Winter Backpacking Series: Dolly Sods, WV

This is part two in a three part winter backpacking series. Click the links for part one and part three.

It started off a little sketchier than we had imagined.

After driving 3 hours to Dry Fork, West Virginia, we hit the foothills of the Dolly Sods Wilderness. The previous night’s snow had been compacted into the steep gravel road and frozen almost to ice. After spinning out once we had to get out of the car, hack up the ice in the road, and push. Needless to say, we were thankful to finally reach the top of the plateau. On this late December weekend we were joined by Meghan and Chris. This would be Meghan’s first time backpacking.

We had planned the trip far enough in advance that we knew what we were getting into: temperatures below freezing and gusty winds which would send the wind chill well below zero. As soon as we loaded up our gear and took off, we faced a stiff headwind. Wearing all my clothing that I had brought, it took a while to warm up to these conditions. Despite the chill, it was a picturesque hiking experience with snow swept plains, whipping clouds, and snow dusted pines creating a true winter wonderland. We saw only a handful of people willing to bear the elements as we were. That first day we rarely stopped. We were just too cold to stop for any extended period of time and wanted to make it to camp before dark.

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Chris struggling to not be blown away

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Crossing a picturesque creek

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Walking in a winter wonderland

After a bitter 14 miles, we made it to a lovely campsite by a creek. The snow on the ground and in the trees dampened any noise but the trickle of the half frozen creek. There was a well used  fire pit surrounded by stone benches and we couldn’t wait to warm up by the flames. Most of the wood had been scavenged, but I was able to climb some trees to break off dead limbs. There was water frozen in the wood, making for a painfully slow start to the fire. By the time we got it going and could warm up our feet, we were all ready for bed.

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Huddling for warmth while the fire got started

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Tina’s frozen feet sticking out of our tent

We decided to wake up in the dark so that we could make it to Lion’s Head for sunrise. It wasn’t too hard waking up as the cold jolted you awake. Getting out of your sleeping bag is another story. My technique is to do pushups until I’m too warm to stay in it…Tina likes to pack up all of the stuff that she can before having to craw out of her bag to roll it up. We packed everything up with frozen fingers and toes and headed towards the Lion’s Head. Chris and I scrambled up the boulder field to catch the first ray and some photos, Tina and Meghan took their time enjoying the first glimmers of sun peaking out from behind the mountains beginning to warm them as they climbed. We all had breakfast on the exposed ridge trying to stay warm while sitting on cold rocks. Thankfully, with the morning sun, it was already shaping up to be warmer than the previous day. We scrambled around the rocks before heading back out on the trail.

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Sunrise over the mountains while climbing to Lion’s Head

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Triumphant Chris at the top of Lion’s Head

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Breakfast time on Lion’s Head

With the sun fully up, there were plenty of views to be had and the air was comfortable enough to just wear one layer. Warmer temperatures triggered everything from the previous day to begin to melt and trudging in the mud made it quite difficult. After a few miles, we came upon a half frozen waterfall. To freshen up, Chris and I decided to jump in. It was brain-numbingly cold, but felt amazing afterward!

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Chris enjoying the icy waters just downstream of the waterfall

Our hike continued to loop back towards the car and eventually we hit a fork where we could hike up to the road and walk the road back to the car or stay on the trail along the creek. We chose the latter and were rewarded with the most mud yet…lots and lots of mud! The low lying area, combined with the melting created the perfect environment for us to struggle through for a couple hours in the last leg of our journey. After about 20 minutes, everyone had all but given up on keeping their feet dry. We finally made it back to the car wet, tired, and hungry thinking about how enduring the elements was totally worth it to get to experience the beauty and solace of the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

If you are interested in this unique and magnificent hike, you can find our route here.

  1. Fantastic review. The sods in the winter is glorious. Went out to the south up by Laneville last February, it was cold. Too cold to cross the river so we have to turn back after 4-5 miles and set up camp. This year we are going to try to start at the top off fire road 75 in January.

    • Thanks for the comment! It really does get bitterly cold up there. I’d love to do it again to be in the winter wonderland.

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