Hiking the wind-scoured plains of the Dolly Sods Wilderness, it’s hard to imagine the mortar shells that once rained down on this isolated corner of West Virginia. In October of 1943, the U.S. Army lobbed the first shell into the terrain that was chosen for how it resembled the European landscape that was soon to be invaded. Dolly Sods served as a training ground for troops until just after the D-Day invasion of June 1944, and despite a massive cleanup effort in the late 1990s, unexploded ordnance remains buried just below the ground cover that hides the scars.
74 years after that first shell blasted a crater on the Allegheny Plateau, 5 friends and I traveled to West Virginia to backpack Dolly Sods over the weekend of October 14-16. We enjoyed nearly perfect weather and had a…blast.
We live in Louisville, Kentucky, so our first adventure usually involves a drive of at least six hours to wherever we hike in the Appalachians. I arranged a cabin at Harman Mountain Farm Campground, in Harman, WV. At forty dollars for the night, we felt like we got a steal – especially after we split it six ways. If you need a place to stay before you hit the trail, check it out.
Day 1, Saturday
After breakfast of biscuits and gravy at a senior center which had been converted into a flea market, we made our way to the trailhead at Bear Rocks, which is in the northeastern corner of Dolly Sods.
We missed the fall colors by a couple weeks, but the weather was perfect for mid-October. It was cool enough that standing still, the short sleeves weren’t enough, but you didn’t wear a sweater because you knew you’d only take it back off after a few minutes of hiking. The morning was sunny, and the light was that nostalgic golden color that makes autumn my favorite season.
Bear Rocks trail has an easy, slightly downhill pitch, which was fine with us as we adjusted our loads and got used to being on our feet after so many hours cooped up in a car. The bright, blue sky contrasted against the greens, yellows, browns and dull reds and rusts that surrounded us as we passed over the boggy, mostly treeless first mile that looked more like an ATV course than it did a hiking trail, with a wide, rutted track.
We passed through stands of evergreens and hardwoods and walked for yards on a wooden boardwalk that kept us out of one especially marshy section of trail as it approaches Dobbin Grade trail, then Red Creek, our first water crossing of the trip. From there, the trail climbed through some trees before breaking through to another boggy bald.
Dolly Sods has none of the steep climbs you find on the Appalachian Trail, though the balds remind one of places like Grayson Highlands or the high mountain balds of the Smoky Mountains. Off to the left, we marveled at the views of the valley below, where it looked like there might be some beaver ponds to see in a couple days when we’d be passing that way.
We picked up Raven Ridge trail and took it the northwestern corner of our trip before turning south and making our way through some tricky trail junctions to get on Rocky Ridge trail, where we at lunch on a rocky clifftop that reflected the warmth of the sun and gave those of us with camp chairs good places to sit. For the other guys, there were great slabs that were like benches and tables from The Flintstones. We took our time at lunch, spending a good hour or more lazing in the afternoon sun and busting each other’s chops.
After lunch, we continued south on Rocky Ridge trail, enjoying the views off to the west as we scrambled over the many rock outcroppings along the trail. Around 3:30, we met a large party at the big kiosk at the intersection with the Breathed Mt. trail, which met the Rocky Ridge trail from the east/left. We paused briefly before continuing on to a place where we filtered water and talked to another couple we met.
A mile later, we found our campsite, a perfect spot on a flat piece of ground covered with red spruce that provided great anchors for our hammocks, and good, soft ground for our lone tent. A creek separated us from another group of backpackers, and the walk was only a few yards away over flat ground.
Within moments of dropping our packs, we went about our end-of-day rituals–hunting for places to sleep, unpacking food, changing clothes and shedding boots and trail runners. Temps were perfect for hanging around a campfire, and we enjoyed recapping the day, busting chops and telling stories until well after 9:00.
Day 2, Sunday
The big question Sunday centered around whether it would rain or not. You’d of never known it from the beautiful morning we enjoyed as we ate breakfast and packed. As we made our way down Big Stonecoal trail, the only sign of the changes to come were the high winds that shook the trees.
The trail down to Red Creek was steep and rocky in places, and we spread out as some preferred to take it easy while others bounded down the trail like billy goats. Once we crossed the wide, shallow creek, we found a great place to have lunch on the other side. The setting reminded me of Colorado.
