Cattails in field off Big Stonecoal Trail, September 9, 2006


Dolly Sods Wilderness
September 2006

Last updated September 11, 2006



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Day One | Day Two

The Dolly Sods Wilderness is a U.S. Wilderness Area in the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, in the Monongahela National Forest. It is the highest plateau of its type east of the Mississippi River with altitude ranging from around 4000 feet at the top of a mountain ridge on the Allegheny Front to about 2700 feet at the outlet of Red Creek.

The name Dolly Sods derives from the family name Dahle, a German family who homestead the logged areas, clearing and farming them. Burning the logged areas produced good grass cover for grazing sheep, and these open fields were known as "sods." Locals changed the spelling to "Dolly" and thus the area became known as the Dolly Sods. Unfortunately, repeated burning killed the grass and left only bracken fern to grow which was useless as fodder. The Dahle family eventually moved on, leaving behind only the Americanized version of their name.
- from Wikipedia - Dolly Sods

Day One: September 9, 2006

Prior to September 2006, Dolly Sods was the most well talked about mid-Atlantic place I'd heard of but never been to. Organized club backpacking trips to this area would sell out like Star Wars or Motley Crue tickets. Hence, when Norma asked me if I wanted to go to Dolly Sods Wilderness, I could not say no.

This trip would be different for both of us. I would take on a responsibility that has always been my weakness: food preparation. Norma would plan the route, which was my strength. I did a good deal of shopping and tested out my 15 year old Mountain Safety Research stove the night before. This was probably the only backpacking trip I'd done in which I didn't bring any military meals ready-to-eat (MREs). In planning the route, Norma did a good deal of research on-line, reading trip reports, and ordering maps. I was truly impressed at how much thought and planning she put into the trip.

We left at 0630 and arrived at the 10,215-acre Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia around 1100. After eating a snack, taking some photos of Red Creek (see first photo on left), and signing in at the trailhead, we commenced backpacking at 1140. Our journey began at about 2700 feet. We headed north by northeast on Red Creek Trail (TR514) which hugs the south side of Red Creek.

I noticed how one of the rings that holds my backpack together was coming loose. I figured I'd just stop and check it whenever I took my pack off. Not much I could do about it. Then, I walked by a tree and saw a roll of duct tape hanging from it. I kid you not. It was exactly what I needed! I took about three inches of tape, fixed my pack, put the roll back in the tree, and continued onward. Seemed too good to be true.

A couple of friendly hounds with antenna on their collars passed us. We never saw the owner.

The first thing I noticed about the area was the lack of blazes. Generally, this was not a problem though bare autumn trees might make staying on the trail somewhat difficult. Some bends in the trail and intersections were marked by cairns...the word of the day for me.

After about 0.6 miles, we did a rocky stream crossing which required us to change shoes. Norma spotted a 6 inch long black and white snake. Not sure what kind. We headed north on Little Stonecoal Trail (TR552). The ground was covered by ferns (see second photo on left). Most of the trail was rocky (see third photo on left). Numerous white mushrooms were spotted. This was by far the most strenuous part of the hike, requiring us to ascend to about 3650 feet (a 1000 foot climb) in about 1.5 miles. Not terribly strenuous for a day hike but for a full backpacking load, this was a bit of a challenge.

Next, we headed northeast on Dunkenbarger Trail (TR558). We were still moving uphill but now at a much flatter incline. Just after crossing a creek, we found a nice sandy area to stop for lunch at about 3700 feet. This was our first opportunity since the Red Creek stream crossing to get some sun. Much of the trail was under heavy tree cover. No need for sunscreen. Along the creek (see fourth photo on left), we found wild cranberries (see fifth photo on left) and some other fruit that resembled blackberries. Interestingly, part of our lunch included cranberry trail mix. I also put together teriyaki salmon in tortillas.

