Dolly Sods Wilderness Backpack

 

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Description: The Dolly Sods Wilderness is one of the crown jewels of the Monongahela National Forest. This outing is a 15 mile backpack with an optional side trip to the Lion's Head Overlook, first exploring the heart of the Canyon, Red Creek, and then the western rim. The trip is laid out in such a way as to allow late arrival and early departures for distant travelers. The first day covers 4 miles, the second almost 7 (not counting the 3 mile round trip to the overlook) and the third about 3 miles. Mileage can easily be increased by adding side trips or the trip can be reduced to 2 days if you plan on getting there early on the first morning and leaving later on the second day. Simply change your campsites.

You will explore Red Creek and its tributaries, some of the waterfalls and the blueberry bogs and pine plantations of the plateau. Be prepared for rocky and muddy trails, false trails, high water crossings and the lack of signs. Recently signs have been posted at all trail junctions but they often disappear. Furthermore, cairns may direct you onto a trail, a campsite or a dead end. Do your homework, be prepared and allow extra time for each day.

The weather at the Sods can change abruptly. If camping, bring some warmer gear for the nights. In the end of May night time temps might still reach the low 40s. Red Creek and its tributaries rise and fall rapidly during rain events. We've seen it drop a foot overnight.

The hike begins behind a cabin on the left after crossing an old steel bridge.

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Trail Notes: Before starting, take note that there are no blazes in Dolly Sods. Recently, sign posts have been re-installed at all trail intersections but they have been known to disappear. Cairns can help but some lead to dead ends or campsites.

Day 1: From the parking area, walk up Red Creek Trail. It begins as a wide forest road which stops at a backwater of Red Creek. Cross and immediately turn right on a narrow footpath, following close to the bank. Part of the trail has been blown out. This area will become apparent to you shortly. Bushwhack through this area and pick up a well-defined footpath on the other side. Follow it to a grassy clearing with a trail that comes in on the left. This is Little Stone Coal Trail. You may want to take the short trip out to the crossing to examine the ford for your return trip. If it looks too risky there is an alternate return route that will be described later. 

Return to Red Creek Trail. Proceed upstream, first along a railroad grade and then climbing gradually up a very rocky footpath. At about 0.91 miles from the junction with Little Stonecoal Trail you will come to a cairn and a trail that goes to the left. This trail ends at a campsite. Continue straight on the main trail. Beyond this point to the left will be a sketchy trail marked with a cairn on the downhill side that descends through the Rhododendron. The trail is hard to find and steep but is a quick connection with Big Stonecoal Trail and the rest of Red Creek Trail. This is a popular campsite. Shortly after your descent turn upstream (right) at the trail junction sign. You will join an old railroad grade for a while then bear right onto a footpath that will climb up above the creek. In 1.5 miles reach the junction of Fisher Spring Run Tr on the right. Descend to Red Creek. There are several campsites upstream from here on an old railroad grade. Follow it and pick the site of your choosing.

Day 2: Retrace your steps towards Red Creek Trail. The best fording area is usually near a broken tree trunk in a slight opening on the bank. The point to reach on the other side is near a couple of big boulders on a sandy beach. Cross the creek and turn right onto the continuation of Red Creek Trail. Initially the climb will be slight. You’ll pass a couple of nice campsites on the right before the grade intensifies.

 At 0.69 miles come to the junction of Rocky Point Tr. Cross it and continue to climb steeply for about another 100 yards before reaching another railroad grade. Turn right onto the grade. In 1.36 miles pass the junction of Breathed Mt Tr on the left and in another 0.2 miles reach “The Forks”. There is good camping on both sides of the Left Fork. After visiting “The Forks” retrace your steps and turn right onto the Breathed Mt Tr. Climb very steeply for about 1/3 of a mile through a predominantly hardwood forest. At the crest the woods will open up to a beautiful scene … a highlands plateau complete with blueberry bogs and young Red Spruce. For 2.3 miles you’ll weave in and out of the bogs with parts of the trail being pretty muddy. The beaver ponds shown on the map are mostly gone, filled in by the heath. I can’t note the exact location but about halfway across you will pass through a pretty impressive stand of pine (Great for camping but not sure about water availability.), then some more bogs, then a mixed forest with a lot of Red Spruce (The trail is very rocky here.), a few more bogs and a final climb through more woods to the intersection with Big Stonecoal and Blackbird Knob Trails. There will be a gray Forest Service Kiosk and trail sign in the middle of a grassy field.

