Sunday, July 2, 2017

Dolly Sods Day 1: Bear Rocks to Stonecoal Creek

For months we have been anticipating a long 3-day weekend at Dolly Sods and after a lot of frustration because of Ann's recent knee injury, the trip finally did happen over the long Fourth of July weekend. Here is our take on the Dolly Sods/Lion's Head hike as described in Hiking Upward. I think this trek hits most of the highlights and is a very doable 2- or 3-day hike. Over the busy holiday weekend, though, everybody was on the exact same trek and so there was some concern on our part about competition for good camp sites.

Just Before Bear Rocks Parking on FR 75
Our story starts sometime back in January when we discovered that July 4 was a Tuesday and so the restaurant would be closed for three days in a row: Sunday-Tuesday. Those of you not in the business may not understand what a gilded unicorn this is: the last time we had three days off in a row was the first of never. We decided to take advantage of that to go to Dolly Sods for what might be my last (and Ann's first) visit before heading to Oregon in August.

The decision to backpack Dolly Sods made, we needed to equip ourselves, so we spent about five months slowly accumulating the gear that we would need. Subsequently, Ann decided when we were hiking the AT this spring in Damascus VA that we should thru hike the AT and so this trip became a trial run of sorts to see if she really wanted to carry through on that. She really does as it turns out.

Sunday July 2 started early enough for us, about 6:45 when the brown dog got me up. On the way to take the dogs out, I turned on the oven and put a grits casserole with tomatoes, basil, sausage, and goat cheese in the oven. By the time the dogs were fed, the coffee brewed, and our gear assembled, breakfast was ready. I'm not a big breakfast eater, but when I am headed out for a long hike, a good breakfast really helps. This stuck by me until 1:00 in the afternoon.

Grits Casserole with Tomatoes, Basil, Sausage, and Goat Cheese
The weather forecast for Davis, the closest town with the most appropriate forecast for the wilderness area, had been bouncing around all week, with the threat of rain all three days. By Sunday morning, there was little threat of rain for Sunday and Monday, and perhaps afternoon showers on Tuesday, after we would be off the trail. The weather turned out to be a mixed bag of sunny and cloudy skies, with highs in the upper 70s and chilly nights in the 50s, great weather for July.

After packing our gear and the Jeep, we set out about 8:45am for the 2-hour drive basically straight out 55/US48/Corridor H, whatever name you want to give to the new four-lane between Wardensville and Davis. And soon enough, we found ourselves bouncing up the dirt Forest Road 75 at about 15 miles an hour towards Dolly Sods and the Bear Rocks Trail parking area.

When we arrived, I expected it to be fairly crowded because of the holiday weekend, but I did not expect the 60-car lot to be full and cars jammed in along the roadside anywhere they could park. This was not going to be a weekend of solitude. In fact, we ran into the same people over and over all three days, with almost everyone following the same Hiking Upward track that we were.

Looking East from Bear Rocks
We parked and unpacked under largely sunny skies just opposite the sign for the Bear Rocks trailhead. Naturally, before taking off, I had to take the obligatory photo of the unexploded ordnance warning, but we didn't lose any sleep over running across any. It's not a big risk or the Forest Service would close the area to visitors.

The Obligatory Bomb Sign Photo
I mentioned earlier that we had spent about five months assembling gear for this trip and a subsequent thru hike of the AT. All my antiquated and very heavy gear got disposed of about 10 years ago during my divorce and Ann has never had any gear. Aside from our 8-mile shakedown day hike last Sunday, this would be our first go with the new gear. I have a lot of backpacking experience including a few 3-week section hikes and hundreds of nights in the woods, so my only issue was becoming acclimated to my new gear. For Ann, our experiences were almost all new and she did great!

She Can't Wait to Get Started!
Day 1 would see us start at the Bear Rocks Trail head on FR75 and head due west on trail 522 across the northern edge of the wilderness area until we reached the junction with 521. We would bear right on 521 and continue across the northern edge until we reached the western side of the area. At this point, the plan was to head south on 524 along the western edge of Dolly Sods until we reached the four-way intersection about halfway to the south of the area. Here we would pick up Big Stonecoal Trail, number 513, follow it to the creek and find a place to spend the night. Easy enough, right? Read on.

A Hop Clover, Trifolium spp. on Trail 522

Looking South from 522, Pink Mountain Laurel Everywhere

Bowman's Root, Gillenia trifoliata

Sibbaldiopsis tridentata, Three-toothed Cinquefoil

Apocynum androsaemifolium, Spreading Dogbane
As you will no doubt have read elsewhere, Dolly Sods is probably not for beginners on the trail as there is a high probability that at some point, you will lose the trail and have to re-find it. For the very same reason, it is best that you don't hike solo. Having an extra set of eyes is useful for finding the correct track and for dividing up to check out two equally plausible tracks.