The creek also had a couple of interesting rocks which had concentric circles on them (see sixth photo on left). Neither of us had any idea why they looked like that.

The area surrounding the creek was a rich in diverse vegetation, like a Garden of Eden (see seventh photo on left).

We continued along Dunkenbarger Trail for a total of about 1.7 miles. Another 6 inch long snake was spotted that looked just like the one seen earlier.

At the next intersection, we headed north on Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513). The terrain became boggy. We noticed how someone had recently come through to clear the trail of overhanging foliage. After 3.5 hours, we finally saw other backpackers, the first of the day. Shortly after, we saw a couple. The husband was carrying a backpack loaded with everything plus the kitchen sink while the wife carried some gear plus a baby in her pack. The baby had a nylon canopy a few inches over its head with mesh about 5 inches in front of its face. Judging by his expression, the baby seemed quite comfortable. A little later, we saw the last couple of the day. We asked about the trail ahead and they described what sounded like an ideal campsite about a half mile up. Also, they spoke of a rock field just up around the bend.

At 1700, we found the campsite on the east side of the trail, about 1.2 miles north of where Dunkenbarger and Big Stonecoal Trails meet. The quiet Stonecoal Run was about 40 meters to the north of it. We walked a total of about 5.5 miles.

On the west side of the trail was a mostly treeless grassy field. Exploring it, we found yellow-green ferns (see eighth photo on left) and soft, thick moss...nature's own plush carpet (see ninth photo on left). There was one area full of small yellow flowers (see tenth photo on left). Another area had cattails (see photo at top left corner of page). Just a little further west was another stream, or more likely just another part of Stonecoal Run.

Back at the campsite, we prepared for the evening. Norma set up her tent while I pulled out my bag of dryer lint (which I use as a firestarter) then gathered firewood. Thick fallen branches were all too wet to burn but the smaller twigs were dry. I don't think it rained recently. The air just tends to be moist and the ground boggy.

We rinsed off at the stream and filtered drinking water with my First Need water purifier. Our hiking pace was slow and the temperature probably never got about 80 degrees so we didn't drink much. Maybe a half liter for Norma and a little over one liter for me.

I boiled water and rehydrated some noodles. I also made macaroni and cheese.

We added a few more rocks to the existing walls of the fire ring then got the campfire started.

After dinner, we put our food, trash, and toothpaste in a bear bag to be hung from a tree about 50 meters from our tent. On the way to the tree, we saw a HUGE toad. From snout to tail (not that it had a tail) it was a good seven inches long and very fat.

As the three quarter moon rose, we heard wild dogs (perhaps coyote?) in the distance. They howled frequently during the evening. We also heard an owl. Otherwise, the night was silent. No insect noises.

I'm guessing the temperature dropped to the low 40s during the night. It did not rain.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

Day Two: September 10, 2006

We awoke about 0740. The sky was misty and the air was cool. It reminded me of San Francisco.

I got a campfire started and heated up turkey pepperoni and cheese quesadillas. Norma put away the tent and sleeping bags.

We started hiking at 1000, heading south on Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513). We spotted a frog along the way. Unlike the fat, bumpy one we saw yesterday, this one was smooth and trim. Only about four inches from nose to butt (see first photo on left). The squishy bog seemed like a much better place for the frog than hikers.

Just north of the Big Stonecoal Trail and Dunkenbarger Trail (TR558) intersection, west of Stonecoal Run, we found another field. There were sandy areas near the creek and numerous blueberries, just ripe for the pickin' (see second photo on left).

Continuing south on Big Stonecoal Trail, about 0.6 miles south of Dunkenbarger, we veered to the right (east) to catch Rocky Point Trail (TR554). There were no signs to indicate this new trail...only cairns. About 0.3 miles south of the Big Stonecoal Trail and Rocky Point Trail intersection, we came to our first waterfall (see third photo on left). I'm not sure why but waterfalls and crashing waves on a beach make me feel both relaxed and stimulated at the same time. The air always seems a little fresher too. The view at the falls onto the stream below was also nice (see fourth photo on left).

