Dolly Sods Wilderness Area (WV) Backpacking 11 June 2006

Finally, we are backpackers again!
Red Creek

Patricia and I have been talking about backpacking for over 2 years, and we finally put our feet where our talk has been. (We each did a little in high school and college.) This past Monday, we headed for West Virginia, for the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, an amazing place.

Lester and I have driven through there at least twice for short hikes while visiting Canaan Valley, and loved it, poking around the beautiful rocky ridge cliffs on the edge of the wilderness along FS road 75. The scenery feels very alpine, like Colorado above timberline. Bear Rocks So, I was delighted to see it show up in my monthly Backpacker magazine as a top destination, as I otherwise might not have thought of it as a place for our shakedown trip. It described it quite differently than I remembered, so I was also very curious. But first, the prologue…

We expected to take off around noon, but ended up not leaving until after 3pm because we made the mistake of going to REI, our favorite store, and spent over two hours! (Yes, they can use this as an advertisement.) We were so caught up (getting an ultra-light camp stove, Pat’s sleeping bag, etc.) that we forgot about mom, who was depending on us getting her to her bridge game (she was patiently waiting for us), and she was ½ an hour late.

Then after all that, when we finished packing our backpacks (which were *far* heavier than we anticipated, despite our image that we were aiming for “ultra-light� backpacking), we decided to go back to REI to exchange the tea pot we bought for a set of cooking pots!

The drive took us 4 hours, including a stop in Middleburg on Rt 55 and Rt 11, where we stopped for delicious wraps and the famous Route 11 chips, made only a few miles away. We arrived in the wilderness area around 7pm, drove around to carefully select our camp site the way Dad taught us to, camp siteliked the one where we saw a deer, and then paid and registered for site #10, and went to set up realizing it was #8 – oh well, the FS got their $11 bucks, a bargain. We set up our new MSR Pocket Rocket camp stove, smaller than a cup, and had tea – it works like a charm. We spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out how to lighten our load. We are unfamiliar with water treatment, so decided to carry all we would need – the main thing we plan to change next time, since we figured we were each carrying about 13-15 pounds of water! We each carried sleeping bags and pads; I have a bigger backpack, so I carried the tent, and Patricia carried the food and stove. We aren’t sure what the weight of our packs was, but I felt like I carried a 7-year old child all day!

It thundered and flashed and poured during the night, but we stayed nice and dry in Patricia’s lovely little REI Half Dome II tent, and Patricia thinks she may have heard a bobcat call out 3 times. So, we had to dry out the tent before we took off, at 9:15 am.

We had seen the hike sign-in sheet at the trailhead the night before, but forgot to sign in. We had gone barely 100 feet, to the end of the boardwalk at the beginning of the trail, when we saw a fawn sitting perfectly still under the leaves with her nose almost touching the boards, hoping we would not see him/her. We ran into our first bog shortly afterwards, and worked around it and nearly stumbled into the large camp of a number of folks, nicely situated under a stand of pine trees. Then we startled a grouse (we think), who fluttered around us, trying to lure us away from her young ones.

We had chosen a route of about 11-12 miles that would have us camp around mile 8 at Red Creek, so we would be able to hike out the next morning to get Patricia home in time for a class. We took the Blackbird Knob Trail all the way across the wilderness to connect with the Breathed Mountain Trail connecting with the Red Creek Trail. This route basically involved three up-and-overs: up and over and down to the Red Creek crossing, where Patricia and I argued over our route. Red Creek None of the trails in Dolly Sods are blazed, so close attention to the map and turnoffs is critical. She thought we had missed a turn, and went back to look and I said she was being paranoid… to which she replied “No, I am calmly considering this!� Anyway, we each crossed the river on different nicely done rock paths built across, commented on the nice camp site with fire ring and grassy yard, then went up and were relieved to figure out we were on the right path, past Blackbird Knob and down to cross the West Fork of the Red Creek where we encountered another beautiful little creekside campsite. We then went up and over toward Harmon Knob, disturbing thousands of grasshoppers, clicking and hopping off the trail away from us, and down the western edge of the wilderness.

