Backpacking the Dolly Sods Wilderness: permits, mud, and the elusive goshawk

Sunset at our campsite at Left Fork Red Creek off Dobbin Grade (TR 526)
Photo by Coop

The Dolly Sods Wilderness is a rocky, high-altitude plateau in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia and is part of the Monongahela National Forest. The wilderness has more than 47 miles of trails with elevations ranging from 2,500 to over 4,700 feet. If I didn’t have you at “Hello” allow me to share two other selling points that made the brochure: weather and explosives.

Weather in the Sods is as decisive as a two-year old. Snow can fall from October through April, freezing temperatures can occur at anytime of the year, and the winds can penetrate your soul. As for explosives, the area was used by the U.S. Army as a practice artillery and mortar range and maneuver area during World War II. And, while the National Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers did their best to remove Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) from the area there’s still a good chance some remain. Moral of the story: dress for every occasion and don’t touch the boom booms.

In spite of the potential to blow up, freeze, or both, the Sods really are a spectacular place to go. My buddy Coop and I rose to the challenge back in February 2014 when we hit the trails wearing snowshoes and a smile. This year we thought we’d give the Sods another shot and enlisted my brother-in-law, Ken.

Coop put together route options and we decided on one from FR 80 to Blackbird Knob (TR 511) to Rocky Ridge (TR 524) to Dobbin Grade (TR 526) to Upper Red Creek (TR 509) to Blackbird Knob (TR 511) and back down FR 80. By taking Dobbin Grade (TR 526) we gave ourselves options should we decide to connect with any of the four nearby trails. In total, our trip was to cover about 12 miles over 3 days with 1,900′ of elevation gain and loss.

Heading Out
A couple weeks out Coop checked the Monongahela alerts page and discovered that a fire ban from four months ago was still posted on the site. He let me know and the two of us contacted the guy whose name was on the website. Within a few hours we were both notified that the fire ban had been lifted. Coop printed the email he received and I saved my voicemail. Way better to be safe than sorry as neither of us wanted to face a hefty fine or prison time.

With one week to go we turned our attention to the weather forecast and local webcams. Snow was forecasted in the days leading up to our trip, but warmer, snow-melting weather was supposed to follow. Each day we watched the White Grass webcam as the ground turned white then green then white then green. On the day of the trip the weekend forecast called for day temps between 38°F and 52°F, night temps between 28°F and 35°F, winds between 8MPH and 15MPH with gusts to 35MPH, and a 40% chance of showers Saturday evening.

The morning of the trip we made the 6-hour drive to a parking lot off FR 80 in the Canaan Wildlife Refuge (CWR) about 2.25 miles from the Blackbird Knob (TR 511) trailhead. While we suited up we watched as a Subaru kicked up gravel on its way up the mountain. A short time later I happened to look at the parking lot’s information billboard and saw A) a request for information on sightings of the elusive goshawk posted by the CWR, and B) a flyer of the CWR’s dos and donts including a sentence stating that the current lot we were using did not allow overnight parking. Poop.

We threw everything and ourselves back in the car and headed up FR 80. About a mile up the road we saw a sign for overnight parking and the Subaru from earlier. Given the information I gleaned from the previous parking lot’s billboard I took a gander at this lot’s info board. My eyes fixated on a note posted by CWR. I read it twice in disbelief. In order to park in the overnight lot we needed a permit. F-T-L-O-G!

We considered our options: A) Drive down to White Grass, leave the car, and huff it 3.5 miles up the mountain, B) Park in the overnight lot sans permit, or C) Get a permit. If we left the car at White Grass we’d set ourselves back more than an hour. If we left the car without a permit we may not have a car on Sunday. If we left the car with a permit we’d stay on schedule and have a car in two days. Option C made the most sense, but we had no idea how to get a permit.

I reread the notice, found a contact number for CWR, called the office, and was told by a representative that I needed to come back down the mountain to apply for a permit. The permits were free, she said, but they were required. She ended the conversation with, “Please hurry. The office is closing in an hour.”

