Another weekend backpacking in Dolly Sods – Blackbird Knob and Red Creek Gorge

Total Distance: 9 miles (plus wandering)

Elevation Gain: ~1,500 feet

It was time for a long overdue hike into the woods. 2020 has been a strange year to say the least. It seemed like something came up every time I tried to make plans for a long-term trip. And at this point “long-term” is anything longer than a weekend.

Keeping things coordinated

This past weekend I was able to swing 3 days hiking through Dolly Sods, WV with 3 friends. Similar to our trip last year in Dolly Sods, but this time we started farther South in order to hike into the Red Creek Gorge and see Lion’s Head Overlook.

Coordinating a trip with multiple people can be tricky since you have to accommodate each person’s schedule, but COVID-19 has thrown another wrench into the coordination effort. Nobody wants to bring back a disease to their family, so we did everything we could to prevent that from happening. It’s also difficult to pull your friends away from their families for too long, especially when they are leaving their small children alone with their partner for 3 days.

As much as I would have liked to hike in Dolly Sods for longer to complete the loop, hiking with friends for a few days is usually better than five days on your own. I digress.

Blackbird Knob Trailhead

Blackbird Knob Trailhead Sign - 10-9-2020
Blackbird Knob Trailhead Sign

There are some parking spaces at the trailhead (maybe a dozen) where you can actually turn off of the road, but we were forced to parallel park on the grass along the road. We were not the only people who decided to take the long Columbus Day weekend to hike. Hundreds of cars were parked along the road in Northern Dolly Sods.

Parking

Some people decided to park right along the edge of the road (not off of the road) either due to laziness or poor vehicle choice. NOT A GOOD IDEA! Not only did this cause traffic jams along the road, it puts the cars at risk of getting hit (which we saw two days later when we left the area).

Insane parking at Dolly Sods - 10-9-2020
Insane parking at Bear Rocks

Due to a car accident of our own, we were delayed in departing the trailhead at our desired deadline of 5pm. One member of our crew got into a fender bender before we got to Dolly Sods. So we hit the trailhead a little late (6:30). We only had about an hour of daylight and we knew we had about a 90 minute hike to get to our campsite. We could hike in the dark for a while, what could go wrong?

Sometimes you get lost

Dolly Sods Trail Map

Only a few minutes down Blackbird Knob Trail the trail seemed to run straight into a campsite. We asked the campsite occupants if we were on the trail and they replied that we were on a “parallel” trail and the main trail was just to the left. One guy said that the trail we were on would link up with the main trail if we kept going.

That was good enough for us. We were running low on daylight and staying straight beat changing course to find the “real” trail. As we made our way farther the trail became more and more ambiguous. We continued to veer to the left in search of the true trail, but we were unable to find it.

After hiking a mile farther down the hill, and about 30 minutes of wandering back and forth, we decided to find a flat spot to set up camp. We could find the trail in the morning.

Dolly Sods campsite - 10-9-2020
Improvised campsite near Blackbird Knob Trail

Later on, we heard (and saw) hikers less than 100 yards away. They appeared to be on the main trail. Missed it by that much, but we had already set up camp. It was disappointing to have failed navigating our course and missed the trail by such a short distance. However our improvised campsite served its purpose. We built a firepit and cooked dinner. We were likely the first people to camp there in a long time (maybe ever). That was satisfying to know.

Red Creek

The next morning we heard more hikers heading down Blackbird Knob Trail. A few of them were also following in our footsteps down the “parallel” trail and getting quasi-lost. After packing up, we made it less than 100 yards South back to the real trail.

Back on Track to Red Creek

After about a mile on Blackbird Knob Trail is the junction for the Red Creek Trail. We turned left to head South. About halfway to the creek the trail descends steeply into the gorge. It was very rocky on the last half mile before reaching the creek.