If you're used to nicely blazed trails, Dolly Sods is going to be an eye opener. The trails are signed at the junctions but are rarely marked elsewhere. In many places the trails split (or game trails fan out) and can go many different directions leaving you to ponder which might be the correct way. In areas, cairns usually mark the correct way to go, but we found a couple places where they warned of the wrong way. Go figure.

In the northern half of the area, you will see a very few fiberglass posts with numbers on them (such as the one in the photo below) in totally random places and never where you need them. When the track was dead obvious was when we would encounter one of these markers. When the track was a total guess was when the markers were not to be found. And there are no trail markers in the southern half of Dolly Sods at all. Not helpful, Forest Service, not at all helpful.

So if you go, take a map, know where you are headed, be prepared for an adventure, keep smiling, keep pressing in the correct direction, and you will do just fine. Just don't plan to get from point A to point B directly in all cases and don't panic when you don't. It's a roughly 5-mile by 10-mile area and while you might not always know exactly where you are, it would be really tough to get truly lost.

Useless Trail Marker

Boardwalk Headed Towards Red Creek on 522

Crossing Red Creek on 522
Once you cross Red Creek is the first place where the trail is not really obvious. Across the creek, you empty into a large campsite with lots of potential tracks. The trail is up the hill to the left. Go across the rocks, walk west to the hill, and ascend. The trail will head up the hill left roughly in the downstream direction.

Ox-eye Daisy, Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, with Beetle

Pushing on Towards 521 Junction
One thing Dolly Sods has in abundance is mud. At some point, your feet are going to get wet and muddy. Just know that, accept it, and enjoy yourself. One good thing about the mud puddles is that they do attract a lot of Sulfur butterflies and we saw masses of these fairly rare Pink-edged Sulfurs including the male below who succeeded in trapping the female and mating with her. They are rare here because they are northern butterflies at the very southern point of their range in the highlands of the Sods.

Mating Pink-edged Sulfurs, Colias interior
From the high parts of the trail on 522 and on 521, you get glimpses into the lower areas where the beavers have built their dams and created ponds. From past experience, I know that they have made large sections of 526, Dobbin Grade, impassable and you are advised to stay off that trail.

Beaver Pond

Pink Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia
Trail 522 runs right into 521 and you want to stay right on 521 to continue your trip to the west. Soon enough, you will encounter a point where the trail continues straight while 521 bends sharply left into the woods. This diversion is marked with a sign and is hard to miss. If you do miss it, like we did, warning bells start to go off quickly. You will notice that you are on an ATV trail and motorized vehicles are prohibited in Dolly Sods. Moreover, you will see Posted signs marking private property and you might even glimpse Mt. Storm through the trees like we did. If you see these, turn around!

Steam Plume from Mt. Storm
Trail 521 runs into trail 524 on the western edge of Dolly Sods and 524 heads south on a very high plain that is covered in formations of windswept sandstone boulders that are fantastic looking and equally fun to explore. Take some time to explore the rocks and look over into the Canaan Valley to the west. The views are outstanding.

Lots of Club Mosses Everywhere

Timberline Ski Resort

Annie Played Too Hard on the Rocks

Sandstone Rocks Overlooking Canaan Valley
Up on the rocks, we had lunch while looking over into Canaan Valley to the west. And after we were finished lunch, we snacked on the ubiquitous blueberries that were everywhere.

Blueberries and Huckleberries, Vaccinium spp., are Everywhere

A Sandstone Formation

Another Formation

And Yet Another
OK, so far, so good. We missed one well-marked turn, but quickly figured out that we weren't paying attention, and didn't really lose any time. Take note of the rock above that Ann is looking at along 524. Just after this is where we spent 90 minutes in the broiling sun looking for the trail. Beyond this rock formation you come to a bit of a rock scramble that is marked with two cairns, so you follow the cairns and get back to obvious trail.

There is a wall of rock on your right obstructing your view of the valley to the west. Then you come to an opening in that wall where the trail appears to head left with a minor trail going right to the overlook that you see Ann exploring below. The trail is not to the left! We spent about an hour exploring all permutations of trails beyond that point with no joy, collecting a few other hikers along the way. We finally started backtracking and got back to the rock above where we met several other people. We just had to be in the right place: a dozen or fifteen people didn't all arrive at this point by being in the wrong place.

We let a newly arrived couple take the lead going back south down the trail so as to have fresh eyes on things. Arriving at the spot where the trail appears to go left and to the right is a path to an overlook, the husband went left, the way that we had come, but the wife was certain the trail was to the right where we had also been but failed to spot the trail. And she was right. At the very far left of this area, stepping off of a rock, she spied a cairn down another 40 or 50 feet that we had all missed.

At this point, we were very happy because we had been searching for the trail for about 90 minutes in the blazing sun and our water supply was getting tight, given the distance to the next creek.

