Dolly Sods Wilderness Loop Backpacking Guide

Red Creek

Red Creek

The Dolly Sods Wilderness is located on top of the Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia, and is part of the Monongahela National Forest. A backpacking trip in this area will expose you to a very diverse and unique landscape with sphagnum bogs, grassy meadows lined by spruce trees, wind-carved boulders, and beautiful mountain vistas. If you haven’t hiked this amazing place yet, I suggest putting this one on your list.

History

The name Dolly Sods derives from an 18th century German family named the Dahles, who settled nearby and used the open mountaintop meadows called “Sods” for grazing their sheep. Long after the Dahles moved on from this area the locals Americanized the name by changing the spelling to “Dolly”, and thus this region became known as Dolly Sods.

Before the early settlers, this area was teeming with life. There were dense forests filled with massive red spruce and hemlock trees. Also, there was a healthy population of animals like elk, bear, foxes, deer, bobcats, and mountain lions.

Unfortunately, the Dolly Sods didn’t stay this way. In the late 19th and early 20th century this place was decimated by heavy logging and forest fires. This left an almost destroyed ecosystem. If that wasn’t enough, during World War II the military used this place for artillery and mortar training. Still today at some of the trailheads the Army Corp of Engineers displays signs warning hikers to stay on the trail because there may be unexploded ordnance in the area.

Thankfully, in the 1970’s, The Nature Conservancy environmental organization stepped in and began purchasing the land to preserve the area. Then, they donated it to the National Forest Service and today it’s classified as a federal designated wilderness area. With the Dolly Sods now being protected, the region is once again flourishing.

Photo by kromatic.media of Lions head

Photo by kromatic.media of Lions head

Trail Facts

  • Length: 26.08 Miles

  • Duration: 2-3 Days

  • Elevation Gain: 2613 Feet

  • Peak Elevation: 4170 Feet

  • Best Time to Visit: Spring to Fall

  • Difficulty Level: Moderate

  • Bear Canisters: Not Required

  • Permits: Not Required


Highlights

  • Sphagnum Bogs

  • Grassy Meadows

  • Amazing Mountain Views

  • Wind Carved Sandstone

  • Cascading Waterfalls

  • Water Crossings

Breathed Mountain

Breathed Mountain

Maps

To navigate yourself around the wilderness I suggest using the free USDA Forest Service topographical map or a more detailed waterproof topographical map from Purple Lizard. Usually I prefer a National Geographic illustrated map, but currently one doesn’t exist for this area.

Dolly Sods Slideshow

Parking

To access the trailhead you will use Forest Road 75, which is a rough gravel road. At the Bear Rocks Trailhead, which is marked by a wooden trail kiosk, there is parking along the shoulder. However, this is a very popular hiking destination and sometimes you’ll find a ton of cars parked there already. If you drive up about 200 yards north of the trailhead, there is a huge parking area for overflow. See the map below for exact parking locations.

Terrain

With regards to steep climbs or difficult descents there is really nothing to worry about when hiking this loop. There are only relatively minor elevation changes. The real challenge comes with water. You have bogs in some areas of the northern Dolly Sods that are saturated with water. At times you will have to hop from rock to rock to try to keep your shoes from sinking deep in the mud. This will significantly slow down your pace. For footwear on this hike leave your heavy boots, that take forever to dry, at home. Try bringing lightweight, quick-drying trail runners like the Altra Lone Peak 4.0 shoe.

A bog in the dolly sods

A bog in the dolly sods

Dangers

There is little to be concerned about on this hike. However, bears are active in the area. When I did this hike I saw several bear prints on the trail. You will want to make sure to store your food properly at night. If your not sure how to, check out my article How to Hang a Bear Bag: The Right Way.

Also, there is some danger when you ford the creeks. The Red Creek has a fast current and the water level can be high depending on how much it has rained in the days prior. When I did my hike, some areas of the creek were up to my mid-thigh. To be safe you will want to research how to ford a river properly.

Bugs

With all the water in Dolly Sods you would think that you’d have to worry about bugs, but surprisingly they are not a problem. This is probably because the region is consistently windy. However, it’s always good to bring some sort of bug spray just in case. I recommend using DEET or a natural insect repellent made from lemon and eucalyptus. 

Dolly sods pine tree forest

Dolly sods pine tree forest

Water Sources

For the most part water sources are very prevalent throughout the hike. I have many marked on the map below to help you out when planning your trip. But, there is one section of the trail that you will want to make sure that you have plenty of water. The Raven Ridge and Rocky Ridge Trail sit high up on top of the Allegheny Plateau and have no water sources. Because of this you will want to carry at least 2 liters of water on that day. Make sure to always filter your water because giardia and bacteria are a concern. One of the best water filters on the market is the Sawyer Micro Squeeze because it’s lightweight and has a fast flow rate.

Camp Spots

There are many great campsites on this hike. Any of the ones off of Big Stonecoal Trail are great to stay at and have very dependable water sources. Also, the area where the Left Fork Creek and Red Creek meet called “The Forks” has amazing campsites. You will want to try to get to these spots early because they can fill up fast. I have marked these campsites and others on the map below.

