Dolly Sods Wilderness – Backpacking Dolly Sods North Loop

Backpacking Dolly Sods North Loop

My husband and I enjoyed our first trip to Dolly Sods Wilderness so much, we were itching to go back and explore the area more. Since we had been to the southern half, we decided to go to the northern part of the area where all the picturesque sandstone boulders are – the Dolly Sods North loop.

It was late August and there were many wildflowers blooming. There were more varieties than there were in early August.

Day 1

Wildflowers on the Trail

Spotted Knapweed

Spotted Knapweed, or Centaurea maculosa, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms in fields and along roadsides from June to August. Native to eastern Europe, it was introduced to North America in the 1800s, likely through contaminated seeds. It grows throughout North America now and is considered an invasive species and noxious weed in many places.

When researching this flower I was shocked to read this because it is so pretty.

Silver-rod

Silver-rod, White Goldenrod, or Solidago bicolor, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms in thin woods and clearings from July to October. A native plant, it grows throughout the eastern half of North America.

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.

These Asters were common throughout Dolly Sods North.

Closed Gentian

Closed Gentian, Bottle Gentian, or Gentiana andrewsii, is a member of the Gentian family (Gentianaceae) and blooms in sandy, coastal areas, as well as saline to freshwater marshes from May to October. A native wildflower, it grows throughout north eastern North America.

We found these growing in a couple places by freshwater streams and marshy areas.

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And all these flowers were found within the first mile or two from the trailhead! As you can imagine, our going was a little slow as I was snapping away all these pictures, but that was fine. The goal for the day was to hike 6 miles to the campsite just over halfway along the loop. We had time.

There was much more nature to enjoy along the Dolly Sods North loop. About a mile in, there was a lovely field filled with different kinds of Goldenrod wildflowers.

Tall Goldenrod

Tall Goldenrod, or Solidago altissima, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms in thickets and clearings August to November. A native plant it grows throughout most of North America. These Goldenrods can grow to be two to seven feet tall. Tall Goldenrod grows in large colonies.

Red Creek

Just after the field of Goldenrods, we crossed a creek that had the characteristic reddish-brown color that most rivers in Dolly Sods have. I expect this tributary feeds into Red Creek.

There was one campsite next to the water here.

Continuing Along the Trail

For the next two miles or so we passed through open meadows with some great views.

There are two different campsites that you can find – one along Bear Creek Trail between the junctions for Dobbins Glade Trail and Ravens Ridge Trail, another one after on Ravens Ridge Trail. Neither of these campsites have access to water, nor wood to make campfires, but they do have wide open sky views. We noted these places as useful in the future for when we want to take pictures of the night sky and Milky Way.

Rocky Ridge Trail

About four miles in, after turning on to Rocky Ridge Trail, we came across the beautiful vistas full of sandstone boulders that Dolly Sods is famous for.

It was lunchtime by the time we arrived at the area and there were many people around. It seems like most people come for a day hike – no one we saw there had camping gear.

Even through it’s busy, there are plenty of boulders and the area stretches for some distance, meaning you can find some boulders to rest on or take pictures from, in any case.

In some places you can see down into a valley and the mountains beyond. It’s a unique and memorable location. I highly recommend a visit!

After hanging out at the sandstone boulders for a while, taking pictures, we decided to get a move on and find our campsite.

Dobbin Glade Trail

We left the sweeping vistas and turned onto Dobbin Glade Trail. There are not many campsites on this loop that are located next to water, so we were aiming for the spot next to a creek about 6 miles in pictured on the map.

Along the way, Dobbin Glade Trail had some lovely nature to take in.

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.

There was a huge field of these in a boggy area.

Along Dobbin Glade Trail I saw lots of green and red combinations of moss and plant life. I loved this unique mix of colors in the middle of the forest.

