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Dolly Sods 2023 Trip Report – mistakes, lessons, and takeaways
A narrative trip report from a first time visitor to Dolly Sods Wilderness
West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness is an iconic east coast backpacking location revered for its diverse and beautiful scenery. Within the area’s boundaries, the terrain varies dramatically from densely forested creek bed to windswept heath barrens and grassy meadows. The boulder formations along Rocky Ridge could be mistaken for the Black Hills of South Dakota. The junction of Raven’s Ridge and Dobbins Grade trail could pass for tundra in Alaska. To try and make comparisons is an injustice to the unique and singular landscape that is the Dolly Sods. That all of these landscapes and more exist within the areas quaint 17,000 acres is part of its vast appeal. Here the natural splendor is concentrated into a high potency form.
To learn a little bit about its history makes this place even more astounding. From grazing pastures of German immigrants to logging land to military artillery range to flashpoint for environmental stewardship to federally protected wilderness area, the history of Dolly Sods is almost as rich and diverse as its topographical diversity. Needless to say, it’s a unique area that warrants its reputation.
I spent Memorial Day weekend exploring this treasure trove of a wilderness, pleasantly bewildered at every turn in the trail. This article recounts a backpacking trip into Dolly Sods including general impressions, takeaways, and a few lessons learned.
This three day itinerary provides a great introduction to the varied terrain of Dolly Sods.
This route starts at Blackbird Knob trailhead. Day one includes a hike through the Red Creek drainage and dry-camping atop the scenic Breathed Mountain.
Day two is an epic higher mileage semi-circle loop across Rocky Ridge and Raven Ridge back to water sources near the Red Creek, amounting to a memorable full day of hiking.
Black Bird Knob > Red Creek > Rocky Point Trail > camp on top of Lions Head | Distance: 6 Miles view map
A Dolly Sods adventure really begins well before hitting the trailhead. It had been hours since I last received cell service and the road, I was now on seemed an unlikely corridor to one of the East Coast’s most celebrated wilderness areas. Forest Service Road 19, just north of Hopeville, is a narrow winding dirt road that crawls up the side of the heavily forested woods to arrive at Brushy Ridge Road, the main access to the wilderness. I stopped my vehicle at least once to consult the map to ensure I was actually on the right road.
My plan was to embark from the Black Bird Knob Trailhead. At 10:00am on this busy weekend, I was able to snag the second to last parking spot in the designated parking area adjacent to the trailhead and the Red Creek Campground. (After my hike out on Sunday, cars would be stretched along the side of the road for half a mile in each direction). If arriving on a busy weekend, plan to come early for the best campsite. After signing in at the trail register at Black Bird Knob, I set out on the trail.
Black Bird and Red Creek Trail
Even within a few paces on the Black Bird Knob Trail, a person is immediately immersed into a scenic wonderland. Wind-stunted red spruce frame views of distant meadows. Moss covered boulders and flagrantly colorful wild flowers accent the trailside. Within a short while a person descends upon Alder Run which is a picturesque creek running beneath a canopy of trees. Here is a great place to fill water or simply take amount to celebrate getting yourself into the woods.
Continuing on the Black Bird Trail you will wind through intermittent stands of shadowy conifer and tundra-like stretches blanked by bone-white reindeer lichen. The trail junction for Red Creek Trail is well marked and appears in a large clearing. Descending into the Red Creek drainage a person is greeted with one of many distinct eco-systems present in this wonderland, with a coniferous canopy of trees overhead and the splayed leaves of Rhododendron and mountain laurel forming a tunnel along the trail. A lush moss blankets the ground. A person can hear the sound of the Left Fork of Red Creek before it can bee seen through the dense brush.
Before long the Left Fork of Red Creek converges with Red Creek proper in a beautiful, but highly impacted area. Here are numerous dream campsites strung throughout the woods. This is also an excellent spot to have a picnic/lunch and fill up on water. If camping at Lions Head, this is your last reliable spot to fill up for the night, which I did, first guzzling about 20 oz before filling the two liters I know I needed to make it until morning.
Lions Head (Breathed Mountain) Area
One thing I love about Dolly Sods is how the names of the trails are so literal and suggestive of their actual features. As the name suggests, Rocky Point Trail along the perimeter of Breath Mountain, is actually very rocky. There is a good mile and a half stretch of ankle biting, shoe-shredding sharp rocks to contend with before reaching the base of Lions Head area. One bit of solace is that this southern end of Dolly Sods is highly shaded,
Lions Head, also very aptly named, is not found on the official Forest Service maps and there is no maintained trail leading up to it. Instead, according to the field service ranger I chatted with, any approach to these feature is a “public trail”, an unofficial trail forged by the public. Although, commercial maps and popular navigation apps display these trails, they are not sanctioned by the Forest Service, which leads to my lesson for the day.
