We backpacked in the Dolly Sods Wilderness area in West Virginia last weekend. The Lions Head hike, a 21-mille loop that begins and ends on Forest Road 75, was one I’d wanted to do for some time, and we decided last month that we’d go for it over Memorial Day weekend. As it approached, it seemed the weather forecasters concurred that this was a good weekend to be outdoors. So, apparently, did most of the DC-metro region, and they were at Dolly Sods in droves. College types, casual hikers, some families.
Hikingupward.com, where I got the specs for the hike, rates it a 3 out of 5 for solitude. Obviously my judgment will be skewed by having gone over a long weekend comprised of the best three consecutive weather days in recent memory, but I think the 3 is a bit high. To be fair, the hiking didn’t feel crowded, most of the time, so maybe I’d rate that a 2.5. But the camping! The camping! And the group of yelling guys who decided to set up shop nearby — NOT a 3 out of 5! I’ll be generous and say 1.5. Again, who knows — the entire region was out there.
So, this hike was definitely worth the 3+ hour drive from the DC suburbs. We left at about 6:30 Saturday morning, grabbed bagels and coffee on the way out, bringing us to about 7:00 am, and started the hike around 10:30 or so. Hikingupward.com calls this “arguably one of the most unique, and beautiful hiking areas on the East Coast,” and it’s no exaggeration.
Having been spoiled by the even the small amount of hiking I’ve done out west, this is a spectacular find because it offers meadows, views of mountains and valleys, sandstone formations, streams, forested areas, and bogs. I’m not sure I’d qualify bogs as noteworthy in terms of their hiking value, but they did add variety to the scenery.
We opted to do the hike in two days, making camp around Stonecoal Run Saturday night. This put us at about 11 miles (should have been just over 9 – but we took a wrong turn at one point), and left us with the remaining 12 or so for the next day.
Confession: This was my first time backpacking. I love hiking, and I tolerate the camping side of things because it’s a good way to see cool places. I talk about hiking with people fairly frequently, and they always say things like, “Oh, did you camp and backpack out [wherever]?” and I usually just say, “Yes!” Why? Because that sounds way better than, say, “No, I’ve never actually taken a fully loaded pack all that far, and I’m kind of nervous about the whole thing.” I can deal with not showering, with eating freeze-dried food, and I do enjoy sleeping in fresh air, but it felt like there were so many other things to worry about! Well, now I’ve actually done it, and whatever fears I had were assuaged. Being able to look at scenes like this one helped:
Hikingupward.com claims that this hike, done over two days instead of three, makes for a challenging second day, and they’re absolutely correct. The uphills aren’t that bad — it’s just a loooong day. Still, we wanted a totally free Monday out of our 3-day weekend and were content with our choice, even if our feet protested. Now that I’ve been there, I can easily see spreading this over three days and staying near the Forks on night two. There were many attractive campsites there and they’re right on the stream – really lovely. As it was, we stopped there for about half an hour to make tea, take a break, and enjoy the surroundings. I easily could have stayed there all day, and it would have made for more reasonable mileage per day for the second half of the hike.
I highly recommend this hike, but I also highly recommend adhering to posted regulations, such as keeping group size at a maximum of 10 people. It’s also important to consider that this is a wilderness area; if you (and your loud, screaming friends) are looking to be loud and scream-y, this might not be the best place for your weekend bro-fest. I will add that although some of the scouting groups out there were on the large side, I observed them scanning their entire site to check for trash/items they might have dropped so as to ensure they left no trace. So go, but go courteously, as a guest, and let both the land and your fellow hikers feel as if you were hardly there at all.