We piled back in the car once more and made our way to the CWR office 4 miles away just off WV-32. A couple signatures and a few salamander stories later and we were headed back to the overnight lot. At 1:40PM, we were legally parked and finally hiking our way up FR 80 to the trailhead.

Day 1 (4.7 miles | 801′ gain | 509′ loss)
After a mile of hiking up the gravel road we reached the day hiker’s only parking lot and exited the Canaan Wildlife Refuge. For the next mile we navigated through mud and water via rocks and soft grass before hitting the Blackbird Knob (TR 511)/Breathed Mountain (TR 553)/Big Stonecoal (TR 513) trailhead. Big Stonecoal (TR 513) runs south towards Coal Knob, and Breathed Mountain (TR 533) runs southeast to Red Creek Trail (TR 514). We, however, were headed north on Blackbird Knob (TR 511) to Rocky Ridge (TR 524) about a quarter mile away and just east of Timberline Ski Resort.

At the fork, Blackbird Knob(TR 511) runs east and Rocky Ridge (TR 524) heads northwest along the western boundary of the Dolly Sods Wilderness. In two days we’d be coming off Blackbird Knob (TR 511). Today we were taking Rocky Ridge (TR 524).

The first quarter mile was wooded and rocky before dumping into a windy, open field and a gradual incline. A half mile later we passed the Harman (TR 525) trailhead before continuing up another 3/4 miles over a rocky, wind-worn peak and down to Dobbin Grade (TR526). If our calculations were correct our campsite was just over a mile away.

We navigated more rocks, mud, and water, and descended some 200′ of elevation before reaching a campsite about 3/4 miles from Rocky Ridge (TR 524). Tempted, we pressed on in favor of the creekside campsite we figured/hoped was a quarter mile from our current location.

Before long we came to the top of a hill that overlooked a marshy clearing and what appeared to be Left Fork Red Creek. We paused for a moment and looked around for signs of a campsite before committing to the downhill. Thankfully, and just shy of 3:30PM, we spied a fire ring just off the trail.

campsite in the woods with tents

Campsite at Left Fork Red Creek off Dobbin Grade (TR526)

After setting up shop we took advantage of the remaining daylight to explore a bit. I headed northwest where I found a couple of beaver dams and a beaver lodge, Coop stayed close to home and snapped shots of the area around the campsite, and Ken took off for a patch of pines to the northeast.

I took a few photos, walked through the marshy area and rejoined Coop at the campsite. A few minutes later Ken returned with news of an interesting find and asked us if we wanted to check it out. The three of us walked the beaten path to an opening in the pine trees that hosted a pair of fire rings and the makings of a nice campsite. As Ken walked us to the back of the site we saw what appeared to be the remnants of a mighty battle between a snake and an ostrich. Up close our observations were not confirmed. Instead we saw the spine and hoof of a deer next to a pile of its own hair.

WTF happened? Old age? Wildcat? A hunter? However it died its after-death experience appeared to be horrific. Unable to solve the crime we labeled the case cold, returned to camp, and cooked up dinner. An hour later night fell. Almost immediately following we heard coyotes way off to the south and again to the northeast, much closer to our location. They howled a few times and apparently got bored as we never heard them again.

With bellies full we sat around and waited for the stars to come out. First came Orion’s belt and Aldebaran, then Betelgeuse and Rigel. Venus was exceptionally bright and glowed with a faint halo. Before long the Big Dipper appeared as did the Milky Way. We followed our stellar experience with hours of conversation and boot drying before hanging our bear bags and turning in.

Day 2 (4.04 miles | 430′ gain | 459′ loss)
Morning came quickly. At 6AM Coop was setting up his camera for a shot of the sunrise, and Ken was beginning to show signs of life. I followed suit, broke down my tent, packed my things, and made breakfast; a delectable arrangement of tuna, oatmeal, and a blueberry crisp Clif bar. I also made my first cup of coffee with my MSR WindBurner French press. It was OK, but Starbucks Via is way easier and requires a lot less cleanup.