After lunch, we headed east along Red Creek trail, taking the southern bank, which climbed through the rhododendron above the creek, with occasional views of the silvery water below, as well as Lion’s Head above.
A mile later, we crossed Red Creek to the northern bank across an even wider and shallower ford than before. Immediately after crossing the creek, the trail shoots straight up the mountainside for nearly three-quarters-of-a-mile until it reaches Rocky Point trail, where we stopped to re-group.
Three of the guys decided to push on to The Forks, our campsite for the night, which was just under 1.5 miles ahead. A couple of the other guys and I dropped our packs and headed out the Rocky Point to Lion’s Head, a rock outcropping high above the Red Creek valley that promised 360-degree views of the entire Dolly Sods wilderness. I grabbed a rain jacket, just in case, and we headed out to see what we could see.
We never found Lion’s Head itself, though I’m sure we were within a few feet of it, but we did make it to the top of the rock pile on which it sits. And the views? Well, they were incredible. I don’t think we had a full 360-degree view of Dolly Sods, but we did have a great view of what was west, south and east of us. High winds ripped through the rocks, making our loose clothes look like flags and causing us to hold our hats. We enjoyed the view, shot some photos, then picked our way back down through the boulders, some of which were as big as cars.
We found our packs and headed north, spotting a deer along the way that had very little fear of us. A few minutes later, we crossed Red Creek again and found the guys enjoying a campfire and taking it easy. They’d picked out a great spot for the night.
I’ve described Dolly Sods has having the highest concentration of great campsites I’ve ever experienced in such a concentrated stretch of trail, and our spot at The Forks was easily the best of the best. Our campsite sat just above the creek, and Brad, Nic and Glenn were all able to set up a tent and two hammocks with great views of the water. For the rest of us, we were nestled amongst red spruce and flat, clean ground that looked like something from a movie.
The rain did come, but not until we were heading to bed around 9:00, another instance of grace on our trip.
Day 3, Monday
We wanted to hit the trail early on Monday, so we could finish by 11:30, find a good Mexican restaurant, then make it home around dinner time. I heard Nic stirring around 6:00, but I wasn’t quite ready to get up, so I closed my eyes and slept a few more minutes.
By 8:00, we’d eaten breakfast, packed and were slinging on our packs to hit the trail. The rain had stopped, so we were spared having to pack in the rain. But it looked like it could rain at any moment, so we got moving and kept going.
I love hiking in gloomy weather—gray clouds, damp conditions, wind-blown trees. It’s my kind of weather, and I was in my glory on that Monday. We climbed a bit out of our campsite, along Red Creek trail, until we briefly turned east at Blackbird Knob trail for a few steps before heading north on Upper Red Creek trail. This put us in that valley I spotted on Day 1, the one with what looked like a beaver pond, which was like being in the bottom of a bowl, with sparsely treed hills surrounding us on all sides. In that cloudy setting, all damp and dreary, it was very pretty.
We were supposed to have taken Dobbin Grade trail back up to the Bear Rocks trail, but we’d heard from many folks we’d met that the trail was impassable in spots, with mud like quicksand. So after we made a mandatory turn onto Dobbin Grade, we quickly turned north on Upper Red Creek trail and stopped to check our maps. Nic and I noticed a dotted line cutting the corner off our detour, which took us away from the car. Looking at the contours, it seemed like an easy bushwhack, if it came to that, so we agreed to look for it and make our decision if and when we found it.
Sure enough, further up the trail, a cairn seemed to indicate the location of the dotted line trail, and we took it, shotting for the gap between two knobs. Well, things didn’t quite turn out the way we planned because we didn’t end up on the Bear Rocks trail, just before the Dobbin Grade intersection. Instead, we ended up crossing a creek and walking through a campsite, where the folks we met pointed the way to Dobbin Grade trail, which was about 200 yards from the intersection with the Bear Rocks trail.
We climbed the slight incline back up to the trailhead, where the dozens of cars that had choked the parking lot a couple of days earlier had been reduced to three.
We loaded up and headed back to the campground, where we showered-up before finding a good authentic Mexican restaurant near the interstate.
I can’t recommend Dolly Sods enough. It’s a beautiful place that seems to get crowded on the weekends and probably whenever the weather is nice. That said, we weren’t bothered by all the people, and had a great experience. If you’d like to duplicate our route, here’s a link to the map we used.