Overlooking Canaan Valley


When You're Low on Water, This is a Tease
In short order, we arrived at the intersection of 526, Dobbin Grade, that we had expected to see much earlier in the afternoon. There we met a couple of good old boys from nearby Timberline Resort who gave us a much welcomed quart of water and a hit of bourbon "for energy to get up the hill," the hill being just that but called Harman Mountain. At the summit, you can go right out to what looks like some fantastic overlooks, but the day was wearing on and we hustling to get down to the creek, filter some water, and make camp.

At 526, we jogged right to stay on 524 and then passed 525 and 511 in quick order, staying to the right each time until we came to the 4-way intersection. There is a signboard at this intersection with a map. The trail we wanted, 513, Big Stonecoal Trail, veers left off of 524 in front of this sign. Speaking of maps, when I was bushwhacking earlier, my map must have got ripped out of my belt and I found myself without a map. I was able to take a photo of another hiker's map and I found out later that a group behind us picked up my map, but I was never able to hook up with them to get it back. Lesson learned (and I almost always do this, but not this time): take a photo of your map before you leave so that if you lose it, you still have the photo on your phone.

Here, over Harman Mountain now in the southern half of Dolly Sods, the landscape changes and you go from open moors to deep dense rhododendron thickets with a lot more moisture. I had decided that we would stop at the first reasonable looking campsite near a water source earlier in the day, aiming to be short of the campsite recommended on the Hiking Upward itinerary. That would give us a little extra distance on our second day and help even out the hikes on the first two days.

We passed an occupied site by a small creek and then a couple more as we crossed Stonecoal Creek proper. We stopped at an intermediary creek to refill our water for the evening, not knowing how far we would camp from a water source. Just over Stonecoal Creek, we found a beautiful site in a grove of pines right next to a small marshy area and a water source. There were surprisingly no bugs and the ground blanketed deeply in pine needles was a great place to set up our tent.

I Must Have Said Something About Blowing
As a surprise, I lugged along a 750 of Barbaresco to have with our dinner. At a pound and 11 ounces for the wine and the Platypreserve container, that's a lot of commitment to having wine for dinner. Our food weighed in at 4 pounds and 6 ounces each for three days and two nights of thru hiker-style rations (3500 calories per day). We didn't eat all that food on this short hike, but we are trying to get things dialed in for our AT thru hike. It looks like we can easily bring it in under 2 pounds per day per person with food that we purchase at any grocery store.

Our cooking set up is a bit unusual. For the two of us, I am carrying a single 1.1-liter GSI aluminum boiler in which I nest a small gas canister wrapped in my PackTowl, a folding tripod base, an MSR Microrocket stove, and a mini Bic lighter. The GSI boiler set up is really nice with the insulated folding handle locking the lid down when not in use. I debated about whether to discard the mesh bag in which the boiler arrived, but brought it along. And I found it invaluable for corralling my towel and the lighter while the stove was in use, preventing them from getting lost. I got an aluminum pot versus a titanium pot because the cost of aluminum is a fraction of titanium at a very modest weight penalty.

Because we only have one pot between the two of us and we decided not to share out of the same pot (because we might be eating different dinners), we both have SnowPeak Ti double-walled coffee mugs for our morning coffee (and evening wine!) and two 1-oz disposable pho bowls with lids in which to rehydrate our dinners before eating them from the bowls. Contrast this to people who rehydrate and eat from their cook pot. Where does the coffee go?!?!

We are carrying about the same weight as carrying two pots, but our set up is definitely bulkier. We are carrying the coffee mugs in our side pockets and slipping a SmartWater bottle down into them, solving that problem. But the bowls are still bulky. With a full summer gear load and a three-day food supply, we both still had oodles of room in our packs, mine an Exos 58 and Ann's an Exos 48. So far, the bowls are not an issue and I really like eating out of a bowl versus a cooking pot. It's an aesthetic thing.

Surprise: Barbaresco

Annie and Her Hiker Trash Duct Tape Bandage

Annie Insisted on This Photo
Why yes, it's a bear bag, a bear bag hanging peacefully at dusk. Although we saw no bears and very little bear sign on this trip, I have seen them here before. It's not the big bears that I worry about though. It's the mini-bears: the chipmunks and mice. I have seen those little jokers chew a hole straight through a $250 pack just to get at some food inside. Not on my watch. Speaking of nocturnal visitors, we did have some, but more on that later.

We got into camp about 6:00 pm and by the time we had filtered water, set up the tent and sleeping pads, cooked and cleaned up from dinner, and got the bear bag hung, it was 8:00pm. Annie said, "It's 8:00. Is it too early to go to sleep?" and promptly passed out. This is the woman that when we were looking at tents caused me to laugh when she said that the tent we ultimately picked was her preference because it was roomy enough so that we could play cards or whatever inside before going to sleep. I do believe she was incredulous when I told her that once you hit the sleeping bag, it is over for the night. Now she knows.

I lay there for a few minutes listening to the haunting flute-like notes of a Wood Thrush before dozing off for the night.

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