SECLUDED camp spot

Camp spot at the forks

Dolly Sods Video

Trip Itinerary

Day 1: (9.24 miles)

  • Start at the Bear Rocks Trailhead off of Forest Road 75

  • Hike for 1.31 miles on the Bear Rocks Trail. Pass through a small boggy section that transitions to a boardwalk. After that crossover the Red Creek where there is a nice campsite. Make sure to top your water off here, there won’t be any water sources for a while. Continue on for 1.09 miles through small wooded areas and an open meadow. The trail will end at the Raven Ridge Trail junction.

  • Turn right onto the Raven Ridge Trail and hike for 1.38 miles onto a grassy hilltop meadow that eventually enters into a red spruce forest. After a short while the forest will end and the landscape will open up and become rocky. Here you will arrive at the Rocky Ridge Trail junction.

  • Turn left onto the Rocky Ridge Trail for 3 miles and enjoy many spectacular views of the Canaan Valley and enjoy investigating many unique wind-carved boulders. On certain sections of this trail it will be rocky and cairns are used to mark the way. This trail eventually intersects with Blackbird Knob Trail.

  • Take a right onto Blackbird Knob Trail for about .25 miles to a 4 way trail junction of the Breathed Mountain Trail, Big Stonecoal Trail, and a forestry road that leads to Canaan Valley. At the junction there is a wooden trail kiosk with a map of the area.

  • Take the middle trail called Big Stonecoal that is slightly narrower then the others. The trail will descend into a thick forest. In about 2.21 miles you will come to Stonecoal Run Creek. There will be several campsites that are along the creek. They are some of the best in Dolly Sods. Camp here for the night.

Day 2: (10.4 miles)

  • On this day most of the time you will be hiking in the forest. Start the day by hiking on Big Stonecoal Trail for about .16 miles following the Stonecoal Creek. You will cross this creek several times and for a small section enjoy a grand forest of mature pine trees. Eventually you will come to the Dunkenbarger Trail junction. Which you will want to take note of because eventually you’re going to retrace your steps back to this trail junction.

  • Continue hiking on Big Stonecoal Trail for .56 miles. You will cross the Stonecoal Creek again and pass a beautiful waterfall on your right. After that you will come to the Rocky Point Trail junction.

  • Take the Rocky Point Trail for about .58 miles till you see a side trail marked by a rock cairn on your left. Follow that trail for .1 miles by rock scrambling uphill following more rock cairns. Soon you will reach a flat area where there will be views of Lions Head and mountain ranges. After exploring Lions Head retrace your steps on Rocky Point Trail and Big Stonecoal Trail until you come to the Dunkenbarger Trail junction.

  • Turn left onto the very muddy Dunkenbarger Trail for .8 miles. You will come upon the Dunkenbarger Run Creek. Cross the creek and there is a great campsite right on the other side. Continue on for .9 miles to the Little Stonecoal Trail junction.

  • Turn left onto the Little Stonecoal Trail for 1.4 miles descending rapidly to the Red Creek. Ford the creek and continue on the trail till you come to the Red Creek Trail junction.

  • Take a left onto the Red Creek Trail for .91 miles and gradually climb in elevation. Then there will be a steep descent down to the creek and you will arrive at the Big Stonecoal Trail junction. There is a really nice camp spot along the creek here. Continue on the Red Creek Trail for 1.6 miles. You will experience more elevation changes till you eventually have to Ford the creek again. On both sides of the creek are great camping spots.

  • After fording the creek you will start a decent climb out of the valley for .59 miles, reaching the Rocky Point Trail. Continue on the Red Creek Trail and in a few hundred yards the trail will level out on an old railroad bed. Follow the railroad bed for 1.38 miles and come to the area known as “The Forks”. Here you will find many camping spots along the creek. Ford the Left Fork Creek and find the best camping spots in the area. This is where you will spend the night.

Day 3: (6.4 miles)

  • Start the day by continuing on the Red Creek Trail for .91 miles hiking uphill out of the drainage area. After a little bit the trail will start to change and you will pass through a mix of dense forests and open meadows before arriving at the Blackbird Knob Trail junction.

  • Turn right onto the Blackbird Knob Trail and hike for a short .31 miles through bogs to the Upper Red Creek Trail junction.

  • Take a left on the Upper Red Creek Trail for 1.3 miles and enjoy a beautiful open grassy area leading to small thickets of trees. After leaving the thicket it will open up again to a large meadow with great views. Then you will arrive at the Dobbin Grade Trail junction.

  • Turn right onto the Dobbin Grade Trail for .1 miles through several muddy areas and you will come to the Raven Ridge Trail junction. (Don’t make the same mistake I made and continue on the Dobbing Grade Trail. It’s just a muddy mess that you will regret doing).

  • Turn left onto the very dry Raven Ridge Trail for 1.42 miles and hike uphill through more open meadows and wooded areas. Eventually you will arrive back at the Bear Rocks Trail junction you passed on the 1st day.

  • Turn right onto the Bear Rocks Trail and retrace your earlier steps all the way to the trailhead for 2.4 miles.

Do you have a question about backpacking the Dolly Sods? Leave a comment down below

 

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