my trekking pole, and set it down to gauge the depth… to find that the creek here was deeper than the pole was tall. I tried again, a few feet downstream, and found the creek to be the same depth. I tried once more, upstream this time, and again I found water whipping over my hand before the trekking pole found solid bottom.

“Nope,” I said to Sam. “We’re not getting across here.”

“We just don’t have enough alcohol inside us,” he replied, only half-kidding.

The next opportunity to cross Red Creek was about a mile further upstream, near Fisher Spring Run, and would mean that we’d be circumnavigating the Dolly Sods counterclockwise rather than clockwise, but would still enable us to complete the same loop. We carefully made our way back to the south shore, returned to the Red Creek Trail, and continued upstream. Along the way we passed several decently sized tributaries in the dark. Each had a strong but easily crossable flow, an encouraging sight as it meant that we’d have that much less current to fight against during our second attempt at fording Red Creek.

As we approached Red Creek again, we passed by the site where I’d camped during my previous visit to the Dolly Sods. In the darkness, I could faintly make out the low ridge not far above the creek where I’d set up in a campsite on what was a safe and dry piece of mainland, only to wake up in the middle of the night to find that I was on an island, with howling torrents of water on all sides of me.

This time, Red Creek here was easily crossable despite running relatively high. We found a spot a short distance upstream of the actual trail crossing where the river was wide, and we had no trouble getting across through the waist-deep yet calm current. On the far side was a nice, moderately-used campsite just off the trail, and as midnight was fast approaching, we elected to stay here for the first night.

Of course, no matter how late it gets, it’s never too late for some bourbon and a small campfire. Especially on a clear night when the light of a crescent moon is filtering down through the trees.

We awoke early Saturday morning to gray skies and the threat of rain. Any chance of precipitation in the Dolly Sods means that one would be wise to be warry about the possibility of getting trapped at a ford across Red Creek, but the forecast had assured us that any rainfall would be light. At the very least, we weren't concerned that conditions would worsen upon our return to Red Creek, and in any case, the creek had obviously come down a few inches already overnight.

After quick breakfast of oatmeal, refried beans, butter, hot sauce, and instant mashed potatoes (indeed, a breakfast fit for champions), we were packed up and continuing on our way. Our destination for the day was the nothern Dolly Sods, which we were hoping to traverse before swinging south again to find a suitable campsite for the second night.

Thus far, much of the Red Creek trail had been on old logging narrow-gauge railroad grades, and today was no exception. For the most part, these grades were devoid of any evidence of the trails themselves, but along one short stretch we did encounter a few old railroad ties with spikes still sticking out of them.

About two miles upstream of where we camped is The Forks, an area where Red Creek splits into the Left and Right Forks. The crossing of Left Fork here was merely knee deep.

The Forks is home to a number of small but scenic cascades on Red Creek. Accordingly, the area is also a popular place to camp, and we counted at least 5 or 6 well-developed and heavily used campsites. Evidence of tree-cutting for firewood here was also readily apparent. The cascades were beautiful, at least.

Beyond The Forks, the trail began to climb to the shoulder of Blackbird Knob. For the first time in our journey, we were emerging from the lower valley of Red Creek and entering into the northern Dolly Sods. The southern portion of the wilderness area is characterized by a classical Appalachian cove ecosystem, with the deep Red Creek valley sheltering many hardwoods that are less tolerant of adverse growing conditions. In contrast, the northern Dolly Sods contain a high-elevation plateau (the highest plateau in the US east of the Mississippi, in fact), and are home to many species that are typically found much further north. Heath barrens, sphagnum bogs, and, at the highest elevations, grass balds are ubiquitous to the northern stretch of this wilderness area.

Beyond Blackbird Knob, we entered the first of many heath barrens. Open fields of blueberries stretched in every direction for hundreds of feet, while the hardwood trees at the fringe began to give way to spruce and the occaisional fir.

