Trip Report: DC UL Descends on Dolly Sods.. and Sheetz, Too

There’s something about Dolly Sods in the fall that captures every backpacker’s fantasy. While it can get crowded, it still is quite a beautiful place to visit. This particular loop is one of my favorites as it gives you a sampling of all that Dolly Sods has to offer — open meadows and views, rhododendron flanked paths, and (of course) Lions Head. 

The trip quickly filled up. And then the wait list quickly filled up. Laura M and Theo gladly accepted a battlefield promotion to head up a second group. They would enter via Bear Rocks, while my group would go in Beaver Dam.  We’d all meet at Vienna to begin the journey.

Getting to Vienna, however, may have been the most challenging part. My phone filled up with texts from people marooned on a train just outside the station. Mark R. was trapped in traffic right before the exit for Vienna from 66. The upside of the delay was that traffic had eased once we started our drive around 7 p.m., and we weren’t too far off our goal of meeting Chuck and Cynthia at the Moorefield Sheetz around 9 p.m. Then, it was to Dolly Sods. 

Beaver Dam was a new trail for me, and I’ll admit to having a bit of trepidation about finding a decent campsite to accommodate our group. (And rather selfishly, a spot that also had trees for my hammock.)

The whiskey tree.

Much to my surprise (and relief) we came across a campsite rather quickly and discovered that whiskey does grow in trees. It was a cozy site so we packed our shelters close together and crossed our fingers in hope that no one snored. 

Laura and Theo’s group entered through Bear Rocks, and Laura quickly showed off her campsite acquiring skills by pulling ahead of another group and securing space by Red Creek–and finding Brian Crowe who had arrived earlier in the day. 

Both groups started more or less around 8:30 a.m. from their respective sites. The first part is always a treat as you go through the northern part and enjoy the open views. My group spread out, and as the day went on, we met up with people from the other group. Shane and Michelle looked like they were having a merry time, we found Theo enjoying views from a rock, and ran into Laura, Kat, George, and Mark near the intersection with Stonecoal. It was a good day.

Sunny skies greeted us in Dolly Sods.

Water levels were very low — a good thing in that we didn’t have the typical mud, but it also prompted me to be more cautious and have us stop at the first good source we found before beginning the climb to our dry site for the night at Lions Head. We filled up near the first meadow on Stonecoal–I congratulated myself as we passed the next two potential water sources that were low and stagnant, but (of course) the water source right before the climb was flowing nicely. (Also, I forgot about the waterfall that one could access from the trail that is even closer.) Oh well. Carrying extra water for 1.5 miles builds character. 

“I swear, we are on right on top of it,” I said several times as we kept our eyes open for the cairns that mark the turn to Lions Head. Eventually, I was right, and we made the turn up to Lions Head.

We spread out throughout several campsites, including one taken by a banjo-carrying hammocker who generously shared his site. (He noted that it was only fair since he was taking the largest one. Unfortunately, the fifth string on his banjo snapped so no music for us.)

Then, to Lions Head we went, me armed with salami, cheese, and wine, and we had a merry happy hour on the rocks. We filtered back and forth from the campsite to Lions Head, making sure to return in time to practice jumping shots as the sun set behind us. 

Our “campfire.”

Merriment back at the campsite ensued. There was a fire ban due to the drought but Michelle T contributed a Luci lantern, Mark a red bandanna, and Shane a light and an orange bandanna, and it was just like a fire. Kind of. Cynthia’s beans finally rehydrated, we learned that Bryan spelled with a “y” has more flair, Kevin marveled at Jeremy’s Sassafras pack, and then we all trickled back to our tents.

Sunday, we had some divvying up to do. Shane and Michelle were planning to head out via Fishers Gap. Rather than have them walk up the road back to the trailhead, Jeremy, Bryan, and Christy took Mark’s keys so they could move ahead and then bring the car down to that trailhead. As people got ready, Laura and Theo led the first group out, while I swept the back. After initially leading my group down the wrong path off Lions Head (oops), we got back on track and headed down to the Forks area. Then it was all back to the cars. And yes, back to Sheetz again.

Welcome to our first timers: Chuck, Kevin, Michelle S., Michelle T., and Peter. A big thank you to Laura, Theo, and Mark for all their help. And another thank you to everyone who joined and made this another great weekend for DC UL.

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