Monday, July 12, 2010

Wildflowers, Blueberries, and a Sunburn in Dolly Sods

Four of us went out to Dolly Sods in West Virginia this weekend for a quick overnight backpacking trip.  We arrived late on Friday night at Red Creek Campground, after a long, slow drive up Forest Road 75 in the fog and rain.  The rain had nearly stopped when we arrived, but as soon as we thought about setting up the tents, the heavens opened.  We quickly pitched tents and pitched a tarp over the picnic table so we had a relatively dry place to sit and chat.

When we woke on Saturday morning, it had stopped raining.  It was a little chilly out, which was a nice change after a brutally hot week in DC.  As we made coffee and breakfast, the clouds slowly moved off to the east and the sun came out.  We packed our backpacks and, after a slight directional mishap, headed for the Bear Rocks trailhead.

The trail wound its way westward, down from the ridge, through blueberry bushes full of ripe fruit and cranberry plants in bloom.  We arrived at a small stream after about a mile to discover that the Rhododendron maxiumum (Great Rhododenron) were in bloom.  Further on, we turned southwest on a bypass trail, which took us to the Raven Ridge Trail.  As we slowly descended on the Raven Ridge Trail, trees became larger and more numerous, but we were still hiking primarily in the meadows.  In one small drainage, we discovered a beaver dam and a rather large snapping turtle.  The turtle's head was about the size of a baseball and its shell was about 15 inches in diameter. 

We continued down the Red Creek Trail, pausing for a break near the creek, which soon became completely forested.  After crossing Red Creek, the trail stays high above the valley.  We turned off on Rocky Point trail, which lived up to its name.  It was, apparently, an old railroad bed and it was covered in places by ankle-breakers - rocks that if you step wrong, can break your ankle.  We reached the side trail up to Lion's Head and one member of our party said she would take a break while the three of us went up to check out the view.

The first 100 yards of the trail up to Lion's Head were the steepest trail we hiked all day, but that is more of an indication of the gentle grade of most of the trails we hiked in Dolly Sods.  On top of the ridge, the trail leveled out into a grove of obviously replanted pines.  They were growing in straight rows.  We made our way through the rhododendrons on the far side of the grove of pines and came out onto Lion's Head and a spectacular view of the Red Creek Valley below us.  On our way back, we discussed the possibility of camping on the ridge.  The campsites were pretty nice, but we needed water, which would mean hauling it from nearly a mile away.

Ultimately, we decided that hauling water would be worth it.  We retrieved our packs and the fourth member of our party and returned to the campsite on the ridge.  After setting up camp, three of us went back down to the trail and hiked to a waterfall on Big Stonecoal Creek to get water.  We made dinner when we returned and went out to Lion's Head to watch the sun set.  We returned to camp just before it got fully dark.  The guys built a small campfire and I made tea.  The breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay.  It was one of the nicer campsites I have used in a long time.

Yesterday morning, we had a leisurely breakfast before packing up.  We headed down the trail, pausing at the waterfall on Big Stonecoal Creek again.  Soon, we were back in the blueberries and the meadows of the morning before.  We took a break for lunch in a shady cedar grove.  Although we hiked uphill for most of the morning, the grade was gentle enough that we hardly noticed it. 

After lunch, we climbed onto a ridge and had a great view of the valley to the west, including the wind farms near Canaan Mountain.  The Rocky Ridge Trail took us past beautiful white rock formations and more blueberries.  The open terrain, stunted trees, blueberries, sandy trail, and big sky reminded me of hiking out west.  We saw a little bit of bear sign along the trail.  Given the number of blueberries, I am surprised we did not see more of it.   We turned east and hiked through the meadows back to the car, taking a short break in a grove of trees to escape the heat.  Yesterday afternoon was quite a bit warmer than Saturday afternoon and we were out in the sun for most of it. I paid for the good views with a good sunburn.

All said and done, with the water haul, we hiked almost 23 miles.  The trail wound through some of the most diverse, spectacular landscapes I've seen in the Mid-Atlantic.  We will definitely be back.

Lots of pictures (click to enlarge):
Rhododendron maximum (Great Rhododendron)

Following the bypass trail towards Raven Ridge

Dennstaedtia punctilobula (Hay Scented Ferns) near the Raven Ridge Trail.

Heiracium aurantiacum (Devil's Paintbrush)

Blueberries along the trail.  These were not left behind.

Potentilla tridenta (Three Toothed Cinquefoil)

Vaccinium macrocarpon (Large Cranberry).  It isn't a great picture, but I do not get the opportunity to take pictures of cranberry flowers very often.

Beaver Dam along the trail.  The water is red due to the high tannin content.

This snapping turtle was resting in the mud just below the beaver dam.

The grove of replanted pines where we camped.

The rocks at Lion's Head.  This photo is looking northwest.

Bootshot over the Red Creek Valley

Lion's Head at sunset.

Sunset at Lion's Head looking south.

Waterfall on Big Stonecoal Creek.

White rocks on the Rocky Ridge Trail.

Hiking along the Rocky Ridge Trail.

A small stream close to the trailhead.

Lilium philadelphicum (Wood Lily) near the trailhead. 

Chamerion platyphyllum (Fireweed) along Public Road 75 near Red Creek Campground.

A butterfly on Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) along Public Road 75. 

A Monarch Butterfly caterpillar on a A. syriaca leaf.

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