The further north we went, the more ubiquitous the heath barrens became. Turn of the century fires, resulting from lumbering operations, also contributed to the spread of these meadows beyond what had constituted their historic range.

As we passed through one forested section, we caught a glimpse down into a sphagnum bog fringing one of the tributies of Red Creek.

By now, a steady drizzle had begun to fall and the wind had started to pick up. The lack of shelter across the heath barrens gave the wind especially a bit of a hard edge. We knew that Cabin Mountain lay ahead of us, and that this stretch of trail was likely to particularly well exposed to the elements, so we decided to eat lunch sooner rather than later. The trail descended a short distance down into the sphagnum bog, where it crossed the tributary on an old causeway. Here, we found a sheltered spot to eat lunch.

While we hunkered down and ate, a lone hiker appeared across the stream. "Do you guys know the way to the Raven Ridge Trail?" he asked. "I was using my phone to navigate and it died on me."

I rumaged through my ziplock bag of maps and gave him general directions. Sam grabbed one of the extra print outs I was carrying and handed to him. The hiker refused to take the map until Sam said quite sternly "It would make me feel a lot better if you took it." In recent years, I've grown less and less critical of using technology for navigation, provided that one carries a map and compass as a backup. The idea of hiking anywhere in a remote backcountry area with a phone alone as a navigational aid to me still seems downright foolhardy, and this encounter definitely served to reinforce that perception.

After finishing lunch, we crossed the stream and joined the Dobbin Grade Trail for a short stretch. The expanse of the heath barrens stretched out around us.

Soon, we arrived at another junction with the Raven Ridge Trail. Here, we turned left and started a gentle but steady ascent away from the stream. As we climbed, we were treated to more views out over the barrens and bogs. At times, we could see for miles in just about every direction.

As we climbed, not only did the temperature drop, the wind increased in velocity as well. Soon, we weren't just being pelted by raindrops, but by ice pellets as well. The occasional snowflake swirled past, briefly visible before being lost in the murky grayness of the low clouds. Near the junction with the Bear Rocks Trail, we huddled behind a spruce for a moments respite out of the wind while donning rain jackets as added defense against the elements.

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Old 05-16-2017, 11:49 PM   #2
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The Raven Ridge Trail took us through a brief section of dense spruce stands (and past a couple of nice campsites) before leading us to the ridgeline of Cabin Mountain. Here, we were in the true "Sods" of the Dolly Sods- the high elevation grasslands exposed to the full force of nature. Here, there was no other higher peak immediately adjacent to lessen the force of winds out of the west, just the expanse of Canaan Valley with Canaan Mountain some miles distant.

Not that we could see any of that, of course- in addition to the roaring winds, pelting ice, and twisting tendrils of snowflakes, we were now in the clouds. Visibility dropped to only a few hundred feet in spots. Scattered spruce trees appeared muddled in the distance, standing as lonely, slient sentries until one got close and definition became apparent. Southwards we trudged along the ridge, following Cabin Mountain towards the shelter of the forested coves of the southern Dolly Sods.


Our trek southwards took us into increasingly rocky territory. Soon, we were passing between immense rocky outcrops. We stopped to examine one such outcrop, and noticed that it bore signs of erosion. The entire western face appeared to have been sculpted and smoothened. At the time, we surmised that perhaps such erosion had occurred at an ancient era when the rocks had been lower in elevation and submerged beneath the water. After returning to civilization, however, I did some research and discovered that these rocks were in fact ventifacts- stone that had been eroded by wind, blasted by sand and ice over the millenia. Indeed, the Dolly Sods must be exposed regularly to high winds and extreme weather for the erosion to have been so readily apparent.

While we were examining the ventifacts, we observed a group of four young men hike by, heading northwards. The first three had larger overnight packs and appeared decently well equiped to be in the outdoors, even in such inclement conditions. The fourth was wearing jeans and what appeared to be a Carhartt jacket. It wasn't bad enough that he looked to be soaked to the bone (we were soaked ourselves, albeit not in cotton clothing). What was especially disconcerting was that he had no pack at all, but rather a garbage back full of gear slung not over his shoulders, but over his head. To say that he looked miserable was an understatement.

