Having lived in Elkins WV the last four years Dolly Sods has been "right out my back door" with only a 35 minute drive to the Red Creek Trail head. In this post I would like to talk a little bit about my experiences, mainly in the southern 2/3 of the Sods, from Blackbird Knob Trail and down. I wish I could add some pictures but I have never owned a camera.
I will start by saying that Dolly Sods is the most popular back country camping (backpacking) in the area. On any given weekend you are guaranteed to see a number of other hikers. Even on week days I would still run into a handful of other people. If you want a little more seclusion look into Otter Creek, Laurel Fork, The Cranberry Wilderness, and my personal favorite trail The North Fork Mountain.
Now, I will talk a little bit about what you might expect during the main 3 seasons.
The spring season at Dolly Sods can be unpredictable. Temperature and precipitation fluctuates on a daily basis. If you set a date well in advance be aware that there is a possibility for snow all the way through April. Almost all trails are guaranteed to be wet with the possibility of fords across Red Creeks cold, fast moving water. From the beginning of the Red Creek Trail if you choose to cross onto Little Stonecoal, unless you are in a period of very heavy rain, expect a steady current with water levels above the knees but below the waist. If you continue on past Little Stonecoal to cross onto Big Stonecoal the water levels will be similar but the distance from bank to bank is a little further. If you do not feel comfortable crossing walk upstream about 100 yeards and there is a tree that has fallen across Red Creek. You can shimmey yourself across the tree to the other side. I felt much safer doing this then trying to walk across earlier this year. If you choose to bypass both of the Stonecoals and continue up Red Creek Trail you will still encounter minor fords of red creek but nothing as serious as the two I just mentioned. Almost all of the trails will be wet, muddy, and boggy. If you wear hiking boots and plan on keeping your feet dry make sure you have gaiters and prepare to take off your boots at every ford. I prefer to wear trail runners and deal with wet feet. So, Dolly Sods in the Spring can be a wet experience but it adds a type of beauty to the area.
Dolly Sods in the Summer can produce some perfect summer hiking weather, or it can become terribly hot and humid. Be prepared for mosquitos through the middle of the summer. Temperatures will usually be in the 70-90 range but there are always those days that can go above or below the average. You can expect much dryer conditions but will still probably get your feet wet eventually. There is also a much higher risk of scattered thunderstorms so plan accordingly and do not get stuck on any of the open plains on the Blackbird Knob Trail or the Breathed Mountain Trail. Another small concern you may have is some of the smaller streams you might have planned to get water from could be to low and you will have to get water else where.
After mentioning water sources, they are not hard to come by at Dolly Sods, however I would not recommend filtering water from some of the smaller tributaries running into Red Creek. The water will literally tinted red from the high amount of iron in the water. It is very hard on your filter to filter this water.
I believe Dolly Sods in the fall is perfect. Weather in the 60s and 70s (but could be hotter or colder) during the day and lows in the 30s 40s and 50s at night. Conditions are usually wetter then summer but more dry then spring, and no mosquitos to speak of. You will get to see a beautiful display of the fall foliage throughout the entirety of your hike. Be aware that on rare occasions snow fall can happen as early as October 15th and has a much higher chance once you enter November.
Dolly Sods is available in the winter but I have not yet gotten into winter backpacking. If you plan a winter trip make sure you have a vehicle that can handle untreated forest roads. It is also possible to enter Dolly Sods from the top of the chair lift at Timberline or Canaan Valley Ski resorts during the winter months.
Be aware that during any season you will need to hang your food in a tree away from bears at night. I have seen a few smaller black bears and am sure larger ones are around. There are also poisonous snakes in the area that should be looked out for also.
Now, I will talk about a few of the cooler things to see at Dolly Sods.
There is one waterfall of Little Stonecoal and a waterfall on Big Stonecoal. First, if you are walking south to north on Little Stonecoal there is approximately a 15-18 foot waterfall about 2/3 of the way up the trail. However, you can not really see it from the trail but you will hear it. To get to it you have to leave the trail and walk down the steep bank to the left. Its kind of a pain but I think it is worth it atlesst once. The waterfall on Big Stonecoal is much easier to access. Again, from south to north the waterfall is located between the turnoffs to Rocky Point Trail and the Dunkenbarger Trail. You will hear the waterfall and see a little footpath on the left side of the trail and within 10 yards be at the top of the fall.
There are a few amazing overlooks in the southern section of Dolly Sods as well. First, probably the most well known, is the Lions Head overlook at the top of Breathed Mountain off of Rocky Point Trail. The first time I went to the Lions Head I did not realize there was a small trail coming off of Rocky Point trail that led to it. I scrambled up rocks and through heavy brush to get there. However, like I just stated there is a trail that makes the Lion Head easily accessible. Coming from Big Stonecoal it is approximately a 20 minute hike until you see a large cairn and then a small single track footpath on the left leading right up the mountain. It is a little steep at first but levels off quickly and is well marked with more cairns until you reach the overlook. Probably about 10 minutes to the top. The next overlook is on the ridge adjacent to the Lions Head. You can easily see one from the other with Red Creek flowing at the bottom of the valley in between. The other overlook does not have a special name that I know of but the view is just as good as the Lions Head. The second overlook is right off of Rohrbaugh Trail. From the junction with Fisher Spring Run it is around 1 1/4 miles to the overlook. It is much more accessible from the trail then the Lions Head but not as popular because it is not centrally located. I would recommend taking some time to check out the view as well as hike past is along the ridge until the trail starts descending back towards the trail head. The last overlook I will quickly mention is on Rocky Ridge trail. From the Blackbird Knob/Big Stonecoal/Breathed Mountain trail head hike north until you come to a great overlook of Canaan Valley.
Another thing I would like to mention is the amazing wide open plain that you get to experience on the Blackbird Knob Trail. I dont have a good way to explain it, but if you get the chance it is a completely different feel then the rest of southern Dolly Sods.
The last thing I will mention is a lot of the campsites at Dolly Sods are obviously used. If you look at other backpackers trip reports online many will say they recommend staying at the "forks" of red creek which is just a little past the breathed mountain trail junction. It is a big open spot right next to a beautiful section of Red Creek but in my opinion there are way to many traces of others staying there. I personally will not choose to camp there again. If you are in that general area a great alternative would be a spot that is right right after the Breathed Mountain Trail junction. There will be a small footpath on the right leading down the bank to a few small spots right next to red creek.
Im sorry this turned out a little longer then I had planned but I hope it helps! If anyone ever plans a trip into the WV area please let me know, I would love to have someone to hike with. If you have any other questions feel free to ask.