Around 9AM we topped off our water bottles, packed up, and headed up Dobbin Grade (TR 526). Forty yards in we hit a path that crossed the trail. It ran northwest towards the crime scene, north towards Raven Ridge (TR 521), and southeast towards Upper Red Creek (TR 509). While we considered turning right/southeast we opted to go straight/north because of the cairn we spotted 10 yards ahead. It didn’t take long before we realized that maybe, just maybe, Dobbin Grade (TR 526) wasn’t supposed to go over a field of rocks. Out came the compasses and maps.

After a few minutes of deliberation we realized we should’ve hung a right instead of going straight. It didn’t matter though because we saw a trail in the distance that appeared to be where Dobbin Grade (TR 526) wrapped back around and joined our current path. Feeling a bit foolish, we made our way down the hill to the trail intersection where we hung a left/north and continued on.

Hiking Dobbin Grade (TR 526) towards Upper Red Creek (TR 509)

The trail ran through a mostly open field with sporadic patches of trees. We were certain we’d see a deer snacking on grass, hopeful we’d see a goshawk, but nature wasn’t having it. I joked that the National Forest Service created an elaborate wildlife ruse in the Sods. A production where they used headlamps to mimic animal eyes, speakers to blast animal sounds, and various types of homemade scat to really sell the act. Seriously, though, I’m not entirely convinced that Dolly Sods has any actual wildlife.

A few minutes after rejoining Dobbin Grade (TR 526) we headed east through trees and then south through another open field. That’s when a huge pond, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, caught our attention. As we got closer we could see that the pond was the result a massive beaver dam. We took a break from hiking to check it out and were not disappointed.

Beaver dam off Dobbin Grade (TR 526) about a quarter mile from Upper Red Creek (TR 509)

Back on the trail we could see Raven Ridge (TR 521) to the north and a short time later we spotted the trail sign for Upper Red Creek (TR 509) which was about 1.7 miles from where we started the day. The previous night we considered heading north up Raven Ridge (TR 521) and either hooking up with Bear Rocks (TR 522) and camping or back west towards Beaver View (TR 523) and camping near where we did the last time Coop and I had ventured into the Sods. The former added more mileage than we cared for (we still had a 6-hour drive after finishing on Sunday) and the latter lacked a water source. Instead, we turned right/south on Upper Red Creek (TR 509) en route to our planned destination.

The climb from the intersection took us up another 150′ in elevation over a half mile. We slogged through soft grass and sinking mud. As we crested the hill my heel started to sting. A half mile later I asked the group to pull over so I could slap on a layer of moleskin. While stopped, two backpackers approached. They stopped to talk and shared their frustrations with the lack of available knowledge around the mandatory overnight parking permit (they were the Subaru guys). They mentioned that they had a late start the day prior and weren’t sure if they were going to stay another night (they didn’t). The conversation ceased around the time I laced up my boot and the lot of us parted ways.

Intersection at Blackbird Knob (TR 511) and Upper Red Creek (TR 509)

A half mile later we came upon Blackbird Knob (TR 511), turned right/west and started the half mile climb to the top whereupon we started our 3/4 mile descent to the campsite. When we arrived the trail sort of just ended in a patch of pines. There were a half dozen fire rings scattered on both sides of the trail. What really struck us, though, was the amount of trash strewn about. Even worse, there seemed to be an agreed upon place to take a spiritual journey with a roll of Charmin. C’mon man!

hikers crossing a creek

Ken and Coop cross Left Fork Red Creek at Blackbird Knob (TR 511)

Not entirely sold on spending the night in a dumpster we walked around in search of something more amenable. Our explorations paid off when I happened upon what we deemed the “Throne Room” on the other side of the creek. I showed the other two a photo and we abandoned the trash pile in favor of our newfound 5-star accommodations.

campsite with rock chairs and fire ring

The Throne Room

Day 2, Part 2 (3.64 miles | 538′ gain | 545′ loss)
During second breakfast we discussed leaving the packs and going out for a short hike. It was a short discussion as we all agreed to agree. Around 1:50PM we rejoined Blackbird Knob (TR 511), made the quarter mile climb to the Harman (TR 525) intersection, and turned right/northwest up the trail. The plan was to head up to Rocky Ridge (TR 524) and come back down Blackbird Knob (TR 511).