The trail along the ridge of Cabin Mountain stretches for several miles, and we passed many more ventifacts and rock outcrops (and a few nice but dry campsites) along the way. At one point, we dropped into a shallow gap that offered a brief chance for a break out of the wind near the western terminus of the Blackbird Knob Trail. On another stretch exposed to the wind, the clouds lifted for a brief moment, enough to give us a glimpse down into the valley below.

The southern stretch of the trail across Cabin Mountain is disappointingly close to a housing development, part of a ski resort that stretches up the side of the mountain from the valley. Fortunately, the thick clouds prevented the site of any vacation homes from ruining our sense of remoteness, although at one point we could smell smoke from a wood stove.

Eventually, we descended off of the ridge, re-entered the forest, and left the worst of the wind behind. Soon, the trail joined another old logging railroad grade near the upper reaches of Big Stonecoal Run. We began to think about setting up camp, and soon came upon a couple of nice but obviously heavily used sites. I remembered one particularly nice site from my previous visit to the area, so we passed on these first few sites in the hopes that the site I remembered would be favorable.

The site I remembered was just across the very first crossing of Big Stonecoal Run. It was every bit as nice as I recalled, but also very exposed with little tree cover. The wind here was not nearly as strong as it had been atop the ridge, yet while standing in the campsite it was still enough to impart a distinct chill. "If it were warmer and not as windy, this would definitely the site we would camp in," Sam remarked. "But not today."

Onward we went, following the trail as it swung to the east to avoid a boggy stretch along Big Stonecoal Run. Not far beyond the crossing, we entered a plantation of pine and spruce. Here, we found a nice, little used site that was well sheltered, with plenty of flat room for tenting and an established fire pit. Not far beyond, the softwood plantation gave way to a stand of hardwoods that had an almost overwhelming amount of dead and downed wood, enough to sustain a decently sized fire without having to worry in the least about whether we were leaving enough wood for future campers. A discarded tarp Sam found nearby quickly got incorporated into our camp setup. In addition to the tent, we'd carried a tarp ourselves to use for cooking under if needed, but the tarp we found was bigger and offered more shelter.

A very tasty dinner of cheese tortellini and tofurkey sausage with parma rosa sauce followed. Light, misting rain continued off and on into the early evening hours. Our campfire (started with only a single lighter and maybe a quarter of a liter of white gas) helped us to marginally dry out. Our enthusiasm for staying up lasted until the whiskey ran out, at which point we unanimously decided that it was time for bed.

During the night, I awoke to the sound not of rainfall, but the pattering of something a little bit more solid. I figured I knew what it was, but was in no rush to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag to find out for certain.

The arrival of daylight brought with it blinding whiteness. As I'd surmised, the rain had turned to snow sometime during the night, and just about everything was covered in a thin layer of it. It made for a pretty morning, yet significantly increased the mental effort necessary to get up and get camp broken down.


Last edited by DSettahr; 05-17-2017 at 05:54 AM..
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Old 05-16-2017, 11:50 PM   #3
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Eventually, we were up and on our way. Putting the same wet clothing back on that we'd worn the previous day had us eager to get moving so as to warm up. Not far from camp, we found a single solitary turkey track in the trail.

Our itinerary for the day had us continuing down the Big Stonecoal Run Trail back to Red Creek. At first, the trail was fairly flat, and meandered around (and at times, through) boggy stretches near the stream. The accentuation of snow made for some particularly pretty scenery along the way.

Big Stonecoal Run was running noticeably high, and we began to grow concerned that upon our arrival back at the very same crossing we'd attempted to cross two days previously, that we might again find it too dangerous to safely ford.

