Trip Report: Dolly Sods 3 Days Fall Backpacing Trip - Alta Outdoors


Backcountry adventures via kayaking and backpacking


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Trip Report: Dolly Sods 3 Days Fall Backpacing Trip

Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, USA is a very popular destination among casual backpackers because it is public, a real wilderness with good scenery yet relatively accessible, challenging but still doable for beginners, and most importantly has a great trail network that can be planned for just a day hike or a multi-night trip. We specifically like the fall season due to its colours, mostly clear skies, no bugs, and hopefully less crowd. The last time we were here was in November 2016 and it was definitely the time to revisit.

So, we planned a trip in October 2022 on a Canadian Thanksgiving Holiday long weekend. Silly us, but we totally forgot that the same weekend is Columbus Day in the USA. As 2022 was the first year after the long COVID isolation period people we eager to get outside and when we arrived on a sunny afternoon on a Saturday, October 8, the parking lot at Bear Rocks trailhead was fully packed and the cars were parked on both sides of the wilderness boundary road for as far as we could see. To say that were surprised and disappointed with such a huge crowd would be an understatement. We travelled over 6 hours from Canada and it was not an option to turn back or try and find somewhere else to go on short notice. An additional worry was that this time we were an extended group with a few friends who wanted to try "real backpacking" and we wanted them to have a good first-time experience.

Per our plan we were supposed to start from the Blackbird knob trailhead so we drove down there and were lucky enough to find a parking spot a couple hundred meters south of the trailhead. By the time we started hiking, it was already past 3pm and we only had a few hours left before the sunset at about 7pm.

Day 1: From Blackbird knob TH to Red Creek camp area

  • Distance: ~5.2 km
  • Challenge: short daylight period

As this was a short day we planned to camp in a Red Creek camp area on TR 514 Red Creek trail. It was a relatively short hike of just over 5 km first west on TR 511 from the trailhead to the junction with TR 514 and then south on TR 514.

Day 1 terrain profile from the TH on the left to the camp on the right

The Read Creek camp area is a relatively large flat area on the east side of the Red Creek with great tree coverage, easy access to the creek for water and supposedly enough space for multiple campsites. We weren't that lucky, however, and the entire area was fully packed on both sides of the creek with tents standing very close to each other.

The sun was already setting down and we did not have time to hike to the next camping spot for another hour so after a short deliberation we set the camp right on a flat rocky west side of the creek. Two of our tents were free-standing, but my personal setup involved a small tarp that I could not set in that location so my only option was to try a cowboy camping that night.

On top of the unexpected crowdedness, the temperature suddenly dropped to 0℃ which was also a surprise not based on the weather forecast that we looked up before. Long story short, the major problem of a cowboy-style sleeping on the side of the creek is a lot of humidity and mist in the air. My down sleeping quilt was all wet as I could not protect it with the tarp as planned, but survived the night. However, I needed to take time the next day to dry it out during the stops.

Breaking camp on the Red Creek shore

Day 2: From Red Creek to Stonecoal Run

  • Distance: ~9 km
  • Challenge: slow and exhausting Rocky Point trail section
  • Sightseeing: Lion Head mountain

The second day was the longest in terms of distance and hiking time and included one mid-day lunch break at the foot of the Lion Head mountain.

Day 2 terrain profile from Red Creek on the left to Stonecoal Run camp on the right

After we had our breakfast at Red Creek we continued south on TR 514 for about 2.5 km until the junction with TR 554 Rocky Point trail and then another 1.8 km on the TR 554 until the foot of the Lion Head mountain where we took a break for a snack and slo to climb up to the Lion Head for a picture shot. The Rocky Pomt trail is not an easy trail to hike as it is completely covered with pointy rocks and stones and the hike is very slow and exhausting, especially for the beginners. So not surprisingly, only part of the group was up to a climbing exercise.

On top of the Lion Head

After stopping at the Lion Head we continued west on TR 554 until the junction with TR 513 Stonecoal Run trail and further north on TR 513 until our next camping spot about 4.5 km from the Lion Head mountain. This day campsite was a large relatively flat area surrounded by rhododendron bushes on the west side of a little creek that we also used as a water source. The campsite also had a fire ring so we made a small fire for warmth and ambience.

Day 2 campsite. My blue sleeping quilt d
Day 2 campfire

Day 3: From Stonecoal Run to Blackbird knob trailhead

  • Distance: ~9.2 km
  • Challenge: the longest and steepest ascend and a creek crossing
  • Sightseeing: open views from the Blackbird knob trail

Day 3 terrain profile
Day 3 terrain profile from Stonecoal Run on the left to Blackbird knob TH on the right

Day 3 was the last leg of the loop and the most hiking intensive as we needed to cover the longest leg before 2 pm in pretty much a single go. We had prepared some snacks for a short mid-hike break but that was all the indulgence that was planned.

We broke camp and after breakfast continued north on TR 513 until the junction with the TR 511 Blackbird knob trail. As you can see from the terrain profile that was the longest and steepest ascend of the entire loop which was also made difficult because the trail coincided with the stormwater path and was all covered in rocks and tree roots. Eventually, we reached the TR 511 and continued east towards the trailhead and the parking spot.

The TR 511 Blackbird knob trail is also the highest elevation of the wilderness and we were rewarded with the open sky, sun, and a lot of views. We made a quick snack break somewhere between the Left Fork creek crossing and the Blackbird knob mountain and after that continued to the car without stopping.

Left Fork creek crossing

Open views from the Blackbird knob trail


Better planning should have been done to accommodate a large crowd on the Columbus Day long weekend, and warmer clothes would be useful for an unexpected temperature drop. As for the cowboy-style camping, a bivy bag would be very helpful for a night on the Red Creek shore. I used my UL Granite Gear 50L backpack and it was totally enough for my stuff and my share of the group's load.

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