Lesson 1: Lions Head Approach
A word of caution: Here, according to some social online maps and apps, there are a few approaches up Lions Head, including a spur leading up from the south. On the trail, this particular approach is easily missed, as it’s marked by a lone cairn of rocks. From there the way up is a sketchy, choose your own adventure, rock scramble that might be challenging for many hikers. After five minutes I found myself crashing through thick rhododendron bush and hopping across refrigerator sized boulders with perilous drops on either side. My leisure day of hiking had turned into a heart pounding, sweaty palmed endeavor as I tried to piece my way up this jumbled rockfall. Strong Recommendation: approach Lion’s Head from the much more manageable west approach. The extra distance is far less effort than what will be spent scrambling up from the south.
Camping at Lions Head
There are bountiful campsites nestled within the pine forest leading to Lions Head from the [western approach] Off to one side are several obvious impacted campgrounds abutting a prominent grassy field. Should these be full, there are also options int the woods beyond the field, which is exactly where I opted to camp on this Memorial Day Weekend. After setting up camp I returned to the rocky crown rock with a sit pad, a camera, and my dinner kit to await the sunset, which was still three hours away. I vowed to not leave this rocky island until the distant ridge eclipsed the setting sun. Surrendering myself and my attention to this unique jumble of rocks perched high above the surrounding valleys was a gift and accelerated my transition from the bustle and distraction of every day to the tranquility and inner quiet that can sometimes be found on the trail. As the golden hour bathed the rock orange hues, other hikers emerged from the woods to take up a post here in the crown of the Dolly Sods, where we were all treated to slow burn sunset.
The second day began with a near perfect early morning hiking off of Breathed Mountain to join up with Rocky Point trail heading North. If you’re like me, and wait to eat breakfast after moving a bit, there is the perfect spot a few minutes hike up Rocky Point. Emerging from a tunnel of rhododendron, a hiker is greeted by the site of the Big Stonecoal Run waterfall which would not only be an ideal spot for breakfast, but an obvious place to fill water for the miles ahead. (Alternatively, for those coming from the North and visiting Breathed Mountain/Lion’s Head, this could be your last reliable water until meeting back up with Red Creek)
Along Big Stonecoal trail, a person hikes along the meandering stream, under storybook canopies of tree cover, alongside perfect campsites. It’s fair to say that by this point Dolly Sods had cast it’s spell, so much so that I neglected to fill my water bottle. In my almost two decades of backpacking, I had never accidently run out of water, until now. More below.
Exploring Rocky Ridge and Raven Ridge
Beyond the Big Stonecoal Trail, into the far northwest corner of the wilderness, a person emerges into yet another highly distinct landscape. Here, along the Rocky Ridge Trail, is where a person will find the windswept plateaus and epic vistas often associated with the Sods. After emerging from the dense canopy of the Red Creek Drainage, this new terrain feels like another world, at times reminiscent of somewhere out West. Rocky outcroppings offer stunning views. Sprawling gardens of massive sub-bleached granite boulders provide endless opportunity for exploration and leisure scrambling. It’s all stunning, and warrants extra time to enjoy and appreciate.
Lesson 2: Water Sources in Dolly Sods
Stonecoal Run and Red Creek provide numerous sources of water throughout Dolly Sods. Obtaining water, especially in the lower 3/4 of the wilderness is generally not an issue. However, as I discovered, Rocky Ridge and Raven’s Ridge are the exceptions with no reliable water sources. Remember to plan accordingly along these stretches.
During the second day of my hike I actually ran out of water. How did this happen? I simply was not paying enough attention to my water bottle in favor of more interesting things like rocks and trees and mosses. The scenery of Dolly Sods had cast its spell, and at a certain point I found my bottle empty along Raven’s Ridge.
While I had originally intended to camp somewhere along Raven’s Ridge, my long day of hiking turned into an even longer one, as I pressed on towards the intersection of Raven’s Ridge, Alders Run, and Dobbin’s Grade Trails to obtain water. After the dry stretch through the afternoon, this area was a welcome oasis and crossroads.
