Dolly Sods Backpack Loop
Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia
Situated in the Northern portion of West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest is a piece of hiker heaven called the Dolly Sods. This Wilderness area contains a unique ecosystem with over 30 miles of hiking trails. These trails are pretty easy to follow (once you are on them), but since this is a wilderness area they are not blazed and have only a few signs at main trail intersections. It is easy to “lose” the trail while hiking, especially after any of the creek crossings. The main creek you will cross is Red Creek, which launches its assault through the plateau from high on the Allegheny Mountains. As it cuts away at the flat, poorly drained area it creates some magnificent scenery. Steep-walled canyons beckon the hiker to trek even deeper into the wilderness for a chance to see black bear, whitetail deer, wild turkey, bobcat, and yes, snakes. Snakes such as garter, grass, and ring necked are encountered frequently by hikers. It is a rare instance, thank goodness, when one comes across the poisonous inhabitants such as copperheads and timber rattlesnakes. The flora here is just as spectacular as the fauna. On the high plateau you will encounter a windswept vista of blueberry, sphagnum bogs with sundew and reindeer moss, and the contorted red cedar trees that are often one-sided from the strong winds. Huckleberry and Cranberry heaths also occur as do stands of maple, birch, and pine. Rounding out the display are rhododendron and mountain laurel. What more could you ask for? Oh yes, just one more thing about the area before we begin our trip report…this is one of the few places where there is a chance (remote, but nonetheless) that you could get blown up while hiking. You see, military ordinance exercises from WWII left a few live mortars in the area so know the risks and be aware. Okay, let’s get down to the nitty gritty details of our hike in the Dolly Sods.
After much consideration and research we decided upon a seven mile loop using the following trails: Blackbird Knob to Red Creek to Fisher Spring Run (with a possible side trip on Rocky Point for some grand views). Our hiking party consisted of six hikers (Weisey, Pick, Dauster, Karabeener, Berg, and Nikki) and we would have two cars between us making it possible to leave one at the Blackbird Knob Trailhead and one at the Fisher Spring Run trailhead. Both of these trails are off of FS 75. The itinerary was set and we were eager to hike. On Friday July 26, 2002 at 6pm we left central Ohio and headed for West Virginia. We stayed in Buckhannon and arrived at the trailhead Saturday at around noon. We shuttled our cars into place and hit Blackbird Knob trail at 1:30pm under gray skies and drizzle. The trail was wet and the slippery rocks could make footing difficult, but the scenery was magnificent! The scent of pine flooded the senses and the misty rain gave a saturation to the colors not usually seen under sunny skies. Blackbird Knob Trail (511) travels 2.2 miles to Red Creek Trail (514). The first part of the trail is through a pine grove and then it opens up to reward the hiker with sweeping views of the Sods. We stopped here to adjust our packs and to take off our raingear as the drizzle was now stopping. As we made all of our adjustments Berg noticed that we were standing in a patch of blueberries. This was realized with much excitement and we all started gathering a few for snacks. The blueberries were nice and sweet and brought a smile to all of our faces. We were now ready to face what we feared might lay ahead…rain water swollen creek crossings (there are no bridges, you must ford creeks when you come to them)! While at our cars we had talked to some hikers who had just come off the trail and they warned us that it had rained pretty hard the night before and that Red Creek was waist high in places. Our worst fears had been realized, we had read the warnings of the danger associated with crossing in high water but hoped that we would not encounter this situation. But go figure! We decided to hike to the creek and make our decision, once we saw the water, as to whether we would continue or turn around. Our first taste of wilderness creek crossing was Alder Run. This crystal clear stream was flowing along at a pretty good pace but we managed to cross rather easily after Pick found a narrow section that was about knee deep. One after the other we made our way across! We had succeeded at our first fording experience, now we hoped that Red Creek would be as kind to us. We trekked back down the banks of Alder Run until we rejoined the trail, it was here that we met a hiker named Billy who was working with the Forest Service to better map the area and find places that might benefit from footbridges. He also warned us of the high water that lay ahead at Red Creek. He was also kind enough to tell us the best place to cross. He led us down a bank where we would cross the creek over two sections, utilizing an island in the middle of the creek. Each of us gingerly crossed to the island. The footing was sketchy as the water flowed powerfully over the rocks. We used our hiking poles to stabilize our balance under the weight of our 45 pound backpacks, making sure to unhook all of our straps in case we would slip. Once on the island we felt pretty exhilarated and ready for the next leg. This last section of Red Creek was the widest crossing, but we had plenty of help. Billy and Berg made a chain across and helped each individual hiker across the water. There were also two other hikers named Rick and Rickie who helped everyone up onto the bank using hiking poles and outstretched hands. Never underestimate the kindness of strangers! We rested along the bank of Red Creek before starting off for our campsite. The trail is not readily evident once across the creek and we mistakenly headed off in the wrong direction, once again Billy came to our rescue and pointed us in the right direction. The NBH Crew would like to thank Billy, Rick and Rickie for your help and kindness, we truly appreciate everything that you did…Thanks! The trail went straight up the hill and looked more like a stream flowing down the mountain, but we enjoyed the hike and soon came to the intersection with Red Creek Trail (514).
