“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
I’d have to say I’m a guy who likes variety in my hiking adventures. My hiking to-do list has many flavors, and I’m not one to get stuck on vanilla. That’s why I was a little surprised that me and the boys wound up back in “Almost Heaven West Virginia” and the Dolly Sods Wilderness so soon. Actually, it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever visited the “sods”, since there are so many different types of terrain in one tidy package. Joining Matt and me on our return visit would be Matt’s son Matt, as well as Paul Cummings, Dave Darrow, and his son Noah.
During the trip planning phase Matt and I kicked around a few ideas of how we envisioned the hike. My hike started at Bear Rocks trailhead at the top of Dolly Sods, while Matt’s originated at the Red Creek trailhead in the lower end of the wilderness. The only thing we had to take into account was the fact that Dave and Noah were hiking in and joining us at our camp on the second afternoon, and it made for some interesting ideas. In the end we all agreed that Red Creek was the best choice.
An early start and many miles later and we were turning onto Forest Road 19. As we traveled toward the Red Creek trailhead, FR19 started a rather long descent and it became apparent that we were beginning in the lower valley as opposed to the plateau that Dolly Sods North is known for. My only hope was for nice grades as we regained any lost altitude while on the trail.
One continuing theme in this wilderness area is the lack of trail markers other than junction signs, and other than a few confusing areas early on, the trail was relatively easy to follow, with a nice, steady, moderate grade. It started along Red Creek and would climb in a side slab fashion along the hillside before dropping to meet the creek for a crossing, before once again repeating on another hillside.
We stopped at a high point to eat lunch, and this is where I must confess my ultra light backpacking sin – I brought a frying pan! Actually not just a frying pan but an MSR Flex Skillet, weighing in at 6.7 ounces. What’s the big deal you say? Well, for someone like me who has spent years trimming his load and whittling away at non essentials this is unheard of. I decided that I would eat like a king this trip and see if I could shake my fear of extra gear. On the lunch menu was trail pizza, which consisted of two pita halves stuffed with pepperoni, sauce and mozzarella, and then toasted in the pan. Quick, delicious, and worth the trouble, I’ll rate that meal an A!
Our destination for the day was the same camp that Matt and I had stayed at on the last trip, along the left branch of Upper Red Creek. That changed the moment we hit Three Forks. Plenty of beautiful places to hang, and hardly a soul around convinced us we were home for the night. All I can say is this is my favorite spot to camp in the ‘Sods, with everything a backpacker would want in a temporary home. There are plenty of spots for hangers and non hangers alike without crowding anyone out, a couple of nice creeks, and someone actually took the time to construct Adirondack type stone seats around most of the fire pits. Don’t be confused – this is no campground, but back country camping at it’s best.
After making camp and gathering firewood the next order of business was dinner. I told the guys I was bringing steak, but I think they thought I was kidding. If I was carrying a skillet I wanted a steak that was going to fill it, and I think I succeeded in the form of a 16 ounce thick cut NY Sirloin. As it sizzled away the smell wafted throughout the entire area. Thankfully it was bear season or I would have been concerned about visitors. I’ll call meal #2 a success, and something worth repeating.
After dinner Paul and Matt stoked the fire, and I shared from Psalm 51, which has become something of a regular bedtime read for me as of late. I make it my prayer to ask for God’s mercy and to ask Him to “create in me a clean heart” before I sleep.
What a great nights sleep! The only thing that could have been better would have been a clear night for star watching. No matter, the mid 50’s temperatures were just the ticket for a work weary body, and looking out from the warmth of my nest the view made it clear that this would be a great day in the wilderness. Up and at ’em, chocolate chip pancakes and let’s pack it up and go!
Before breaking camp it had been on my heart to share from Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning”. I am reminded how God is a God of new beginnings from the creation, to the flood, to the cross, to the day you give your heart to the Lord, to every new morning. It says in Lamentations 3:22-23, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning”. What a promise!
Everyone was excited for what the day held in store. We would be climbing to the northern end of Dolly Sods, with it’s high plains and open views. As we climbed the Red Creek Trail toward Blackbird Knob we could hear the sound of dogs running a bear not too far from our position, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if we had seen a bear run across our path. As the dogs excited barks eventually faded we were once again left alone with just the sounds of the forest. No matter, as we gained altitude the forest opened and there were more and more fields and views to take in.