Ken and I leaving the campsite up Blackbird Knob (TR 511)
Photo by Coop

A half mile in something foreign caught my eye. Something orange. Something black. Something stuck in the ground. OK, stop guessing. It was a Bear Grylls folding knife. I pulled it from the ground and tossed it to Ken certain that it had been involved in some shady crime or ritualistic deer sacrifice.

From there we continued the 1.5 mile, 400′ ascent to Rocky Ridge (TR 524). The trail went on forever. Rocks, mud, muck, sludge, grass, repeat. There was something else about the trail though. It was littered with poop. Deer poop, wildcat poop, horse poop, and though I didn’t fully inspect it I’m pretty sure that a human took a dump right in the middle of the trail. Be warned. If you head down Harman (TR 525)…

there will be poop

About 2:30PM we reached Rocky Ridge (TR 524), sent a couple “Proof of Life” texts to our loved ones, and walked the half mile descent to Blackbird Knob (TR 511) passing a family of four along the way. Dad was pumped, the two boys were oblivious, and mom was contemplating her life choices.

At the trailhead we took Blackbird Knob (TR 511) back to our campsite passing a dozen more day hikers and backpackers along the way. This one group, a bunch of college-aged girls, passed us about halfway. The ones in the front were pumped and ready to go the full 47 miles through the wilderness. The ones bringing up the rear, well, they appeared to be filled with hatred and despair. Still, the lot of ’em managed a smile and a greeting and went on their way. Happy trails!

Hiking Blackbird Knob (TR 511)
Photo by Coop

From that point the trail descended before taking us back to Left Fork Red Creek where we arrived around 3:30PM. Not too bad for a day’s work.

Upon returning we boiled water for dinner, ate, and lounged around. Occasionally we heard voices in the distance as dozens of day hikers traveled back and forth on Blackbird Knob (TR 511). One group of geriatric bird watchers came down the trail, hung out by the creek for a while, and left. Later they reappeared following a whistle blown thrice then once. I can’t be sure, but I think they may have found a goshawk.

Just before nightfall the skies turned cloudy and the air cold. Not too long after a drop in air pressure and a faint drizzle prompted us to get things packed up and our bear bag hung. We lounged a bit more and hit the sack about 8PM.

Day 3 (3.62 miles | 492′ gain | 515′ loss)
The rain came and went as we slept, but didn’t amount to much. In the morning we packed up, had breakfast, and bid adieu to the Throne Room. Once on the trail the fog and wind kept us between cold and comfortable. Our legs switched on cruise control and our minds focused on a warm cooked meal.

At the Blackbird Knob (TR 511)/Rocky Ridge (TR 524) intersection we hung a left/south and reversed the route that took us there two days earlier. We passed Breathed Mountain (TR 553) and Big Stonecoal (TR 513) before eventually arriving at the day hiker’s only parking lot. And guess what? There were 5 cars parked and nary a permit to be seen. WTF Canaan Wildlife Refuge? A quarter mile later another car was parked without a permit. I guess the rule is “You better have a permit unless you don’t.” From there we walked the rest of the way down FR 80 to our parked and permitted car.

Our adventure was complete.

Post-trip group shot
photo by Coop

Recap and Final Thoughts
We chose Dolly Sods with the hope we’d be able to get in some snowshoeing. When that fell through we took advantage of the warmer weather and snuck in an extra hike. All in all, 16 miles with 2,261′ of elevation gain and 2,028′ of loss over three days was just what the doctor ordered. Well, the doctor actually ordered snow and wildlife but there was a mix up and we got rain and a deer carcass. Whatever. We had a blast.

Final route and totals
Click to view the full map

Some more things…

  1. If you’d like my mostly accurate GPS data you can check out the final trip on hillmap.com
  2. If you hike Dolly Sods and would like a hot meal post trip head to the Breakfast Nook on WV-32 if you have cash, and Amelia’s 2 miles down the road if you don’t.
  3. If you bring a map try printing it on Terra Slate paper; a waterproof, tear-resistant paper that doesn’t need laminating and really holds up on the trail.
  4. Lastly, if you’d like to know what gear I brought (because I often wonder what other people bring along) you’re welcome to download my gear list for this trip.