Head down Big Stone Coal Trail. WARNING: right at the edge of the woods there is a sink hole. Stay on the logs or circle this area. If you step in it you will find yourself in mud up to your knees!!! Continue downhill, at times walking in a stream. Soon you will be walking on a railroad grade with Big Stone Coal Run coming in from the left and a tributary coming in from the right. At about 0.97 miles from the trail junction with Breathed Mt Trail you will pass a campsite on the left. In another 0.14 miles ford Big Stonecoal Run. There are 2 more campsites right after the ford on the left. The trail then veers east, away from the run and travels roughly along the edge between bogs and grand Pine plantations. These are popular camping spots but I think the closest water source is the run you just crossed. The trail will then turn south for a short distance. Before reaching the southern most edge of the plantation the trail will jog left and uphill through the plantation. A faint trail continuing south (to the right) here will take you out to yet one more great view of highland meadows with a backdrop of mountains. Stay straight on the main trail uphill to continue. The trail will go east for just a little bit before turning south and then bending westward again.

Cross to the west bank of Big Stone Coal at about 1 mile from the previous crossing and head down stream to the junction with DunkenBarger Trail. Perhaps the greatest campsite in the area is immediately to your left in a splendid stand of Spruce. This supposedly used to be an old lumber camp. FIRST ONE TO THE BEACH ON BIG STONE COAL GETS TO CAMP THERE!!!! 

Day 2: Side Trip to the Lion’s Head: From the campsite, sans packs but with cameras, snacks and water in hand, travel downstream on Big Stone Coal Trail. Cross the run at 0.16 miles. Visit the waterfall on your right. In another 0.56 miles or so Big Stone Coal trail will veer to the right and downhill at the junction with Rocky Point Trail. You want to go straight on Rocky Point Trail, crossing through a rocky area marked by cairns and a very small part-time stream that crosses the trail. At 0.5 miles from the last trail junction and about 5 minutes from the small stream, look for a large cairn on your left. There is a labyrinth of trails here. All will eventually get you to the top but the best one is to the right. You’ll have to step up onto the rocks from the trail. Watch out for the crevices and snakes as you explore the area. On the eastern edge of the rocks you’ll find cairns that will lead you down through a large fissure in the rocks and reconnect you to the unofficial trail. Follow it back down to Rocky point Tr and retrace your steps back to the junction of Big Stonecoal and Dunkenbarger Trails.

 

Head southwest on Dunkenbarger Trail. Be prepared for a lot of mud, roots and rocks, especially on this side of the hill. In about 0.75 miles come to Dunkenbarger Run and a great campsite along the run. There is more camping on the other side and to the left, a short distance down stream. Cross Dunkenbarger Run, turn upstream a few steps and then left to regain the trail. More camping is available to the right of the trail in a meadow. Just before the crest of the hill, on the left, is another great camping spot under 2 of the oldest Hemlock trees in the forest. Water is back at the run.

 

In approximately 0.8 miles from the Dunkenbarger crossing reach the junction with Little Stone Coal Trail. Turn left and descend rapidly along Little Stone Coal Trail as you get glimpses of the waterfalls to your right. Bushwhack to some of them at your own risk and enjoyment. A really big one is about 1/3 of the way down.  

In about 1.4 miles reach Red Creek. You’ll see a beach on the opposite side. The continuation of Little Stonecoal Tr is a few yards downstream from this beach. Make the ford and follow the trail out to the junction with Red Creek Tr in an open grassy area. Turn Right onto Red Creek Tr. From here simply retrace your steps back to the car. If the ford looks too risky, take the following high water route. Note: some bushwhacking is required. 

High water route from Little Stone Coal Run: Walk downstream from the ford. Sometimes you may be able to walk along the rocky bank. Cross what appears to be a stream. Actually it is a backwater of Red Creek. Shortly pass this point probe the brush for access to what appears to be an old overgrown road leading generally down stream. Eventually this will bear away from the creek and stop in a marshy area near a beaver dam that blocks the previously described backwater. If you look out beyond the backwater, over the beaver dam, you may spot an old forest road going up the side of the hill. This is the continuation of the road you are on. If you cannot easily make your way to it from the marshy area regain the creek bank as quickly as possible. Walk down the bank, searching the opposite shore for the confluence of that first backwater you crossed in the morning. When you find it turn your back on Red Creek and bushwhack in a northerly direction through some relatively open woods, crossing the backwater at a more manageable point and climbing steeply to gain the old forest road. Walk up the road keeping an eye out to the left for a well worn but narrow footpath. Follow it steeply down to the old steel bridge on Rt 45 which you drove across in route to the trailhead on the first morning. Cross the bridge and walk back to your car.