Red Creek Trail is 6.1 miles long and were going to hike approximately 3 miles of it, going as far as “The Forks” to camp and then on to Fisher Spring Run Trail (510). The first section of Red Creek Trail after we climbed the hill was all open plateau with great views. We saw three whitetail deer running across the meadow. The weather was pleasant now and the rain had stopped. Soon the trail began a steep downhill grade, making for a slippery hike on wet rocks. Dauster slipped at one point and scratched up her shin pretty good, so she gets the hardcore award for this hike. As we progressed down the hill we could hear the rushing water of Red Creek before we could see it. When we came to the edge of the cliff we were shocked at the whitewater flowing down the creek below us. We could also see a side-stream flowing down the mountain on the other side of the creek. Our hopes of frolicking in the swimming holes and gliding down the natural waterslide were pretty much crushed at that moment. You see the area known as “The Forks” are known for its water activities, especially the many swimming holes and the aforementioned fifteen foot natural waterslide. Oh well, now we have something to look forward to on our return trip. After taking in the view the six of us left the cliff-side and hiked down the trail to find a campsite. We spotted a great area among mossy trees and ferns that was large enough to hold our three tents; it was also close to the creek and a flowing stream where we could filter water. It was perfect. We went about setting up our tents and gathering firewood, as there was a fire ring near the creek. Once the work was done it was time to eat dinner. Pick fired up the stove and made us all some Cajun rice at about 5:00pm. Dauster broke open her can of spaghettios and feasted on sweet pasta. We also had precooked bacon, ramen noodles, cashews, clif bars, baby carrots, and a cucumber. Dauster longed for smores, but alas, none of us thought to carry in the marshmallows, chocolate, or graham crackers…bummer! Berg turned out to be a great fire tender. He kept the campfire burning well into the evening. Is there anything better then sitting around a campfire with friends? After dinner we scouted out the area and enjoyed hiking around without the burden of our backpacks. We found a rock cairn along the side of the creek that we determined to be the best crossing point for tomorrow. We returned to camp and hoped that the water level would go down a little overnight. As darkness fell on our camp we hoisted our backpacks up by rope, just in case, and made some last minute adjustments to our camp. We stayed by the fire until the embers started to die down and then we retired to our tents at about 11:00pm. The sound of the water was very relaxing and we all slept pretty well.
We awoke the next morning to clear skies and pleasant temperatures. We enjoyed some oatmeal and more precooked bacon for breakfast and then broke camp. The water level had indeed gone down overnight, making us all very happy. We crossed the left fork of Red Creek near the rock cairn with no problems and picked up the trail on the other side. As the day went on it started to get pretty hot and Berg was leading the way and setting a pretty fast pace. We hadn’t yet decided if we were going to take an excursion on Rocky Point Trail (554) or just head back to the car on Fisher Spring Run (510). We hiked for several hours taking in the great views until we came to a section of trail that was covered in ballast rock. Talk about pounding your feet into submission! This trail is a twisted ankle just waiting to happen, we couldn’t wait until we were through this area. We actually lost the trail at one point and ended up in some brambles. It was difficult at times to tell trail from water runoff since it had rained so hard a couple of nights before. Once back on the trail we were met with more rocks and rhododendron tunnels. I began to notice a huge rock outcropping on my right and yelled for everyone to stop so we could climb up and check out the view. Boy was that rock scramble worth it! The views were fantastic. Rolling hills enveloped in mist put one in mind of the Great Smoky Mountains. We rested high up on the rocks and soaked in the view. We all decided that we didn’t need to hike Rocky Point Trail now, which would shorten our trip and get us home earlier. The rhododendron got thicker and thicker as we pushed on but finally the pointy boulders underfoot disappeared, what a relief. Soon we came to a trail sign, the first one in a long time, and we were excited to start hiking on Fisher Spring Run Trail. Berg got to the sign first and yelled back that it read Rocky Point Trail/Big Stonecoal! Oh my God! We had totally missed Fisher Spring Run and hiked all 1.8 miles of Rocky Point Trail…no wonder the views were so great. It was funny and sad at the same time. Especially since we knew we had to hike back 1.8 miles across ankle-twisting, toe-crushing, blister-forming, shoe-eating, pointy, sharp, little rocks…Ughhhh. It was another misadventure in the annals of the Natural Born Hikers. Seriously though, we at least got to enjoy that great view again! The return trip went fast and this time Pick got out the GPS in order to track our mileage so we knew when to start looking for Fisher Spring Run Trail. We found it with no problem this time, it was so obviously marked with a rock cairn that we don’t know how all six of us missed the first time! We were sweaty and hot at this point and decided we were getting in the creek hell or high water.
Sweet cool water! How great it felt on tired feet and sore muscles. Our reward for getting ourselves lost was a splash in Red Creek, and it was wonderful. We sat along the small waterfalls and let the water rush around us, it was pure nirvana. After resting in the water it was time to scout out yet another ford. We decided upon a nice shallow area and slowly made our way across. Then we climbed the hill in search of Fisher Spring Run Trail. We found it with no problem and began the slow but steady uphill climb. Fisher Spring Run Trail (510) is 2.3 miles long and gains 1000 feet of elevation. This trail is absolutely gorgeous. It follows the run the whole way up the hill making for excellent scenery. Numerous switchbacks are used to gain the elevation on this trail. One of the most striking views is Fisher Spring Run cascading down the mountain amid knee-high ferns. These ferns are so thick that it looks like a carpet. Karabeener was moving pretty slow at this point since she was not used to carrying a large backpack up a huge hill so I stayed close to keep an eye on her. Berg and Dauster were leading the way, with Pick and Nikki close behind. I had now fallen behind and could no longer see them, but I kept a spring in my step knowing that the car, which held a cooler full of soda, was getting closer with each footfall. We emerged from the forest at about 4:30pm. Our journey had finally come to end. We are already planning an autumn return. The Dolly Sods is a spectacular wilderness, it is truly gorgeous. I only wish it was closer to home. Do yourself a favor and visit this beautiful country.