One fascinating aspect of this place is that the scenery and vegetation changes about every 20-30 minutes. We don’t know our trees very well, but think it was going from elm stands, to wide open grassy, boulder-strewn meadows meadow with rhododendron and laurel and some other lovely flowering bush, to birch stands, to tall pine stands, to watery, muddy bogs, back to meadow, then to red spruce stands – amazing. We may have also seen poplar and hemlock, which were abundant in the past.

But for the increasingly *very* rocky trailbed and the many muddy bogs, this would be an easy trail, so far, with only small elevation gain and loss. Down the western edge, the trail was actually through a creek heading south. rocky trail I think the reason the trail is so rocky is that over the past 150 years the virgin forests of WV were exploited by clearcutting, and destroyed by fire and hurricanes, washing away over 7 feet of topsoil and leaving exposed bedrock. We recommend reading this history of the beautiful and unmatched WV forests at – a fascinating and sad account of our impact on this earth.

When we reached our turnoff, the trail became even rougher, to the point where we were nearly boulder hopping. boulder hopping We were so exhausted by now from carrying our heavy packs and watching our footing that we pulled out our sleeping pads and crashed under some trees on the rocks, took off our boots, ate lunch and took a nap. Taking off again with only about 3 miles to go, I finally missed a rock and stepped in the mud, and then Patricia did the same, sinking ankle deep! (Looked as if she put on different socks and shoes on each foot!) boots

We were approaching our destination for the night and could hear the river, but passed a lovely campsite by a small stream, so we promptly stopped and set up the tent and started dinner, around 4pm, just in time for the next rain. While our little stove hissed and popped in the rain on an exposed rock, we sat it out under the trees, and then enjoyed our first taste of a Backpacker’s Pantry dinner: freeze-dried black beans, taco chips and rice – delicious! (Girl, we were READY for it.) Before we crashed for an evening nap, we hung our food up about 75 feet away like good outdoorswomen. While Patricia was still catching Z’s I took a short walk across a rocky boggy meadow, looking for the river, and heard it, but didn’t go that far. We then spent the next 1 ½ hour building and nursing a campfire, much to our delight. fire charmer Thanks to a little help from our trusty pocket rocket stove, my twigs, and Patricia’s very patient, persistent nursing and drying branches in good old fashioned teepee structure, and our hyperventilated blowing, it was truly a lovely thing to contemplate…only. Too bad we didn’t have even one thing to cook over it! THAT will be remedied next time, for sure, with marshmallows and hot chocolate. We’ll figure out another way to lighten the load!

On this day, besides the campers we passed at the beginning, and 5 hikers that passed only about 15 minutes later, we did not see another soul – it was great, and unexpected, because this is reportedly a favorite backpacking destination.

Next morning we headed out (something had raked up the ground in several places between our campsite and the food, but had not bothered the food or us), and we reached the river below in only 20 minutes or so. As we approached, we kept going back and forth on how we could have made it, but no, we were trashed, and it was a steep downhill and our packs were heavy, but it wasn’t far, etc., etc. But when we finally arrived at the Red Creek trail about 100 feet above the river and dropped our packs to make the trip down, we were astounded. We found the reason the locals reportedly make straight for this spot – beautiful, lovingly developed campsites all along the river up to The Forks, complete with huge rock-ringed fire rings, “chairsâ€? around the fire with reclining stone backs, plenty of pine-needle soft tent sites fire ring – probably enough for 50-60 people, some open, some more private, all next to the river with lovely swimming holes. A little further up at The Forks, more campsites were even lovelier, with huge grassy areas under tall red spruce stands, facing the confluence of the rivers. Forks camp We promptly decided to return, and to even suggest a sibling reunion here.

The return, up the Red Creek Trail away from The Forks, was very steep and very rocky, and very beautiful, with the red spruce re-growth in abundance. It often felt like we were back in Colorado. On the last leg, aside from the 3 young men who we met camping at The Forks, we met up with only three other folks – a man who hikes here often, and a fellow and his son with bear-dogs – seemingly sweet young pups with radio controls on their necks who, I guess, roam the park hounding the bears.

We finished our trek with lunch on “lunch-rock� (my name) – a huge flat rock with a spectacular view of the wilderness we had just crossed. ending view It was a two-day, two-night shakedown backpack trip to remember, and to return to with friends and family! And we learned quite a bit about what we will do differently, hopefully better, next time. And I am ready to be a Backpacker Gear Tester!