Full Circle: Camping above Red Creek
By now, it was late in the day, and I had surveyed a large swath of Dolly Sods, amounting to one of the great trail days in memory. After obtaining water, I was now above Upper Red Creek Trail, not far from where I had started my hike. With the afternoon waning and a blood-sugar induced minor delirium settling in, I fell into the classic dilemma of finding a late afternoon campsite. As I made my way down , I passed one occupied site after another. I also passed several other north-bound hikers with the same dilemma. I wondered how far had they hiked and how many sites they had passed?
Finally, in a heavily shaded pine grove, just off the trail I found a site that I would consider just “meh” It felt a little claustrophobic and dark, but at that stage I really didn’t care. I would be eating and then promptly sleeping. I set up my tent and fell into a quick involuntary nap. Upon waking I resolved that rather than have dinner in the dark woods I would go seek out a perch on Red Creek about ten minutes away.
I hobbled down the trail in my flip flops and here is where I found a dream dinner picnic location. I went from a feeling of compromise with the campsite to a sense of glee. I soaked my feet in the cold water while enjoying a bag of rehydrated Pad Thai and felt, at least for a few moments, that all was right with the world. Sometimes things have a way of working out. Just beyond the darkest woods, there may be an enchanted waterfall in waiting, so to speak.
Day Three: Hike Out and Bears Rocks view map
It’s inevitable, just when you start to acclimate to being out in the wild, it’s time to go home. I awoke to a crisp Sods morning feeling revived and inspired. Had it not been for the real world waiting, I could have spent at least a few more days here. Reluctantly, I packed up my campsite and began the hike out, retracing the Blackbird Knob Trail I had traveled just two days prior. Now that I was attuned to the natural world, the scenery seemed even more spectacular. Even after a few days of being in the wilderness, I felt inspiration and epiphany looming on the edges of my periphary, which was a great reminder of why we undertake these kinds of outings to begin with.
Returned to my car, the tendency was to drive straight towards the nearest establishment offering a breakfast burrito, but I gave another option my full consideration – the Bear Rocks. Bear Rocks is a well-known cliff formation abutting the eastern edge of Dolly Sods Wilderness. The formation itself is a long band of striking quartz and limestone rocks crowning the escarpment that is the Allegheny Front. This is a popular spot for photography and offers dramatic and sweeping view of the nearby valleys. On a clear day, it is said a person can see seven distinct mountain valleys clear into Virginia and the Shenandoah.
Not sure, when or if I would ever be back to Dolly Sods, I felt visiting the Bear Rocks features was almost mandatory and I’m glad I did. Exploring and hopping around the rocks for another few hours was the perfect transition from the trail. It also cemented my impression of the area as being a superlative natural treasure that deserves all admiration and respect.
Some Takeaways & Reminders
- See Lesson 1 & Lesson 2 above
- Leave No Trace: certainly it almost goes without saying, but now more than ever, especially in heavily used wilderness areas, Leave No Trace ethics are of highest importance. If you see trash on the ground, pick it up. Toilet Paper doesn’t belong in the backcountry. Please lean up after yourself and your camp party.
- Campsite selection: Set up camp only at existing campsites. They are typically surrounded by bare ground and have an existing stone fire pit.
- Fires and Fire Rings: Only fallen wood should be used for fires, if you NEED to have to have a fire at all. Use a backpacker-type stove for your cooking needs and enjoy a night without a campfire. If you camp at a place without a fire ring, DO NOT create one.
- Be Bear Aware: this is a bear habitat and they are active in the area. Although bear canisters are not required, practice proper food storage (hang method) and camp hygiene. Respect the bear. Read more at GOV. That said, don’t harbor an irrational fear of this animal. As context, there has never been a reported fatility involving a bear and a human in West Virginia history.
- Slow Down – Dolly Sods represents an incredible diverse ecosystem abundant with flora and fauna. It’s a unique landscape and unlike anything else found in this part of the country. That said, every turn in the trail represents something new to behold. Enjoy this hike as you would a delectable, rare, and expensive food. Slowly savor the experience. Appreciate every bite.
- Stay on the Trail: Try to stay in the center of the trail, even when muddy. Evading puddles and mud widens trails and destroys fragile plants. Read an article on the Forest Service outlining more.
- Crowds: Dolly Sods is very popular, for obvious reason and close to numerous large population centers. For those seeking solitude, you may want to avoid holiday weekends and peak seasons. Alternatively, the presence of other people might be comforting to first time backpackers. If this is you, rest assured that Dolly Sods offers an unparalleled wilderness experience with the peace of mind that there are other hikers likely just around the next bend.
- Bring a Good Map: Consider the Dolly Sods map from Purple Lizard Maps