Campsite Area

We arrived at our campsite around 3 pm and staked out our tent in the first empty spot by the trail. There were two more campsites available at this location – one just beyond the trees and another a minute or two walk beyond in a pine forest. Beyond this point on the loop there aren’t any good campsites next to water, so this is the best place to stay.

There was time as we settled in for the night, so we decided to make a campfire. Some wood that a previous camper had left next to the campsite remained, but it wasn’t enough, so we explored the area, hunting for some more tinder and bigger sticks. That’s how we found the two extra campsites. We found most of the wood in the pine forest just a couple minutes from the campsite. It was easy to find – there was a light path previous campers had made.

The last time we were in Dolly Sods we were unable to start a fire due to high winds and lack of experience. This time it worked!

My husband, who is from Japan, had never tasted roasted marshmallows before. I wanted to introduce him to the crispy outside-gooey inside deliciousness of roasted marshmallows, so we made some on the fire. We enjoyed them, although they were a bit sticky! I’ll introduce him to s’mores another time.

Milky Way Photography

With this and that, puttering around, it was time to sleep. Since my husband likes to take pictures of the night sky, we decided to get up in the middle of the night to see the situation. And my, what a situation! It had been a long time since I’d seen stars like that, dusting the entire sky, and a clear band of the Milky Way. It was wondrous.

It was about midnight when we got up and the moon was a sliver hiding just above the horizon, behind the trees, sparing us from the brightness that could impact star pictures.

My husband took this amazing shot of the Milky Way after about an hour of trying various permutations on his camera. He had to wipe his lens before every picture because of the fog condensation that would build. It took him about an hour to get this photo. I must admit, at some point I went back to the tent because I was shivering. After he finished, we went back to sleep in our cozy down sleeping bags.

Day 2

My husband and I woke up around 6:30 am and saw mist all around us.

Tent Experience

Our tent also had a lot of condensation on it, both inside and out. There was so much condensation that, when we were packing later, and wiped the tent down with a towel, the towel became soaked! We even had to wring out the towel. This experience led us to decide to switch from our Kelty Salida 2 tent, which does not have ventilation, and upgrade to the REI Quarterdome 3 tent, which does.

Having breakfast and packing up took about two hours again. It seems that’s how long it takes for us. We were on the trail by around 8:30 am. There was no one but us on the trail for a while and we enjoyed the solitude.

Wildflowers on Dobbin Glade Trail

We continued our way along Dobbin Glade Trail and soon found a lovely small meadow filled with Flat-topped White Asters and Canada Goldenrods.

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.

As you may have seen from previous posts, this wildflower is quite common throughout Dolly Sods in August, and I can also confirm in September (from a later hike).

Canada Goldenrod leaves

Canada Goldenrod

Canada Goldenrod, or Solidago canadensis, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms July to September throughout most of North America. They can grow between one and six feet tall.

There are many species of Goldenrod that grow in Virginia / West Virginia. I identified this one from (1) the distinctive lines of  blooms that grow on top of the stems, and (2) the medium-wide, serrated leaves.

It is lovely to see so many of these flowers bunched together, stretching into the distance.

Hiking along, we passed through some forests, but most of Dobbin Glade Trail is flat or hilly meadows with marshes. This environment means there is plenty of sun for wildflowers!

In this meadow you can see lots of Goldenrod and Flat-topped White Asters.

At one point we passed through an area completely overgrown with these wildflowers. Depending on the variety, Goldenrods can grow anywhere between one and seven feet tall. Similarly, Flat-topped White Asters can grow as much as seven feet tall. I’m about 5’5″, so some of these Flat-topped White Asters were reaching six feet or more! It was so much fun to be surrounded by wildflowers like this.

Wildflowers in the Meadow

In a marshy meadow, we also encountered other flowers and plants.

Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet, or Spiraea alba, is a member of the Rose family (Rosaceae) and blooms June to September. A native plant, it grows throughout northeastern and central North America. It favors meadows, old fields, and low moist ground.