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Name: Kathy                                                                                                              Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness Backpack

Date(s): 05/19-20/13                                                                                             Rating: 5

 

 

Critique: We followed the trail notes almost exactly. We saw far more bsckpackers than we were expecting on Sunday, but they were gone on Monday and we had the trails to ourselves. The campsite icons on the trail map were particularly helpful, and the campsites themselves were amazing. There are a couple of additional sites on the ridge near the Lion's Head that are spectacular. My favorite of the campsites was on Dunkenbarger trail between the two old hemlocks, but unfortunately the trail itself is in terrible shape with tons of blowdown. Next time I'll skip that trail. The variety in this 17-or-so mile loop is great and the terrain is not challenging. I found it to be a perfect, fairly easy two-day loop, and it would be ideal for first-time backpackers (especially kids) because of the relative ease, variety, abundance of water and nice backcountry campsites. I am looking forward to coming back and doing the north half of the Sods.

 

Lion's Head Photo

 

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Name: Rob                                                                                                                  Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness Backpack

Date: 05/25-27/13                                                                                                  Rating: 4

 

Critique: We did this hike Memorial Day weekend. The weather was absolutely perfect, which probably accounts for the (relatively) large numbers we saw on the trail, but still by no means as crowded as some of the more established parks and trails. The directions and descriptions were right on and very easy to follow. We camped the first night just after the Red Creek ford. There are a couple of sites on the right, and the second one before the trail gets steep was really nice, with a big fire ring and easy river access. However, the section of trail just after that site gets pretty messy. Lots of downed trees with some steep and tricky scrambles to get around. Nothing insanely hard, but it adds quite a bit of time and effort to the regular trail. We actually ended up skipping the Dunkenbarger and Little Stonecoal leg, because some guys out there warned us off, as well as the previous review on this site. Just to get onto the trail from the junction there is an immediate tree to duck, and it seems like it doesn't get much better. Other sections of trail have had a bit of work done, but still quite messy. Just be aware that there are no campsites or water spots on Big Stonecoal after the Dunkenbarger junction. So we continued down to Red Creek, and camped just after the ford. This made for a longer day than planned, but wasn't too bad. We'd even considered just hiking out that night, but I'm glad we stayed, even if the sites were pretty full and we had to ask to share a site with another group. Make sure you have solid boots, because as the description says, the trail is very rocky in parts. We didn't encounter any big muddy areas, but it has also been very dry. Any rain at all and you could easily be up to your shins. Highly recommended, just plan to spend some extra time fighting the lingering results of Sandy.

 

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Name: Joe                                                                                                                  Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness Backpack

Date(s): 4/27 to 29/13                                                                                           Rating: 4

 

Critique: I did this hike with my girlfriend for my birthday around the end of April and overall it was a great hike. We hiked to the campgrounds near the breathed mtn trail/red creek trail junction on the first day and that seemed to be a good place to break it up. The first day there is a lot of pushing through overgrown rhododendrons and the trail is very hard to follow at places, especially between the trailhead and somewhere around the big stonecoal trail junction. After the first day there isn't a lot of green yet in the area and we saw very little wildlife aside from some birds and a deer. We also saw no other people after the first campground. The latter half of the Breathed mtn trail and especially the Dunkenbarger trail were full of downed trees. It became laughable after awhile and it felt like we were bushwhacking more than we were actually on the trail. The downed trees got very old after awhile but the area is beautiful and I highly recommend this hike. Be prepared for lots of gnats that show up if you stop near the river and very, very cold water crossings.

