Dolly Sods Wilderness – Backpacking the Lions Head Loop

Backpacking Lions Head Loop

Since my husband and I started hiking over two years ago, we’ve been to almost every trail in Shenandoah National Park within driving distance. We wanted to branch out and see something new, so we decided to go to Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, about a three-hour drive from DC. We’ve also been interested in going backpacking – hiking + camping. Over the past year or so we’ve been buying camping gear bit by bit (the price adds up!) and assembled all that we needed.

I’d been interested in going to Dolly Sods for a while, having seen pictures of the area by two of my favorite Twitter photographers Jen Johnson @tPFmariah9999 and Larry Brown @guidetosnp. Because of the three-hour drive we thought it would be best to go on an overnight trip and camp there.

Lion’s Head Loop

We picked the Lions Head loop, but truncated  it to 15.4 miles by not including the Dolly Sods North portion of the hike. We started out at the trailhead for Blackbird Knob Trail.

You can see a map for reference.

Day 1

Wildflowers at the Trailhead

Bushy St. John’s Wort

Bushy St. John’s Wort, or Hypericum densiflorum, is a member of the St. John’s Wort Family (Hypericaceae). It is a native shrub that grows along the east coast of North America and some places in the south, blooming in mid-summer. It likes to grow in low boggy places,  wet meadows, stream banks, roadside ditches, and moist pinelands.

There were a lot of these plants growing alongside the road near the parking lot and throughout the meadows and fields when we hiked in early August. When we returned to Dolly Sods for a separate camping trip in late August, some Busy St Johnswort remained, but it seemed like their season was over.

Flat-topped White Aster

Flat-topped White Aster

Flat-topped White Aster, or Doellingeria umbellata, is a member of the Aster Family (Asteraceae). A native flower, it grows throughout eastern North America and blooms August to September. It favors moist thickets and meadows, as well as swamp edges. They can grow 2 to 7 feet tall. I was able to identify this Aster from others because (1) the color; (2) the flower cluster is relatively flat on top; and (3) the elongated flat leaves with smooth edges.

There were many of these Aster bushes along the road by the parking lot and in some of the marshy meadows.

Starting the Trail

At the entrance to the trail we started out walking through a refreshing spruce tree forest. As we went along, we quickly learned that the paths in this forest are not marked with trail blazes that are characteristic is other places such as Shenandoah National Park. Nope, you have to follow what looks most like the trail here. We also quickly learned that wearing hiking boots is a must here – there are many areas that seem to have eternal puddles and muddy areas.

The path was quite rocky, but it was enjoyable. We passed through different meadows and different types of forest.

About two miles in, we reached the first junction and continued along Blackbird Knob trail. Not too far before the junction, you pass by Red Creek. There are many campsites there.

Instead of following Blackbird Knob Trail to the end, we turned off on Harman Trail to catch one of the viewpoints before heading down the loop.

Harman Trail


On the way, we passed through meadows with berries. Berry bushes were prominent on the hike, sweeping over the landscapes of several meadows. Dolly Sods features blackberries, blueberries, and huckleberries. Visitors are welcome to pick them, but it is prohibited to sell the berries.

There was more interesting plant life along the trail.

Tawny Cotton Grass

Tawny Cotton Grass, or Eriophorum virginicum, is a member of the Sedge Family (Cyperaceae). It grows throughout eastern North America and some places in western Canada in bogs and wet meadows. It flowers June to September.

Because Dolly Sods has lots of marshy areas, we saw these little fuzzy flowers quite often.

Rocky Ridge Trail

Just beyond the junction at the end of Harman Trail we passed through a grassy meadow to this viewpoint. From there we could see a valley with some farms and low mountains extending into the distance. It wasn’t a super impressive view, but it was wide open and nice.

On the map we saw a few more viewpoints to the north, and were itching to go see them, but afternoon was getting on and we calculated that we needed to head south and find a campsite. I was getting a bit anxious that we wouldn’t be able to find a good campsite because we saw many backpackers, mostly in groups.

Great Laurel

Great Laurel, Rhododendron, American Rhododendron, Great Rhododendron, or Rhododendron maximum, is a member of the Heath Family (Ericaceae). My National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers tells me it blooms June to July, but these were still blooming in early August. Great Laurels grow in damp woods and forested wetlands. Its hard wood can be used in making tools and ornaments.

A fun fact -the Great Laurel is also the state flower of West Virginia. It was great to see the state flower blooming in its home!