Bulrush

Bulrush, or Cattail, is a member of the Cattail family (Typhaceae). There are 30 different species in the Cattail family. They like to grow in shallow water or moist soils and can grow to be ten feet tall, depending on the variety. Since these were quite large, perhaps they were Giant Bulrushes.

Along the way, we passed by Beaver View Trail, but kept going on Dobbin Glade Trail until we met the junction for Ravens Ridge Trail.

Ravens Ridge Trail

We turned up onto Ravens Ridge. Until then, the going had been quite flat and easy. All of a sudden, we were going uphill! I think under normal hiking circumstances this hill wasn’t actually so bad, but with nearly 30 pounds of hiking gear on each of our backs, it felt tough.

Going up the hill, the grassy meadows stretched far, dotted with spruce and other trees.

The sky was overcast for most of the day and the temperature was perfect for hiking. The cloudy sky was deceptive, though, and we skipped putting on sunscreen in the morning. The result later was sunburns on our necks, forearms (the upper-side mostly because we were holding poles), and on top of our heads. Usually I wear a Japanese cotton cloth bandanna called tenugui, but on this trip I thought it would be great to hike with braided pigtails. Yeah, the braids were comfortable when I was hiking, but the sunburn hurt for about a week after. Not doing that again!

Wildflowers on Ravens Ridge Trail

I found this lovely wildflower growing by the trail. I’ve tried researching it in every resource that I usually consult – the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers Eastern Region, USWildflowers.com, VirginiaWildflowers.org – and found nothing! I will keep my eyes peeled for more information on this wildflower.

Orange Hawkweed

Orange Hawkweed, Devil’s Paintbrush, or Hieracium aurantiacum, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and a non-native plant that originally came from Europe. It blooms June to August in fields, clearings, and along roadsides throughout most northern areas in North America, but also some areas in the south.  In five states it is deemed a noxious weed. Hence the name “Devil’s Paintbrush”!

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Near the top of the hill there was a glade that was filled with the pretty little bud-like wildflowers.

Pearly Everlasting

Pearly Everlasting

Pearly Everlasting, Western Pearly Everlasting, or Anaphalis margaritacea, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae). A native flower, it blooms from July through September in dry pastures, waste places, and along roadsides throughout most of North America. They can be used in dry flower arrangements.

Bear Rocks Trail

After slogging up the hill on Ravens Ridge Trail, we finally got to some more flat areas as we turned back on Bear Rocks Trail.

We knew that if we kept going along, we’d reach the parking lot by around 1 pm, so we decided to stop off next to the river about a mile from the trailhead. We boiled some water and cooked up some Mountain House Rice and Chicken, which was surprisingly delicious.

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During the last mile of our hike beautiful mist started rolling in across the hills of spruce and wide meadows. I’d been hoping to see some mist at Dolly Sods since before the first time we came because I’d seen some enchanting photos on Twitter taken by Jen Johnson and Larry Brown.

I snapped a bunch of pictures. After walking a short distance, the mist and the angle of the field would change and I’d stop and take more photos. That last mile probably took us about an hour.

Bear Rocks

The trailhead area, which is also the entrance to Dolly Sods Wilderness, is called Bear Rocks. There are huge sandstone boulders on a cliff that looks out into a breathtaking valley. On this day we could not see anything due to the mist, but when it is clear you can see several layers of mountains stretching into the distance on both sides, as well as in front of you. The last time we were there we could even identify Shenandoah National Park’s mountains as the furthest layer in the distance.

Recommended as a Backpacking Trip

The Dolly Sods North loop is excellent both for a day hike or for a backpacking trip. The only downside is that there really is only one area with decent campsites next to water. We went on the weekend that had great weather, so it was probably one of the busiest times. Even so, there was only one other group that camped at one of the neighboring sites. I think there’s a good chance that if you go, you can get a campsite there.

Overall, it was a beautiful and memorable trip. I’d love to go back and do the loop again.

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