Crossing Red Creek - 10-10-2020
One of the creek crossings – Blackbird Knob Trail

Once we made it to the creek, we claimed the first campsite we found. We plopped our gear down and checked out some sites a little farther down the trail. After surveying the area, we decided to keep our original site as the sites down the trail were already crowded.

Dolly Sods scenery – Red Creek Gorge

The area along Red Creek (technically the Left Fork Red Creek) is very scenic. It appears unspoiled as the creek runs over the rocks bounded by spruce trees and rhododendrons.

We picked an excellent time of year to hike as the leaves (on the hardwoods) had changed colors. Great for scenery (and kindling for a camp fire later on).

Slightly South of our campsite is where the Red Creek forks. No wonder so many people wanted to camp down this way! You are on a peninsula and bordered by waterfalls on 3 sides; excellent views as well. I was happy with our more remote campsite as the water ran peacefully over the rocks. Honestly, I don’t think we could have gone wrong with our location for the night.

Day Hike

We made a smart decision to gather firewood before venturing out for the day. This is a good idea anytime you are backpacking through the woods, but especially in a place like Dolly Sods. The weather can be a little erratic, wet, and muddy. We were also dealing with the remnants of Hurricane Delta, which was supposed to hit in the afternoon.

After about an hour collecting and cutting wood, we stacked it under the tarp and headed farther South on the Red Creek Trail toward Lion’s Head. Rain had started to sprinkle and we knew that it would probably get heavier as the sun went down.

Sometimes you don’t make it where you want to go

After a mile or so on the trail, we asked some hikers heading the opposite direction how much farther to the overlook. They responded that it would take about 30-45 minutes. We could probably make it there faster (they didn’t look like the fastest hikers), but we were once again concered with hiking in the dark (and on slippery ground) on our return to camp if we proceeded to Lion’s Head. The view would be foggy due to the rain. So we bailed on our destination and headed back to camp as the rain picked up.

The gorge would be a great view on a clear day. It was clear enough we could see how dramatic the drop was into the gorge from the trail. The farther South you go, the deeper it gets.

When we returned to camp, we had a tarp set up and allowed us to enjoy the sights and sounds of the creek while staying relatively dry.

Departure

Oddly enough, it stopped raining at night and I was able to sleep with my tent semi-open. We hit the trail right before noon to return the same way we had hiked in. It seemed like everyone knew the forecast as most people headed out early. The farther we hiked, the heavier it rained. We were able to get back to the car in 1 hour and 45 minutes. The last section of the trail (which we had veered off of 2 days earlier) had become very muddy; typical for Dolly Sods.

The silver lining for our late and wet start was that the trail was thinly traveled and we could enjoy the fall colors (through the mist).

Looking South along Blackbird Knob Trail - 10-11-2020
Looking South along Blackbird Knob Trail – it’s a little more colorful past the fog

Map of our route

Only about 9 miles of hiking due to weather and time constraints.

Flora and Fauna

The animals generally steer clear of you here. As we were setting up our second campsite, Lenny said “Look behind you”. A deer was standing in the creek within 10 yards of me. We must have set up along one of the animal routes. Other than the deer, we didn’t see or even hear many animals.

My interesting (but not really) find was a mushroom growing through a stump at our campsite. The most abundant trees around our camp(s) were beech, birch, and maple along with the spruce stands that stay green all year.

Mushroom growing inside stump - 10-10-2020
Mushroom growing inside stump

Sometimes you have a great time

Despite being a brief trip, it’s better than no trip at all. The weather was good for a while and we got lost a little. Dolly Sods is not a huge area, so it would be difficult to get lost for long. Next time maybe we will bring the GPS. The middle of October is a great time to hike almost anywhere. In Dolly Sods the colors were out and the evergreen spruce/pine mixing with the deciduous trees makes the area even more unique this time of year.

Thanks to my hiking buddies Dave, Lenny, and Josiah for making this a great weekend and doing all the work. I didn’t cook a single meal.

The “dirty” rock at Red Creek and Blackbird Knob Trail junction

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