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Name: K.C.                                                                                                                 Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness Backpack

Date(s): 05-04 through 06-13                                                                               Rating: 4

 

Two friends and I did this hike on an early May weekend. We did about 8 miles the first day, and the remaining 5 miles the second day. We had beautiful weather: 70-75 highs with an overnight low in the 30s. The greenery schedule is a bit slower in this area than in D.C., so the deciduous trees were just starting to bud. Most of the greenery was in the form of rhododendron and spruce trees. Like others, we had a bit of trouble at the early part of the red creek trail because there are a lot of misleading cairns. On the way back we followed the trail, and I found the point that we lost it on the way in. Perhaps 300 yards in, the trail descends out of a wooded area and you get your first unobstructed view of the creek. The trail appears to veer off to the left towards the creek, but it actually goes up a short muddy hill. Standing at this point, it is very hard to tell that there is a trail ahead of you because at the top of the small muddy embankment, it curves slightly to the left behind some tree trunks. Even if you can’t find the actual trail, once you hit the Little Stonecoal Trail (you’ll see cairns on either side of the creek), you can easily head back away from the river and pick up the Red Creek Trail again. We had a lot of trouble with down trees on the latter half of the trip (beginning at about the junction of the Red Creek Trail and the Rocky Point Trail). The area must have had a particularly ice or snowstorm, because the trees most affected were medium size Red Spruce. This was worst on the Dunkenbarger trail; it was to the point where we were bushwhacking around or climbing under/over downed Red Spruce every 50 meters or so. Often it was difficult to find the trail again on the other side. Other than the downed trees, this was a fantastic trip! The second half (once you leave the Red Creek Trail) was very secluded, and we encountered few people. We also encountered almost no wildlife except for an occasional bird.

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Name: J. Parker                                                                                                         Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness Backpack
Date: July 19-21, 2012                                                                                            Rating: 3

Critique: Thank you for the trail notes! I think we might still be lost out there without them. We definitely did not get to experience the cool mountain air of the Sods. High humidity, temperatures in the low 80s and lots of rain made this a bit of a death march for my 15 year old son and me.

As others have said, the most difficult route finding was in the first mile or so on the Red Creek Trail. The trail appeared to descend, then just ended at the river. You need to stay high above the river for a while. The Dunkenbarger Trail was by far the worst trail conditions I have ever experienced. At first, we didn't know it was a trail because it was a running stream complete with small waterfalls. After that, it became a series of ponds with only a few rocks and roots to help you cross.

My son fell in the water on the final crossing of Red Creek. The high water conditions made this one a little scary. Looking back, we probably should have tried to find the alternate crossing.

It certainly felt like a huge accomplishment to complete this one. I'll come back, maybe in the early fall next time. Thanks again.

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Name: Jessica Paolucci                                                                                           Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness Backpack
Date: Sept 3-4 -11                                                                                                   Rating: 4.5

Critique: Love, love loved this trip! I know its meant for three days, two nights but we decided to do it all in two days, which was plenty of time for us. The first part of red creek, was extremely difficult to keep track of, the trail just disappears but this outline was very helpful as to certain things to look for and good places to camp out (we stayed at the Forks)! The second waterfall you come to on red creek trail was so much fun to play in, especially because it was super muggy on Saturday but the climate was wonderful up on top of Breathed mtn. Loved the creek crossings and totally different environments on either side of the mountain as well as the top! We will definitely be recommending this trip to friends and may have to make a visit back soon!

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Name: Steve                                                                                                              Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness Backpack
Date: 7-9-11                                                                                                              Rating: 4

Critique: This trail was awesome! Saw some great scenery along the way. Me & my buddy completed it in one day, but it wasn't easy. The rocky terrain can really do a number on your feet & ankles. We started around 8:30 am & finished around 7 pm. The waterfalls were awesome, climbing up around the lion's head was fun, & picking blueberries was fun. The only complaint is that it's not marked very well.

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Name: Paul                                                                                                                 Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness Backpack
Date: 2-4 Oct 2009                                                                                                   Rating: 4.5

Critique: Other than slipping off a rock while boulder hopping the last crossing of Red Creek, this was an absolutely wonderful trip! Even getting a little wet didn't make it too bad. If I were to do this particular trip again, I'd try and arrive a little earlier in the day and camp at the Forks if possible. Beautiful area!!!

My father-in-law and I did this trip. He has much more experience than I and said this was easily the worst terrain he's traversed, not that he didn't enjoy it...

Great trip!

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Name: C Griffin                                                                                                           Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness
Date: 06/27/09                                                                                                         Rating: 4.5

Critique: I extended the trail somewhat since we were going to have 4 days there. We did Red creek - Little StoneCoal - Dunkenbarger - Big StoneCoal - Blackbird Knob - Red Creek - Rocky Point - Big StoneCoal - Red Creek. Hands down the most diverse and beautiful scenery I have ever seen. The stream crossing on Dunkenbarger looked more like a Botanical Garden than wilderness! We camped there our first night. We found a nice campsite in a pine forest north of the creek crossing on BlackBird Knob. We put in a long day on day 3 to see Lion's Head which did not disappoint. We spent the night on a nice open area along the junction of Big Stonecoal and red creek our last night.