For about 1.5 miles, on the section of Big Stonecoal Trail south of the peak of Breathed Mountain, the terrain became extremely rocky. A cairn marked an area relatively free of brush where we were able to scramble up the rocks, eat some snacks, and enjoy a scenic view (see fifth photo on left). Two backpackers also scrambled up the rocks but they were accompanied by their dogs, one of which was a Belgian Shephard. He said that breed was good for rock scrambling. Below, we heard several people on horses walk by.

Even the mountain had interesting vegetation. Not sure what it was but some trees harbored an abundant supply of tasty looking fruit (see sixth photo on left).

Our objective was to head south when we came to Red Creek Trail (TR514) and follow it back to the car. About two miles from the Big Stonecoal and Rocky Point Trial intersection, we came to a cairn where the trail split. However, instead of splitting to northwest and southeast, it appeared to split to northwest and northeast. There was no sign. Estimating that we were at the location where the split should occur, we took the road to the right, hoping it would quickly turn southeast. It did not. It kept heading northeast but it did go downhill, towards Red Creek. We encountered some healthy looking mushrooms along the way (see seventh photo on left). The trail was poorly maintained and appeared to have been used little. At the creek, we expected to find the trail heading parallel to the stream. Unfortunately, it appeared to have just faded away. We spent a good deal of time searching for Red Creek Trail. I found numerous pieces of iron from machinery of long ago. I scouted on the other side of the creek and found no trail.

We ate a teriyaki tuna on tortilla lunch then decided to retrace our path while there was still plenty of daylight. We did not look forward to having to walk on the stony Rocky Point Trail again. But as we approached the cairn where we left the trail, we realized the problem was that we took the wrong fork. While the map showed a three way intersection, it was actually a four way intersection! The path we should have taken was behind us. Only now did we see it because we were facing the opposite direction. We assumed there would only be two choices when in fact there were three. I was reminded of "The Bad News Bears" where the coach told the kids to not ASSUME anything because it makes an "ASS out of U and ME."

Greatly relieved, we continued southeast on Red Creek Trail, thereby sticking to Norma's original plan. We did another stream crossing. A variety of fungii of different shapes and colors were encountered including some that were pink around the edges. The ones in the eighth photo on the left reminded me of potatoes.

About 1.5 miles south of the Rocky Point and Red Creek Trail intersection, we came to another waterfall. This one was not as high but, in my opinion, more scenic than the last. There was a tree next to it with some type of vegetation (perhaps stringy roots?) that hung down, dripping water (see ninth photo on left). Steep, dark rocks surrounded one side of the area at the base of the falls. The place had a dark valley feel to it even though it wasn't very big. The moist air kept the rocks slippery and forced us to make each footstep well placed.

The last couple of miles on Red Creek Trail were relatively easy. It was flat and not so rocky. The thick tree cover kept us shaded and made it appear later in the day than it really was. We headed west, back to the car, passing Big Stonecoal Trail and Little Stonecoal Trail.

Norma found and ate wild apples from a tree alongside the trail.

We arrived back at the car at 1745. Our day's journey took us about 8 miles.

After a turkey pepperoni and cheese tortilla wrap, we were on our way home. We stopped along the way for a Philly Cheesesteak dinner.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

Looking back on this adventure, it seems hard to believe we only backpacked 13.5 miles. Unlike many of my outdoor adventures, Dolly Sods Wilderness enabled me to see and do a great deal in a small area. We saw two very different waterfalls, did numerous stream crossings, trekked through bogs, walked through grassy fields, did rock scrambling, heard coyotes and owls, saw and ate a variety of wild fruit, and saw a multitude of plant life and fungii. Some parts of the trip were easy and others were challenging. But what made it special was the variety. It was an experience for the senses. One which I will never forget.