Dolly Sods Backpack Trip Report - 8/14-15
September 28, 2004
Thought I'd file a trip report from my first backpack trip in 8 years! My wife and I have a 3 year old who has given us a convenient excuse to not backpack recently - but the prior years' gap was pure slackness. Anyway, my wife's niece volunteered to babysit our daughter so we could get away for a weekend. My wife thought Mexico - Cancun or the Bahamas - pampered resort living. I thought cheap - Dolly Sods, tent, sleeping bags zipped together, no shaving or showers - back to nature - Adam and Eve. Anyway, I guess the idea was so off the wall that she went for it! We have a place in Timberline, so we drove up Friday night and stayed at our house. Saturday morning, we drove up to the top of the mountain, parked, and set off into the wilderness. The trek I selected was a loop that followed Big Stonecoal Trail to Rocky Point Trail to Red Creek Trail, and back following the Breathed Mountain Trail.
Any of you who have hiked the Sods will know all the maps are wrong, there are numerous unnamed uncharted trails to lure you off your chosen path, GPS's are unreliable due to tree cover, even compasses can be skewed by some mystical magnetism emanating from the rocks up there. Anyway, these are some of the reasons I really love hiking there - it is an adventure that requires you to keep your head screwed on or you will get lost. Actually, either way you will get lost - I always seem to. Thankfully, the Sods is a pretty small area so, at least during fair weather, getting lost is not such a bad thing.
The weather was great - 60 degrees and sunny. The leaves up there are starting to turn slowly. Trail conditions were excellent. The trails were the driest I've seen them. Big Stonecoal is a beautiful trail. One of the things I really love about hiking the Sods is the variety of terrain and scenary you encounter. The trail winds through hardwoods, quiet and dark groves of red spruce, out into vast meadows where beavers have shaped the land, and though dense groves of rhododendron.
Our plan was to hike to the junction with the Rocky Point trail, check out the view from Lions Head, and camp our first night in a spruce grove I'd read about just above Lions Head. Well, we missed the side trail to Lions Head and ended up well into the Rocky Point trail before I realized we had gone too far. If you have hiked Rocky Point, I'm sure you understand why doubling back is not a desireable option. The trail traverses an old railroad grade and is composed largely of sharp-pointy ballast rocks about the size of babyheads. Long story short - this trail is tough on the feet. We pressed on to Red Creek trail hoping to snag a campsite down at the Forks before it got crowded. At this point the hike turned into a bit of a deathmarch. Though both of us are in pretty good shape - neither was really comfortable hauling 30 and 40 lb packs on our backs for 8-9 miles! When we finally reached the Forks we lucked into a great campsite by following the first side trail to the right as we approached the confluence. Our site had a large fire ring - thoughtfully stocked with tinder and firewood by previous campers, a wonderful stretch of cascades, and a Totem pole carved into a dead tree trunk! There were only a couple other groups camping at the Forks that night, and we didn't see or hear a soul from dinner time on. That night temps got down into the upper 30s I'm sure. It was COLD!
We awoke to a brisk fall-like morning. Things warmed up quickly as the sun rose, and temps climbed into the 70s by the afternoon. We broke camp, shouldered our packs and headed up to the Breathed Mountain trail junction, which was just above our campsite.
The Breathed Mountain trail starts off with a steady uphill. I've hiked a lot in New Hampshire, so I do not consider this climb very steep. Once up top, the trail broke out of the forest and into a large meadow full of blueberry bushes. The bushes were starting to turn red, and were still loaded with sweet fruit. We stopped and loaded up a couple sandwich bags full before heading on. Breathed Mountain is another classic Sods trail - in and out of cover with wonderful views across large meadows. Lots of Blueberries along the way. The last part of the trail is a bit rocky - more boulder sized stones than the babyheads on Rocky Point. Our misfortune missing Lions Head and its campsites the day before turned into good fortune this day. We were left with only 3.5-4 miles of hiking and we were back in our truck within 2.5 hours.
Overall it was a great weekend, we both had a wonderful time. Backpacking and camping is a wonderful way to reconnect with your significant other. No TV, newspapers, radios, bills, neighbors, in laws, just the two of us - no escape! Hopefully we will be able to get back into the woods for another trip soon. My daughter loves hiking and the outdoors, so we are planning a car camping trip up in Canaan sometime in October. I hope to brainwash her into becoming an outdoors girl (so I can offload some of the gear from my pack!).
Hmmm... you don't happen to have a black lab or labs at home do you?
Because I was pickin' berries along Brethed Mountain Trail that Sunday morning. Hiked over from Old Timberline. Had two dogs... one of which, the lab, was grazing on blueberries.
Now that the secret of Brethed Mountain is out... it's quite possibly the most senic trail IN the Sods. And it has the best blueberries... just polishing off the tail end of my 16 cups of them.
Another group of guys I ran into that Saturday (the day before), were standing at the start of Big Stonecoal Trail off of Salamander... telling me they wanted to camp near Rocky Point. I pointed to the confluence of Fisher's Spring and Red Creek and said, "Go there... it's worth the extra bit of walking, 12-foot waterfalls next to your site and such." The "leader" told me they were camping around rocky point... I wonder how large their chiropractic bill was after sleeping on those rocks.
Of course... I can't really see your hike to the Forks as being very extreme... after coming-off of a Philmont trek in New Mexico.. that involved a few 10+ mile days, and one 14 miler (up 2000', along a ridge of blasted rock, up a 600' rock, down 3000' to HQ)... with 45-50 pound packs on all day.
Canaanman - that was us on the trail Sunday - I love your dogs. I'll admit this trip was pretty modest - especially compared to your NM adventure, but it was our first in a long time so our 9 mile day with 40lbs on my back was extreme enough - in a relative way.
I finally had time to savor this report over lunch. I could almost imagine myself walking the Breathed Mountain Trail, feeling the cool breeses, and admiring a Purple Finch in a distant tree.
Dolly Sods/Blackwater Canyon/Roaring Plains/Spruce Knob/Seneca Rocks--America's NEXT national park.
Hey TGD - nice report. Any idea of actual mileage?
I myself have a weekend trip coming up soon for my wife and I, and having never been to the Sods area I think this may be a great start.
thedan: My best guess is around 11-12 miles. Maps are not great for the area, and the dense tree canopy in some spots blocked out my GPS - so best I can do is estimate. The camping down at the forks on Red Creek is awesome - lots of great spots. There are also a couple nice spots just up the hill from the Forks on the Breathed Mountain Trail.
I was in Canaan Valley this weekend, trees are near peak - I doubt they'll last to the weekend; however, the Sods may be past peak by now. Temps were not too cold - actually more moderate this weekend then when we went in August - just keep an eye on the forecast because it can get pretty cold up there any time of year.
One sight we missed on this trip was the view from Lion's Head. It is accessible by an unmarked side trail off the Rocky Point Trail. If you are heading south on Big Stonecoal you will pass a waterfall just before the junction with Rocky Point. My understanding is that the side trail is maybe 200 yards on the left from that point. The view is spectacular from there. Check out the link below from Trail Pixie's site (a great site for anyone planning a backpack in the area). Hope you have a great trip.http://www.trailpixie.net/dollylion.htm