We stopped for a quick snack at the intersection of the Dobbins Grade Trail and the plan was to ascent via the Raven Ridge trail a short distance away. Only one hitch in that plan – Matt had the only map and I didn’t bother to take a look during the break, so we wound up turning left onto Dobbins Grade instead of right. No matter, I like an adventure, right? Anyhow, we drudged along on a lightly used and slightly boggy section of Dobbins Grade, until at last we came upon the Beaver View trail before realizing my mistake. It’s all good, as my pastor likes to say, we’ll just take that trail instead. After 1.2 miles we intersected the Raven Ridge trail and were back on course. Back on familiar terrain we happily hiked along taking in the views.
What an awesome day to be walking in the wilderness – sunny, a slight breeze in the air, beautiful scenery and perfect temperatures. It don’t get much better folks!
Once we reached the Rocky Ridge trail we looked for a rock with a view to enjoy our lunch from. Everyone kicked back, took off their shoes, and took it all in.
Back on the trail we were now on a course back to the valley, and over the next several miles we would pass over a number of knobs and rocky features before finally diving down to Stonecoal Creek. Along the way we passed a couple on horseback, and while I like riding I would rather be walking this rocky stretch of trail.
As we started down the Big Stonecoal Trail our destination was the second crossing of Stonecoal Creek. It had been described by one author as “the most beautiful campsite in the entire Dolly Sods Wilderness”, with the promise of a nice sand beach and plenty of campsites. I must admit, after our camp at Three Forks the night before I had pretty high expectations. We hit the first crossing and Stonecoal Creek was barely a trickle, not the mighty creek I had expected. When we hit the second crossing we all had our doubts as to whether this was the spot we were looking for, so much so that Matt and his son dropped their packs and hiked on to the next trail junction just to verify our position. We were there all right, but what a letdown. I will admit that the campsite grew on as as we made it our home, but we had such high hopes. There were few decent spots to hang and the beach we were promised wouldn’t have normally even garnered a look if we weren’t told about it ahead of time.
No worries, we were still just happy to be outdoors. Our biggest concern at this point was the fact that Dave and Noah hadn’t made it to camp. It was after 4 pm and I thought they would have been there by now. Knowing there was no way to verify that they even made the trip from New Jersey, we set about the business of setting up camp. Around 5 pm I noticed a hiker coming down the trail and realized it was Noah. They made it! Dave said he had a frustrating time with some of the trail junctions, and apparently there more than a few folks having the same troubles. Somehow he had sorted it all out and found us.
After dinner I was relaxing in my hammock when the next thing I knew I woke up and it was dark. I checked my watch – 9 pm. I could hear the guys talking and spied a campfire. By the time I got up to join them it was pitch black. What the heck! Apparently I had caught the last of the fire as everyone was hitting the hay. Oh well, back to bed. I guess I must have been tired as I slept until 7 am.
After breakfast camp broke down rather quickly. I suppose we’re a pretty well oiled machine at this point.It’s not the breakdown that’s tough, it’s usually just getting moving that we struggle with. If you haven’t tried it and you’re the type to likes to get up early I warn you now, don’t buy a hammock. There is always a temptation to just lay there a little longer, and to steal a quote from Dave, “It’s glorious!”.
As we prepared for our journey out Matt shared with us from Isaiah 55:1-9, “Come, everyone who thirsts,come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?………….For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”. God wants us to be heavenly minded in all we do, to invest in “the bread of life” and “living waters”. These things were already bought at a price that we cannot afford through the blood of Jesus Christ.
As always the hike out seems to fly by. As we crossed Red Creek we stopped for one last rest stop. It’s funny because that’s when most of us try to eat the last of our food because we want to walk out with nothing left. Like it matters if I get to the trail head with a pack of crackers in my food bag. It’s nice to be strange when no one is looking sometimes, I guess.
First of all, I guess I’d like to rate the campsites we’ve stayed at in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. We’re all in agreement so I can speak for the group. Number one by a mile is Three Forks. I can’t think of one bad thing to say about the spot – it’s a gem. Number two would be along the Left Branch of Upper Red Creek where it crosses the Blackbird Knob Trail. Just an exceptional spot with the right amount of solitude. A distant third would be along Stonecoal Creek, and that’s only because I have yet to camp in the meadows of the upper ‘sods. I can picture a spectacular star show from the open plains and hope to one day experience it first hand. Which brings me to my impression of Dolly Sods after my second hike there. I’m certain that we will all be back here soon.There is so much diversity, just enough of a challenge, and the beauty of the area keeps my mind wandering back time and time again. We have other adventures to pursue, but Dolly Sods will be on my short list for some time to come.
PS: By the way, I’m still struggling with the idea of carrying extra gear on most trips, although a big fat juicy steak on occasion might just sway me!