Leading up to this trip, it seemed like everything was conspiring to make it not happen: the snowpack at 4000’ turned this into a snowshoes-required trip rather than an intro to winter backpacking; Kyle got injured and had to back out; the incoming storm threatened our ability to drive out from the trailhead Sunday morning; our permission to park at Whitegrass (part of our solution to the storm) was nearly revoked at the last minute Friday night. And yet, through creative re-routing, skilled negotiations, and a high degree of enthusiasm for snowshoes, everything came together for a safe and exciting winter weekend of fun.
Friday night, we met up at the Red Creek trailhead. Liz and Mark had arrived earlier and generously gotten a fire going at our campsite (a stone’s throw from the cars; most people “hiked” in wearing down booties, snowboots, or sneakers rather than dealing with hiking boots), but decided to sleep in the cars rather than deal with the potential for subzero temperatures. The rest of the group decided to put their gear to the test. The most difficult part ended up being staking into the frozen ground; the temperature stayed around 10* all night.
Saturday morning, we piled back into the cars and drove 20 mins to Whitegrass to leave our cars in the overflow lot. Four other hiker cars were already there; it sounded like Chip (the proprietor) is feeling a bit frustrated with having to deal with parking (and sometimes rescuing) hikers who are just there for Dolly Sods, not Whitegrass. Don’t count on being able to park here in the future, especially not with a larger group of cars (the lot only fit us with double parking); at a minimum, expect to pay $10-$20 per car.
It took a bit for us to all get situated with our bulky winter packs and extra gear (plus it was cold!! Down to -2 in this parking lot), but soon enough we were walking down the road to the Blackbird Knob Trailhead. Our plan was to road walk up the 2.5 miles so that on Sunday, our cars wouldn’t be parked deep on a back road. This was a great call – on the way up, we saw 2 cars that had slid into ditches with even the small amount of snow already on the road. One was abandoned, the other still had its driver there trying to figure out what to do. He didn’t need any medical assistance and had what he needed to walk back down for help, and we quickly realized that even with 8 of us helping, his car needed mechanics assistance to get out (Dmitri maintains that we could have done it).
Up at the 5-way junction, we all put on our snowshoes. The day couldn’t have been more gorgeous – clear blue skies, crunchy glittering snow on the ground, all the usual mud was frozen over, and hardly any company in typically a crowded area (except for one group of x-c skiers with a dog that could’ve used better recall training). We headed north on Blackbird Knob, staying north to take the Valley View trail to get views of Timberline. We got a bit turned around in the rocks north of the turnoff to Dobbin Grade, but that seems to happen every trip regardless of the season. It was especially tricky to stay on trail with all the snow cover. It was slow going, and we stopped for lunch at the rocky outcropping in the northwest corner of the Sods.
While it was warm enough to properly sit and eat for a bit, we kept moving before too long. We stayed north on Rocky Ridge trail, turned east on Raven Ridge, south on Beaver View, and west on Dobbin Grade. At our first notable stream crossing, we stopped for a break and relaxed in the sun. It was hard to believe it was a cold winter day, we were so warm between the exertion and the sun.
We turned south when we rejoined Rocky Ridge trail, heading back down to the 5-way. It was fairly rocky through here, and swapping the snowshoes for microspikes made for smoother going. The sun was bright reflecting off the snow, and we enjoyed getting to see the section that we’d skipped to do the Valley View cutoff.
At the 5-way, we regrouped and continued south on Big Stonecoal for about another mile until camp. We stayed at the site on the west side of the stream, just south of the small double stream crossing. Between the low water levels and the snowy banks, none of these water crossings presented much of a challenge.
Setting up camp was easy: the ground wasn’t quite so frozen, and there was a surprising amount of firewood available. We stayed up discussing Dmitri’s plan for how he would’ve rescued the Jeep in a ditch, our favorite vegetarian recipes, and Maddie’s invention to have a snorkel / straw to let you breathe fresh air while tucked into your sleeping bag without dealing with condensation.
It started to snow around 1am, a fine dry powder that almost sounded like rain on our tents. About 2-3” had fallen by morning, with temperatures in the mid teens. It was gorgeous hiking back out with the fresh snow covering all of the evergreens and mountain laurel. We couldn’t see our steps from the day before at all, and the snow kept coming down steadily. Dmitri was in his element, telling us that this is what Siberia looks like, and to take off our shell jackets and “let the snow get to you.” On our way out, we saw that both cars had been rescued from the fire road; seeing their mishaps and how much new snow had fallen, we were so glad to not be driving on a back road.
We made it back to the cars by 930, cleared off all the snow, and ventured back out to the roads. The storm got stronger, but everyone had good cars that were up for the task. Thanks everyone for the good spirits and good cheer! What a privilege to experience the Sods in this weather.