And it was dry!
I open with that statement because Dolly Sods is notorious for wet and soggy conditions. It is a minor accomplishment to be there when it is not raining. There wasn’t much rain in the weeks leading up to our weekend, so that allowed for many of the “slushy” trails to dry up significantly.
In addition to wonderfully dry and mild conditions, the leaves started changing (not quite to “peak”) which provided a colorful landscape for hiking.
Inevitably, a change in course along the way
I departed the Washington DC area with my friend Allen. We started Thursday afternoon in order to have all of Friday to explore the area. We would be meeting two of our friends the following day on the trail at Dolly Sods.
After about 3 hours on the road including some typical Northern Virginia traffic, we saw a sign for Seneca Rocks. I had heard Seneca Rocks is rather scenic. It was about the same distance as Dolly Sods, so we turned off of US 48 at Moorefield to head South for Seneca Rocks. We also stopped in Moorefield for our last taste of civilization before the weekend: McDonalds.
Allen and I continued from Moorefield to Petersburg where we turned south on Route 28 and found an overnight spot at Seneca Shadows Campground, just south of Seneca Rocks.
The next morning we took advantage of the showers at the campground and later drove just a few minutes to the trailhead for Seneca Rocks.
Hiking to the top of Seneca Rocks is moderately strenuous. The grade is steep, but the trail is quite smooth. At the “top” of the trail, there is an overlook platform where you can safely check out the view. Farther ahead there is a route to get on top of the rocks. There is a sign that warns against climbing the rocks past the overlook, so use your best judgement if you decide to climb it. If you do decide to climb on top of the ridge, look for rock climbers on the South Peak, which is only accessible by climbing.
Perhaps the trail is more strenuous than I thought. On our way down the mountain, many hikers stopped to ask us how much longer until they got to the top. Maybe they weren’t in the best shape. At 2.5 miles round trip, it was a good warm up for Dolly Sods, which was less than an hour away from Seneca Rocks.
Dolly Sods Wilderness
Coming from Seneca Rocks, we turned off of Route 28 onto Jordan Run Road and then onto Road 19 to climb the Allegheny Front. We approached Dolly Sods from the South until we ended up at Bear Rocks, located at the northern wilderness boundary. It’s the first place you will see once you have crested the Continental Divide if you are coming from the East. On my last visit to Dolly Sods, I mentioned that the Bear Rocks area is probably the most popular. Once you get to Dolly Sods, you really don’t have to drive down the road anymore. It’s a great place to start. Although it can get crowded if the weather is nice.
After walking around for some pictures, Allen and I started our journey from Bear Rocks Trailhead (TR522) and hiked just beyond Red Creek to an open campsite close to the trail. It was an easy, mostly downhill, 1 mile hike. We didn’t go too far on the trail since we would be meeting our friends Dave and Lenny after dark on the trail.
Trail Etiquette – some people can’t take “no” for an answer
We apparently picked a very popular campsite. It made sense since we hadn’t ventured far into the forest and we were near the junction for two trails. Perhaps Allen and I hadn’t marked our territory well. Perhaps they do things differently in West Virginia. Whatever the reason, at one point around 9pm, 4 backpackers intruded into our campsite. I thought that perhaps they had not seen us, despite a clearly visible campfire and our tent and hammock set up. Some people were losing the trail after crossing the creek next to our campsite; this was another possible explanation. Perhaps they had made a wrong turn. However after the group deliberated for a minute, they set their packs down and it appeared that they were attempting to set up camp directly next to us.
You can debate me on this, but one of the biggest reasons for backpacking in the wilderness, is to spend some time with nature and away from most people. Our campsite was the perfect size for four people, but our uninvited guests thought they could squeeze in four more right on top of us. Allen and I warned the group that we would have two more people joining us in a few hours, and this campsite isn’t really big enough for 8 people (you would think they could take a hint).
The group picked up their bags and started talking amongst themselves. I am sure they were not too happy with us excluding them, but come on; another few hundred yards or so and they could find another suitable campsite. It’s the wilderness! And the early bird gets the worm. Do you really want to camp within earshot of complete strangers in the woods?
A few minutes later, the group walked through our campsite and stood in a level spot in between Allen’s hammock and my tent which were only spaced about 10 yards apart. It was not difficult to see that they were still planning to setup next to us. It was closer than you would get to anyone at most established campgrounds, let alone in the wilderness. We reiterated our previous point and the group asked why they could not share the site. Allen replied with the point that there are thousands of acres of forest to choose from (Hint hint!) It was dark, so I felt a little guilty for kicking them out. Then again, they had hiked over a mile in the dark and it wasn’t cold or raining, so…time to find another site folks!