I was so interested to find out what this wildflower was because the flowers and the leaves looked like a bigger version of Mountain Laurels and I had never seen it before.

Similar to Mountain Laurels, Great Laurels also vary in color from pink to white.

We saw a few of these Great Laurel trees on our way down to our campsite on Big Stonecoal Trail.


Although we hadn’t hiked that many miles, we were already tired by the 5-mile mark. Multiple times we commented how carrying around 20-30 pounds of weight makes it feel like you’re hiking double the distance.

Since my husband enjoys chances to take photos of the stars and the Milky Way, we were set on finding a campsite that had open sky. Walking along Big Stonecoal Trail, we had already passed several campsites by the river, but all of them were in the forest with no sky. When we came upon a meadow around mile 6.5 or so, we decided to call it a day, although it would mean 8.5 miles were left over on the loop for the next day. Not having been to Dolly Sods before, we didn’t know if there would be any other meadow campsites.

We settled down in our little home for the night. The air was fresh and the sound of the bubbling brook was calming.

Unfortunately, the wind was quite strong, and our fire starter wasn’t good, so we couldn’t start a fire. We had brought plenty of water with us, but to be safe we filtered some river water with our Saywer Mini filter. When we took the water out of the river it had a yellowish brown tinge to it. After filtering it, the color was removed somewhat, but you could still see it. We drank the water both cold and boiled and had no issues.

After a nice, hot meal of Mountain House Mexican Style Rice and Chicken made with our Jetboil, we tucked into bed.

Day 2

Planning to wake up to take pictures of the night sky, we set our phone alarms for 3:00 am. Unfortunately, when we woke up the sky was mostly covered by clouds.

We went back to sleep and woke up again around 6:45 am. The sun had already come up and there was a cool, diffuse light coming through the cloud cover.

It was a chilly, moist morning. Our tent had a considerable amount on condensation on it. We tried to hang the tent’s rain cover from some trees, but the water hardly evaporated.

But first things first! We had our breakfast and coffee.

There is something supremely satisfying about a hot cup of coffee and a hot breakfast on a cold morning in the middle of the woods.

We used Trader Joe’s Instant Coffee Packets with Creamer and Sugar for our drinks. Normally I’m not a big fan of instant coffee, but this stuff hits the spot after a night camping. With the creamer and sugar already mixed in, it’s also easy to bring along and make. For food, we had Mountain House Breakfast Skillet, which was delicious.

It took about two hours to have breakfast and pack up our gear. Around 8:30 am we were back on the trail.

Big Stone Coal Trail

As we walked along, we passed many more campsites within the next mile or two. Several of them were in or near a meadow – it turns out that I needn’t have worried about available campsites! The other campers were still packing up and we were alone on the trail going south.

One of my favorite things about Dolly Sods Wilderness is the variety of nature and forests that you pass through.

I especially enjoyed hiking through the spruce tree forests.

Flat-topped White Aster

Again, we encountered Flat-topped White Asters. They were by far the most common Asters we saw during our trip.

The Flat-topped White Aster, or Doellingeria umbellata, is a member of the Aster Family (Asteraceae). A native flower, it grows throughout eastern North America and blooms August to September. It favors moist thickets and meadows, as well as swamp edges.

Flat-topped White Asters can grow 2 to 7 feet tall. We saw many tall stems of these wildflowers growing in the forest. Their height was a factor that helped me to identify the type of Aster it was.

The moist forest was home to various mushrooms.

Yellow Patches

I believe this is a Yellow Patches, Orange Amanita, or Amanita flavoconia, mushroom. These mushrooms grow June-November and are not edible.

However, it was a bit difficult to identify the mushroom for certain because it is not fully grown yet. The fuzzy patches on top are called “warts” and are a result of the deterioration of “universal veil” tissue that encloses and protects the immature button mushroom like an egg. These warts wash off in the rain.

Rocky Point Trail

On the way down Big Stone Coal Trail, we turned off onto Rocky Point Trail to continue our loop.

Lions Head

The namesake for the trail loop can be found at the bottom of the loop. There are many rocks next to the trail stretching up almost as far as you can see from the trail.

There is no obvious entry point to start climbing to find the Lions Head rock, so we just put our packs down and started scrambling up the boulders. Lions Head rock was easily recognizable from pictures we’d seen before.

The view from the top of Lions Head rock was great.

