Soggy times in the Dolly Sods

Date: September, 2018

Location: Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Companions: 3

Duration: 4 nights

Plan ahead is one of the rules of leave no trace. It is important to plan for a backpacking trip. I planned so much for this backpacking trip. Partially because I was taking two newer backpackers into the wilderness and partially because I love planning for backpacking trips. It’s part of the fun for me. I love it all: planning, packing, traveling, executing, getting home, and cleaning up my gear and putting it away. I wrote out a full packing list and menu for myself and my companions. Things to consider when planning a backpacking trip boil down to: What are you going to eat? How are you going to get drinkable water? How will you seek shelter from the elements? How will you stay safe? Where are you going to go?

Things to consider:

Terrain & Trail

The Dolly Sods Wilderness Area is located in the Monongahela National Forest in the Allegheny mountains of West Virginia. I had been there before so I knew what we were getting into. The Dolly Sods are rugged, solitary and beautiful. There are many creeks and streams flowing through. To the south, lies the Red Creek. Stonecoal run and Little Stone coal run, and Spring run feed into it from the north. This means easy access to water, but also potentially challenging and dangerous crossings, depending on the amount of water in the area. The trails are rocky and often wet. They are not marked with blazes and signs only exist at major trial intersections. There are three main peaks: coal knob, blackbird knob, and breathed mountain. A knob is a large rounded hill in a mountain range. Generally, the trails are uphill going from south to north until you reach the sods, a large, flat plateau at the top. I don’t think there are trails to the top of coal knob and blackbird knob, but you can get to the top of breathed mountain, and you want to. Whatever you do, stay on the trails. Besides a sizable bear population, hikers also have to watch out for landmines. This area was used in World War II as a training ground and yes, there may still be active land mines in the Dolly Sods. The easiest way to do this is to stay on the trails. I have not come across a mine. According to the signs, if you do see a mine you should back away, get back on the damn trail, and inform the Forest Service. There are a few different entrances, one on the northwest, one on the southwest, one on the southeast, and one on the northeast.  

Weather

On a good day, the weather in the Dolly Sods is unpredictable. I would expect it at some point to rain on any given visit. It just so happened that after nailing down the dates for this trip for four people with very different schedules, we had chosen the days that the remnants of hurricane Gordon would be hitting West Virginia. The forecast was 100% chance of rain showers the night we got there and through the following day and night. The next few nights had a lower (bus still present) chance of showers and a chance of thunderstorms. My good friend, who is vastly more experienced with backpacking than I, advised me that rain is only dangerous if it is cold (not a concern in early September) or if lightening is present (especially if exposed at high elevation).

Fees & Permits

The great thing about the Dolly Sods is that there are no required fees or permits! You just park and go. I strongly suggest telling someone when you plan on entering and exiting the park and where you plan to go. It is also not a bad idea to leave a note on your dash with this information along with who you are.

Now that we know all about the Dolly Sods, let’s get back to our questions:

Where are you going to go?

On my previous trip, we parked at the southwest entrance, which involves crossing the Red Creek to get in and out of the wilderness. Given the weather forecast, I didn’t want to have to cross the Red Creek, so one of the northern entrances would be better. Since we were coming from the west, I thought we could start at the northwest entrance and do a ~17 mile loop that would hit all of the best spots. Several campsites are marked just south of this entrance, so we wouldn’t have to hike too far our first night. We could hike about 4 miles a day to each campsite, see all the sights and not have to cross the Red Creek. Perfect.

What are you going to eat?

I love preparing backpacking food so I convinced my companions to just let me prep all the meals. For breakfasts we had breakfast balls and oatmeal. For lunches we had personal pizzas, tuna wraps, and peanut butter and jelly wraps. For dinner we had tacos, chili mac, moussaka, and risotto. For snacks we had dark chocolate, energy balls, trail mix, and fruit leather. We also had instant coffee and tea. The food was divvied up among our four food bags. We had two sets of cooking pots and backpacking stoves. Everyone carried a can of gas, a bowl to eat out of and a spork. We could have relied on cooking all of our meals over the fire, but that takes extra time and relies on being able to build a fire in the first place, which could be difficult in certain conditions, such as heavy rain.

How are you going to get drinkable water?

This was the easiest consideration given the constant presence of water in the Dolly Sods. However, this water still needs to be filtered to avoid contracting giardia and stuff.  I’ve been using a 4 liter platypus gravity filter for several years. This filter is great because it filters large quantities of water quickly and is easy to use. The drawbacks of this filter include requiring a deep water source and not having a good way to ensure that the filter is working properly. For these reasons I would bring a backup filter. We all had the ability to carry at least one liter of water.

How will you seek shelter from the elements?

We all had working tents we could carry on our backs, rain jackets, and pack covers. We also had an extra rainfly we could share to hang out under at camp. The hiking plan would land us in a well established campsite that is at lower elevation and out of the elements each night.

How will you stay safe?

The primary safety concerns from my perspective were bears, mines, lightning, rushing creeks, and rocky, wet trails. To avoid bears while hiking we planned to make noise by chatting, singing, and for my boyfriend…frequently yelling at the top of his lungs. At camp we would eat somewhere away from our tents, be tidy, and hang our food in a proper bear bag. To avoid mines, we would do our best to stay on the trail. We crossed our fingers that the weather would be milder than forecast, planned to camp out of the elements at night and adjust our hiking plans according to the weather if needed. Ideally we would avoid potentially dangerous creek crossings. I made sure we all had trekking poles and sandals with straps to aid in crossing. My boyfriend is an experienced creek crosser so we would have him assess the best path to cross the creek and brief us on creek crossing safety. While crossing, your pack should be unbuckled at all points. For fast rushing water, face upstream, lean forward using your trekking pole for balance and slowly step sideways across the creek, slowly placing each step in order to maintain balance. If you do lose your balance and start floating downstream, roll onto your back and stick your feet up out of the water until you can get somewhere where you can stand up again. Trekking poles would also help with rocky wet trails. I’ve talked about how much I love trekking poles in a previous post.

Reality

This detailed planning lead to having to create a back up plan and a back up plan for the backup plan. A lot of the plan went out the window when we weren’t able to park north and ended up having to cross the red creek going in and out of the wilderness. The rain kept us at the same campsite two nights in a row so instead of spreading the loop into reasonable 4 mile chunks we ended up doing a mile the first day, zero miles the second day, ~ 4 miles the third day, 11 miles the fourth day and a half mile back to the car on the final day. The 11 mile day was hard and ended with a pretty dicey creek crossing. We even ended up camping up high one night and crossing our fingers that there would be no storms. Nevertheless we all had an amazing time, stayed safe and saw some wonderful views. I can’t wait to go back to this beautiful wilderness area again.

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