Meanwhile, back at the trail
After a burrito dinner, Lenny and Dave arrived around midnight. I was impressed with their dedication. They both had full days and now they were hiking in the middle of the night to find us. We celebrated with some “forest beers”. Another reason why the intruders from earlier would not want to camp next to us: we were loud and obnoxious until 4 in the morning.
Late at night can be a good opportunity to spot wildlife. We didn’t find anything too big (like a bear) but there were plenty of frogs, salamanders, crawfish, and snakes. Dave wandered off a few times to scour the creek for amphibians and reptiles.
The only problem we faced at night were the rodents. A consequence of a frequented campsite is that the animals can become accustomed to a human presence. Unfortunately a mouse infiltrated Dave’s backpack and got away with some of his food during the first night. We spotted a few mice around our campsite. Make sure you have a bear canister or hang your food out of the way. Dave hung his backpack on a tree, but the mice still got to it.
Blackbird Knob – a day hike
The group slept in understandably as we went to sleep just a few hours before the sun came up. We departed our campsite late in the morning and continued deeper into the forest along the Bear Rocks Trail (TR 522). We turned left onto the Raven Ridge Trail, and made a right onto the Dobbin Grade (an old railroad) and quick left onto the Upper Red Creek Trail. Our destination was Blackbird Knob, one of the higher features in Dolly Sods. Unfortunately, Dolly Sods is so flat, that our arrival at Blackbird Knob was quite anticlimactic. Well it’s the journey, not the destination right? The real reward was the seemingly out-of-place barren landscape interlaced with beech and spruce forest, and the color changes as we made our way along the trails.
The group reversed course for our campsite and took a slightly shorter route on the Dobbin Grade (TR 526) and along the Red Creek. We lost the trail at one point as it appears that the Dobbin Grade is not heavily traversed and the trail becomes relatively ambiguous.
The group decided to take the “short cut” through the heath. I think we all regretted this decision as we were far off of the trail. We walked through meadow and then stands of trees where I came to appreciate the trails. Once we returned to the Dobbin Grade, it did not get much easier. We could see why the Dobbin Grade trail is not heavily traversed. It does not drain well. Most of our final 2 miles included walking through swamp-like soil. If you took the wrong approach, your foot would sink deep. People had carved out side-trails to avoid the mud and swamp. Many of the trails in Dolly Sods can become swamp-like, so we were fortunate it only occurred for a short stretch.
After a muddy mile through most of the Dobbin Grade, we approached the Bear Rocks Trail once again. The final 3/4 mile between the Beaver Dam Trail and Bear Rocks Trail is much dryer and scenic. It passes through a Spruce Grove along the Red Creek. We saw a beaver dam (how apropos) and several good campsites next to the creek. Our hike for the day totaled about 8 miles.
Never enough time
We only had one full day in the area, but we made the most of it. We wanted to explore the Red Creek Trail farther south, but didn’t have enough time to get there during our day hike. The Red Creek Trail (TR 514) runs along the gorge which forms out of Red Creek. We will have to save it for next time.
Tips for Dolly Sods
- Bring Rain Gear: you should always have a waterproof layer, but Dolly Sods can have erratic weather. The rain started up one day and we scrambled to set up our tarps, but it never got too heavy
- Make sure you are ready to get your feet wet: we were fortunate that it had been so dry, but we still got pretty muddy on the Dobbin Grade. Make sure your boots can handle it.
- Watch your food: this is another no-brainer for experienced backpackers, but make sure you either have an animal proof container or you hang your food out of reach of most animals. Even a mouse or two can do real damage (and deplete your food resources).
- Sunscreen: I didn’t bring sunscreen since it is later in the season, but my neck was getting burned since much of Dolly Sods is open heath. It could have been much worse if it was July or August
- Grab a campsite: I couldn’t believe how many people passed by our campsite (and tried to steal or “share” it), especially in the dark. During our day hike the trails were very busy too. One couple asked us if we knew of any back-country campsites. We saw plenty along the way, so you should be able to find something. However you might not get your first pick if it’s a crowded weekend in September.
Dolly Sods is definitely unique for the East Coast. It’s a bit of a drive from DC, but if you are within 3 hours in any direction, it’s worth it. Try to plan it out so that you can visit after it has been dry for a couple of weeks too!