My husband went exploring a bit further while I slowly climbed down. He said there is a one-person sized campsite above/beyond Lions Head rock.

Eastern Garter Snake

The Eastern Garter Snake, or Thamnophis sirtalis, is not poisonous. It can be identified by three yellow stripes along its body, although some have a checkered pattern. They come in different colors, too – brown, grey, and bluish. Garter Snakes are common throughout North America.

We encountered this snake while walking among the rocks.

Even though my research says these snakes are not poisonous, it also says that if the snakes are provoked they will bite. We steered clear of this snake, just in case!


After our excursion up the rocks, we were sorely aware of the time and pressed on at a constant pace. Even so, the path going back to the car was a constant uphill. It didn’t take long for us to regret that we hadn’t put in an extra mile or two the previous day. This being our first backpacking trip, we were not used to the heavy weight on our backs. We had originally planned to be back at the car by midday, but it was increasingly obvious that was not happening.

Wildflowers on Rocky Point Trail

Although we needed to keep going, we also needed to rest frequently. This gave me a good opportunity to take pictures of flowers that we passed.

Panicled Aster

Panicled Aster, or Aster simplex, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms August to October throughout much of North America, except the far north. It grows in damp thickets and meadows. What helped me to identify this one was the long, slighted toothed leaves. The color can be white or violet-tinged.

There are several varieties of this wildflower, differing in color, ray size, and leaf shape and serration.

Scarlet Beebalm

Scarlet Beebalm

Scarlet Beebalm, Crimson Beebalm, Scarlet Bergamot, Oswego Tea, or Monarda didyma,  is a member of the Mint family (Lamiaceae) blooms June to October. Native to North America, it grows mostly in the Northeast. The name Oswego tea refers to the Oswego native Americans living in upstate New York who taught early settlers how to make a herbal tea from the plants leaves.

Red Creek Trail

We huffed and puffed up the hill. From Rocky Point Trail we turned north onto Red Creek Trail.

It was getting to be lunchtime and we still had several miles left to go, so we aimed for the little campsite icon on the map next to a river. That way, we could filter some water and boil our lunch. This map will give you a good idea of the location.

Forks of Red Creek

There were several campsites next to the river on both sides – at least three distinct places were visitors can camp in solitude from one another.

My husband also took a great long exposure photo:

As with many of the rivers and creeks in Dolly Sods Wilderness, this river had a brownish-red tinge to it. It made us wonder what makes it that color. In any case, it’s safe if you filter it!

Continuing on Red Creek Trail

After a relaxing and refreshing meal, we started our trek uphill on Red Creek Trail again.

I must admit, this part of the trail was starting to blur for me! We were already quite tired and our backpacks were chafing our hips painfully (we found a remedy for the next hike, though). I do remember the forest being beautiful, though. One of the lovely features of Dolly Sods Wilderness is the variety of small plant life, bushes, and lichens. Sometimes you feel like you could be under the sea.

On Red Creek Trail, just before reaching the the turnoff back to the parking lot on Blackbird Knob Trail, there was a delightful meadow filled with blooming St. John’s Wort bushes.

Bushy St. John’s Wort

Bushy St. John’s Wort, or Hypericum densiflorum, is a member of the St. John’s Wort Family (Hypericaceae). It is a native shrub that grows along the east coast of North America and some places in the south, blooming in mid-summer. It likes to grow in low boggy places,  wet meadows, stream banks, roadside ditches, and moist pinelands.

Blackbird Knob Trail

That last two miles back to the parking lot after we turned onto Blackbird Knob Trail was tough and passed in a bit of a haze. We stopped often to rest. Over the two-day trip we had hiked 15.4 miles, longer than we had ever hiked in a weekend. We’d done 12- and 13-mile day hikes before in Shenandoah, but those were with lighter packs. I think another factor affecting us was that we’d never done a long hike with heavy backpacks before. We just weren’t used to it. Even so, this loop is very doable in one weekend.

Recommended as a Backpacking Trip

We got back to our car around 4:30 pm. It was late for us, and we still had a three hour drive back home, but we were happy. Our first backpacking trip had been a success and we had fallen in love with the sweeping landscapes and mixed forests of Dolly Sods Wilderness. With it’s many camp spots next to rivers and beautiful variety of nature, this southern half of Dolly Sods Wilderness is a perfect place to go backpacking.

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  1. Pingback: Dolly Sods Wilderness – Lions Head Loop Day 1 – Takahashi Outdoors

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