Fortunately, we had another option. The Rocky Point Trail swung west, sticking to the railroad grade on the upper slopes of the Red Creek valley and providing easy access to the second ford that we'd been able to cross safely. We reasoned that heading for this ford again was probably our most assuredly safe option. The Rocky Point Trail would also give us the opportunity to check out the views from Lion's Head, an apparently impressive outcropping of rocks providing excellent views out over the valley.

The Rocky Point Trail was, well, rocky but also flat and we made quick time on it. Soon, we were dropping our packs and starting up the side trail to Lion's Head. The winds here the previous night must have been fierce, as every tree had packed snow on the windward side of the trunk.

As we approahed the overlook, we passed through yet another pine plantation. Scattered about beneath the trees were several nice yet also very heavily used campsites. By mutual agreement, the overlook really wasn't all that great... until we noticed the faint path that continued about another tent of a mile down the mountain to the real overlook, which provided views that were nothing short of spectacular. I wonder how many hikers have turned around at the false overlook, disappointed that it did not live up to their expectations.

On the far side of the valley, snow squalls were visibly moving across the Roaring Plains.

For all of its beauty, Lion's Head is full of treacherous terrain in the vicinty. Numerous chasms opened up on the rocks, and a misstep here could easily be fatal. It's not the sort of place that you'd let small children or pets explore unattended (or unleashed, as may be necessary in the case of dogs or little people).

Before leaving Lion's Head, we snapped a quick self protrait in one of the nearby campsites for posterity.

Beyond Lion's Head, the Rocky Point Trail clearly does not get much use. It was well maintained, however (apart from the rocky grade, apparently the logging companies very much did spare whatever expense they could in the construction of the logging railroads). Some open areas along the trail gave us further views out over the valley.

Our re-crossing of Red Creek went without a hitch, and heralded our return from Winter into Spring. All throughout the lower Red Creek valley, the signs of spring were abundant, whether they be wildflowers or cascading streams in lush mountain coves.

As it turned out, we would've been just fine crossing Red Creek near the mouth of Big Stonecoal Run. The water had abated noticeably over the course of the weekend, and our fears had been unfounded. Of course, had we continued down the Big Stonecoal Trail, we would've missed Lion's Head entirely. I don't think either of us was sorely disappointed in having erred on the side of caution.

We'd seen all sorts of weather during our trip, but nature had one last obstacle in store for us- hail. While painful, the barrage lasted only a few minutes. The final stretch of our hike back to the trailhead was a pleasant walk through warm spring temperatures amidst a viridescent forest.

I've made it into the Dolly Sods twice now, and twice I've had to deal with snow and flooding. Clearly, this is not an area where dealing with the weather is something to take lightly. It is nice to know, though, that the third crossing of Red Creek (as one works their way upstream from the trailhead) is generally doable even after heavy rainfall and in all but somewhat rare circumstances (such as those I'd faced on my previous trip). I'm sure also that in the height of summer, Red Creek is a mere trickle at just about every possible crossing.

Also of particular note is just how heavily used and impacted the Dolly Sods are. On my previous trip, many of the obvious signs of camping were buried deep beneath the snow. My return, however, made it apparent that by picking a weekend with less than great weather, we escaped having to share the area with numerous other visitors. Many of the campsites, both along Red Creek and in the upper reaches of the Dolly Sods, showed significant signs of impact. Tree cutting was frustratingly common at many of the sites. In some circumstances, we didn't even need to see the human waste to know that it was there- we could sense it by smell alone. To be clear, I've seen areas worse off than the Dolly Sods (some areas of the High Peaks immediately come to mind), but there is an obvious, definite need for increased educational efforts (and possibly even enforcement) here to help stem some of the carelessness that seems common to many visitors to the Dolly Sods.

All in all, though, it was a trip well worth undertaking. We don't often think of mountains further south than the Adirondacks as being home to relatively inhospitable conditions, nor providing opportunities for substantial, non-stop views across significant distances, but the Dolly Sods proves these perceptions to be, in fact, misconceptions.
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