Tips - Make sure you wear comfortable shoes/boots. The rocky trails are no joke and can make the hike unpleasant if you are not careful. There were signs of bears, make sure you are prepared to hang your food, etc. Try to avoid filtering water on the stream/creek at Blackbird Knob - the iron content is so high that it pretty much ruined a brand new filter. I wouldn't bring kids on this adventure, I have a 7 year old that I normally take with me. Glad I didn't on this one, some of the trails are a little to physically demanding I think.

The only reason I will not give it a 5 out of 5 at this point is because I am sure there is a true 5 out there that I have not been able to visit yet.

Thank you Mr. Hyker for all of the good info. It made navigation very easy. I would recommend this trip to anyone and everyone looking for a nice mixture of solitude and scenery!

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Name: Galen                                                                                                              Hike: Dolly Sods
Date: 3/27-3/28-2009                                                                                            Rating: 2

Critique: With my wife and two dogs, we originally planned on setting out from up by Bear Rocks, but we arrived to find that P.R.75 was closed. Maybe I overlooked it, but it needs to be emphasized that it's closed until April. We altered the trip to start out from the south, up Red Creek Trail. No big deal, but I was hoping to start out with the Dolly Sods North scenery.

The hike along Red Creek was very nice, although you have to pay attention to the trail. We lost about a half-hour trying to find the unblazed paths that tend to disappear. The terrain is pretty rugged if you're lugging 25+ lbs of gear. A lot of ups and downs and detours around fallen trees. The creek itself was vigorous this day. We had to carry both dogs across in cold, knee-deep currents.

With cold, wet, tired feet we didn't make it as far as we had wanted too. Our campsite near Blackbird knob was very nice though, as were many of the campsites that we passed that day. Right next to a running creek on flat ground and a stone fire pit. It rained all night though and we had no desire to slog around on already muddy trails the next day, so we hiked out to the road and walked all the way back to the car in super-thick fog.

So if there's any wisdom to pass along, it would be to keep an open mind and be flexible enough when exploring the Sods. This is a big place with a variety of terrains and ever-changing weather. That, and bring a few extra pairs of socks.

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Name: WaldoAR15                                                                                                    Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness
Date: Sept. 8-10-2008                                                                                             Rating: 4.5

Critique: Nice hike!

The rocks were kind of hard on the old ankles though. ;) Saw a few deer, kicked up a grouse, coyotes at night. No Bears, but quite a bit of scat on little Stonecoal as the white oaks were dropping acorns. Good mast crop in that area. If you want to see bears, this is where to go right now as they will pretty much forego anything else for the acorns.

The upper end of Big Stonecoal was still loaded with ripe blueberries everywhere you look.

No water crossing problems.

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Name: Brandon                                                                                                          Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness BP
Date: 5/22/08 - 5/24/08                                                                                        Rating: 5

Critique: Stupendous scenery. Red Creek and all its tributaries are a delight. Tons of campsites. If you think you've found a good area, chances are if you explore around a few minutes you may even find a better site!

The plains on top were an interesting site this time of year - everything was still dead like it was winter. Still boggy as crap though.

The main downer is that I saw few animals - just some birds and 1 deer. Not even a squirrel to be found!

Only took 1 wrong turn - when ascending the Red Creek trail after fording it, when Rocky Point comes in from the left, the trail that seemingly continues to your right is some blown-out trail that takes you slowly to a nowhere place next to Red Creek. Just keep going up the Red Creek trail like the directions say.

Hope to go back again when things are greener! And when I don't have to ford Red Creek in sub-50 degree weather.

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Name: Zeb Amoss                                                                                                     Hike: Dolly Sods Wilderness
Date: 09/01-03-07                                                                                                   Rating: 3.5

Critique: This was a wonderful hike. Views along Red Creek are spectacular. Although recent dry weather caused the waterfalls to be rather small, they were great anyway. The breathed mountain trail weaves in and out of the plains providing the right mix of high level blueberry glades and conifer forest. I did not visit the lions head. Somehow I missed the side trail leading that way. Little stone coal was rougher than anticipated and could be a real kick in the lungs if hiked in the uphill direction. All in all a wonderful weekend.

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