“And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.”
As a backpacker my to-do list of hikes is relatively short, but it never seems to get shorter as I complete each hike. Part of the reason is because as I explore new areas there always seems to be more options to explore. Well I’m here to tell you my short list just got a little longer after my June 28-29, 2014 visit to the Dolly Sods Wilderness in “almost heaven” West Virginia. Joined by my brother (and not often enough hiking companion) Matt Bealor, we had the pleasure of exploring just a piece of the 17,371 acres that comprise the Dolly Sods Wilderness.
Getting to the “Sods” was an adventure in itself (isn’t it that way on every trip?) that entails a bit of “country” driving that eventual leads to a single lane gravel forest service road that winds and climbs for about 6 miles and 2000 feet before reaching the top of the plain, before connecting to another gravel road to access the various trail heads in Dolly Sods. No matter, the terrain and scenery were beautiful, and the pre-adventure excitement was building, until we finally reached our starting point – the Bear Rocks trail head.
Apparently back in 1943 this area was used by the army for maneuvers and mountain training for WWII, and there was a bit of unexploded ordnance left behind. Much of it was cleaned up in 1997 at the most popular campsites, but there is still this warning, “IF YOU DID NOT DROP IT DO NOT PICK IT UP”. Me: “Hey Matt, is that your grenade under my hammock” Matt: ” Yeah man, sorry it must have slipped out of my pack, Can you pick it up for me?” Me: “Sorry man I didn’t drop it so I can’t pick it up” Yikes!
Trails in Dolly Sods have both a name and a number, but no blazes or other markings like those found on the AT for example, and I found that I rather liked it that way. None of the trails were difficult to follow, in my opinion, and all of the major junctions and trail heads were well marked.
We started off on the Bear Rocks Trail (number 522), and right away knew this would be a different kind of hike. Typically most hikes here in the northeast are wooded with limited views, and that’s kind of what I expected here. Instead we started with rolling hills and open views, and that is what 80% of this hike would be. It was a genuine pleasure to be able to hike with my head up, looking around, instead of watching my feet. We started off on a gently meandering downhill path, and I hardly realized the path had as much slope as it did until the next day when we had to climb back to the trail head. We crossed the Dobbin Grade trail and reached a piece of trail where a boardwalk over a muddy section started in the middle of a mud hole! I was hoping this wasn’t a taste of things to come.
Just beyond the boardwalk we entered a short wooded section and our first crossing of Red Creek. Someone had made camp along its banks and I could hardly blame them. It was just a little too close to the trail head for my liking. The trail climbed gently through the forest, and just before we broke out into the open again Matt and I decided to take a lunch break. As we rested quite a few people passed us by. The one thing I did notice was that just about everyone we saw on day one were day hikers. In fact we only passed a few backpackers all weekend.
One fellow on his way back to the trail head commented on how hot it was out in the open, but as we packed up from lunch some cloud cover rolled in. I was quite grateful since I hadn’t anticipated how exposed we would be, and was happy not to bake in the sun. In fact, between the clouds and the breeze it was a pleasant walk.
The trail meandered along open grasslands, interspersed with the occasional short wooded section, providing enough diversity to keep things interesting. Matt and I eventually came to the Raven Ridge Trail (521) and this trail just felt like an extension of the the first since the scenery stayed the same. Once we hit the Rocky Ridge Trail (524) that would all change. The character of the trail became much more rocky (hence the name – just call me captain obvious) and as we hiked near the edge of the plateau the occasional view of the valley would open up. In the meantime you could look to the east and see the terrain you had covered over the past few miles. Throw in a little rain and things quickly got interesting as the rocks got more slippery.
The rain slacked as we made the turn onto the Harman Trail (525), but either way our spirits couldn’t be dampened because we knew that with each step lower into the valley we were that much closer to camp. As we reached the Blackbird Knob Trail (511) our pace quickened and at last we reached Upper Red Creek.
Someone had pitched a tent right off the junction of the trail and creek, but we were looking for more secluded digs. Just after you cross Upper Red Creek there is a trail to the left that follows the creek, and after a short 1/4 mile walk we were in a grove of red spruce that just begged for a couple of weary hammock hangers to call it home. Unfortunately right about the time I hung my hammock it began to rain. I hurriedly strung my tarp and dried my hammock before putting up my quilts. After helping Matt get setup I returned only to discover my trees were a little too close, and my ridge line was not taut. At that point I was more interested in getting out of the rain than looking for another hang so I decided to make do.
It’s been a while since I’ve had to cook under cover, but it was a nice change of pace. I enjoyed my Mountain House Beef Patties and Mashed Potatoes dinner. Afterward, I decided to read, lounge, and generally call it a night. It was only 8 PM, and still light out, but I was bushed and it was raining. As I relaxed I could hear Matt up and about, working on a fire and staying busy.
Even with a lousy setup I still slept very well. I guess it couldn’t have been that bad. I woke up about 5:45 and decided to make breakfast, figuring Matt would also be up soon. After retrieving my bear bag, cooking, and eating Matt still wasn’t stirring so I dozed off again, this time waking at 8:30. Thankfully this time Matt was up.
On a whim I packed in a package of Jiffy Pop popcorn, and this became my second breakfast (no fire for me last night even though Matt succeeded in making one, and I wasn’t carrying uncooked food out). We took our good old time packing up and I believe we set a new record for latest time leaving camp at 11:00 AM!
Before heading out I read the morning devotion from the Book of Psalms, chapter 8:
“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens,
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
It’s mind blowing to think that the God of the universe would not only care to know my name (and yours), but also entrust me (us) as stewards over all of His creation. Very humbling indeed!
Once again we hiked under overcast skies, as we turned onto the Blackbird Knob Trail (511), this time in the direction of the Upper Red Creek Trail (509). After a bit of mixed hiking we reached an unmarked trail junction (odd, I thought), but I figured it was the 509 trail so we turned left. It turns out that was just a good guess, since a short distance later we came to the real trail junction. The Upper Red Creek Trail doesn’t actually follow a creek as you might presume, but rather crosses a low hill on it’s way to the next trail. After a quick snack and some easy hiking we reached the junction of the notorious Dobbin Grade Trail (526). This trail follows the route of an old railroad grade that hauled timber out of this region many years ago. That fact alone would make you think you were in for some solid, easy hiking. Not so. This section of the 526 trail is in a low valley (relatively speaking) so it is “famously” muddy. Read any trip report of the Dolly Sods Wilderness and you’ll know what I mean. After you cross Red Creek it becomes unbelievable soupy and boggy for probably about a mile. It’s a real mind game to not become annoyed, but if you just take the time to look up and look around, the views can change your attitude fast.
Somewhere after passing the Beaver Dam Trail (520) the rain decided to get serious, at least serious enough to clean the mud from our shoes. By the time we made our final turn on the Bear Rocks Trail (522) the weather no longer mattered, as we were in “back to trail head” mode. There’s something about being in the home stretch that makes everything okay. We passed a fellow who was camped way too close to the road in my opinion, but other than that we only saw a couple of day hikers all day.
What a trip! Dolly Sods lived up to everything I had hoped for and more. Views, beauty, some solitude – what more could I ask for? There is no doubt we will return again, and if I have my way it’ll be soon.