Dolly Sods Spring Backpacking Trek

The rain softly taps on the roof of my car. It’s dark. Very dark. I can’t see anything outside, but I know I’m not alone. When I pulled in, there were a lot of cars. Maybe 15 or 20. I bet they’re waiting for the rain to pass, too.

The darkness is slowing lifting. Will the sun pop through those thick clouds?

I leave my car and make the short walk over to Bear Rocks Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property adjacent to the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia. I am at the edge of the Allegheny Front. This is a serious plateau. Looking west, the landscape is relatively flat. Rounded boulders are surrounded by thick bushes of blueberry and huckleberry. A handful of stunted flag pines rise from the earth. To the east, the land descends sharply, and the sky dominates. Scattered house-sized boulders with deep cracks and crevices seem frozen in place as they inch slowly apart with each passing season.

The sun will not appear this morning. At least the rain slowed. The dark clouds of the passing storm are dramatic. Wind-formed pits in the rocks collect water. My boots softly sink into the boggy ground with each step. It’s like walking on a soaked sponge.

It’s starting to look awfully dark to the west again. In minutes the rain picks up. The wind, too. I hurry back to the car. I spent more time here than I planned to anyway. Time to start the real adventure.

My three-day trek begins on the beautiful Red Creek Trail in the southern part of Dolly Sods. Red Creek is the dominant water feature here. The creek is fed by several tributaries and headwater wetlands. Natural tannic acids give it its namesake color. I descend into the gorge and follow a trail that hugs the bank of the winding creek.

The soil is damp and the air is cool and fresh. The temperature rises as the sun burns through the last remaining clouds from the morning rain. Fortunately, there is a thick canopy of trees providing plenty of shade. I navigate my way northward through tunnels of crowded Rhododendron and tall stands of pines.

After about five miles, I arrive at “the forks.” I’m in the heart of the wilderness now. Here, Red Creek and the Left Fork join together before flowing south. This is a popular camping area for backpackers, and it is no surprise why. Soft beds of pine needles are perfect for pitching a tent in the shade. And hikers drink from and, on hot days, swim in the creek.

Fortunately, I’m well ahead of schedule. When I arrive, there are plenty of great spots along the banks of the creek to make camp. I set up quickly and explore the area. There are several cascades and small waterfalls. After spending some time cooling off in the water, I head back to camp, cook dinner, and retire for a quiet night.

The next day I awake early and excited to start my day. I eat a quick breakfast, pack up, and head back onto the trail. Today I pick up elevation as I climb a highland plateau. I pass in and out of hardwood forests, more stands of pine, heath, and bogs. My boots sink deep into the mud. After another six miles or so I reach the intersection with Big Stonecoal Run Trail near the western edge of Dolly Sods.

Stonecoal Run is another beautiful stream. I hike along its banks, in and out of bogs and hardwood forests, until reaching a sandy campsite under a shady stand of pines next to the stream. The stream gently curves around a meadow of tall grasses flanked by red spruce. Unspoiled beauty. I make camp, fix a cup of coffee, and take in the surroundings.

After a late lunch, I pack some food and water and hike to the top of Breathed Mountain to enjoy sunset. A rocky outcrop named “Lion’s Head” stands watch over the deep valley that Red Creek slowly cut below.

The crevices between the rocks up here are deep and unforgiving. My stomach turns each time I look down.

After sunset, it’s back to camp. The way is dark but familiar.

My last day is easy. Just a short hike along the Dunkenbarger Trail back to Red Creek. But the mud is unrelenting. Spring wildflowers are in full bloom. I pass through more hardwood forests. I even see two towering Eastern Hemlocks - a rarity in Appalachia these days. Did I mention the mud?

I ford Red Creek a final time. The water is high and fast. In the distance, sunlight spills over the ridge and into the valley and stream below. A parting kiss of sunlight before I head back to my car.

Dolly Sods is the gem of the Monongahela National Forest. The northern parts of the wilderness area are great, but the southern and western areas are particularly special. The views from Lion’s Head are unmatched. And the lush forested canyon along Red Creek offers plenty of solitude. It’s a great place to disconnect.

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