The weekend of September 24-26, six of us from work took a backpacking trip together from Harrisburg to the Dolly Sods Wilderness located in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. It was my first backpacking experience, and it was challenging and exhilarating at the same time. The wilderness certainly challenged my notions of what constitutes “trails”. A great, sore, tired time was had by all, but we were glad to be offline and outside of cell phone service areas even if it was just for a few days.
The challenge started before we even got to our destination’s parking lot. We loaded up all of our gear into a teammate’s van and got settled in for our 3.5-hour trip. After getting off the interstates and making a quick dinner stop at a McDonald’s, we encountered the Dolly Sods signage, and it led us to a narrow, rough gravel road that climbed for miles. At that point we knew were were going to be in the sticks for the weekend.
After getting our gear together and taking a group photo, we hit the Bear Rocks Trail on the northeast corner of the Wilderness and started on our counterclockwise journey. Because we arrived late in the afternoon, we resolved to camp at the first decent site we found. Luckily, the first site we encountered (about 1.5 miles in) was near a stream and surrounded by trees; we set up camp there as night was falling. We never did get a decent fire going due to a lack of dry wood in the general area, but we did sit around and converse until about 10pm. We also marveled at the cloudless night sky, the stars, and remarked how bright the moon seemed when it wasn’t fighting artificial light sources on the ground. It wasn’t very cold this first night; temps were in the 50s.
Early the next morning we ate breakfast, pumped water, packed up and started out on our anticipated 15-mile journey around a majority of our planned route. On the Raven Ridge Trail, we quickly encountered high winds on the elevated plateaus that held the sods in “Dolly Sods”. At mid-morning on the Rocky Ridge Trail, we took a break and enjoyed the vista from the west ridge of the wilderness, overlooking a lake. After that break the trails began to get much more rough, evolving from rock-laden to boulder-crossings. It was about as much climbing as one can do with one’s legs. The rock formations in this area were stunning — similar to what I’ve seen in Colorado. One thing I started noticing was a little cramping in my legs. Having dealt with that in cycling, I knew to keep drinking and lower my speed. That helped, since I didn’t feel them again. As we transitioned to the Big Stonecoal Trail, we found a campsite to rest and eat lunch.
I haven’t talked about the food yet. Our resident backpacking enthusiast recommended using freeze-dried “mountain meals” to save pack space and weight, as well as Clif bars and beef jerky to provide calorie-dense meals when we weren’t set up to cook. While the mountain meals weren’t exactly “gourmet”, they had plenty of flavor on their own, and were certainly worth their lightness. Another teammate brought a box of Clif bars and shared with the group; in fact, we all shared food and supplies the entire weekend.
- Getting back on the Big Stonecoal Trail, things got even more rocky as we transitioned to the Rocky Point Trail. I think the trail name was earned by the number of rocky points one had to avoid to successfully navigate! The trail was made up of 1- to 1.5-foot rocks and was very rough on my toes and ankles. I kept my relatively slow pace, but the group stayed together pretty well. When we split up, we had radios to keep in contact. Halfway on the trail was a short circuit climb to a formation called “Lions Head”. Four from our group decided to go see it; another teammate and I (admittedly, the slowest of the group) decided to continue on towards our intended campsites on the east side of the wilderness. We started heading northeast on the roughening trail, but we kept going and had good conversation. The others caught up with us a bit later at the intersection of the Rocky Point and Red Creek trails. My borrowed pack had been riding on my shoulders pretty roughly,and Rodney noticed that I could adjust the straps higher. After doing that, it felt a lot better, letting more of the pack’s weight rest on my hips.
- From there we hiked north toward a cluster of four campsites, hoping that we found one that was roomy and near water. The leaders found what we thought was the best of the bunch, right along Red Creek with plenty of flat ground and trees. We stopped hiking a bit after 4:30pm, so we had time to set up camp and relax after about 7 hours of hiking. We estimated that we covered 15 miles; on such rough terrain, I considered that an accomplishment. I though my body was going to punish me for pushing it so hard that day, but aside from a little soreness, I was in pretty good shape. The creek was refreshing and provided very clean pumped water. There was a lot of dry wood onsite and we set up a nice fire, which we kept going until the 9pm hour, when we decided to turn in early to be able to start our 5-mile hike out the next morning as early as possible.
I slept pretty well both nights; for me, when camping, that means I get my 3-4 hours of REM sleep and then maybe one or two more 1-2 hour naps. Saturday night was the coldest I’d ever camped. It got down to about 40 degrees, and I was thankful I had brought plently to layers and a cap to compensate for my lack of an insulated sleeping bag (I used a fleece bag). I was warm inside the tent, but once I got out, it was extremely brisk. I waited until 6:30 to give my buddies wake-up calls and we all stirred around the site eating and then packing up. We hit the Red Creek Trail a little after 7:30 and made our way up the Dobbin Grade and Beaver View trails, as well as a shortcut trail back to the Bear Rocks Trail to get back to the van. Along the way we encountered an interesting roadblock – a beaver dam!
We each took our time crossing over the stream using the dam, and no one succumbed to the mud. By about 10:45 we had made it back to the van, ready to head back to Harrisburg. We stopped at an Outback Steakhouse in Martinsburg for our “first real meal” of the weekend, and then disbanded later Sunday afternoon.
I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend with my teammates and hope to participated in some more of these expeditions next year. We left a lot of Dolly Sods unexplored and we plan to return!