Cover Photo: Karan G
Eager to return to the Roaring Plains after my first taste last summer, I cooked up an ambitious route that hits just about all the highlights of the plateau and neighboring Dolly Sods. Eight brave souls joined me for what promised to be a bushwhacky, rocky, and muddy high-mileage weekend.
Our first order of business was to climb more than 2000 vertical feet from the valley of Red Creek to very near the top of Mount Porte Crayon. Delays at work pushed my arrival time from the planned 4pm until after dusk, making me the last to start hiking. After a surprisingly pleasant 5 miles of night climbing (I had heard tell that the Flatrock Run trail was in rough shape, but I didn’t find it too bad at all) I came upon the rest of the group camped beneath low trees at the edge of the meadow. We took advantage of the clear skies to get a brief glimpse of the Milky Way before turning in for a great night’s sleep on the soft grass.
Saturday dawned clear but we knew it wasn’t to last. All were up and ready to hike before 7, so we decided to take the optional side trip to Thunderstruck Rock. This ended up not being as much of a bushwhack as I expected; an old logging road took us almost all the way there. After a few hundred yards following a faint use trail uphill we came to what we assume was Thunderstuck Rock. Trees and undergrowth blocked any possible views, rats! Well, at least we know it’s not worth the side trip now.
At this point the summit of Mount Porte Crayon was directly between us and where we needed to reunite with the Roaring Plains trail to continue our hike. Noticing some old yellow blazes leading off in that direction, we opted to follow them in the hopes that they would take us over the summit. Our hopes turned out to be well founded and we soon found ourselves on a flat spot at the high point. Hunting around for a few minutes revealed the survey post denoting the summit, along with a trail register in a mason jar. Not much to see here either, but it felt at least a bit more momentous to be on top of one of the highest peaks in the state!
From the summit we picked up a pink ribbon trail which led us to a short bushwhack and then some surprisingly well-established trails leading back to the Roaring Plains Trail. We speculated whether this was an adventure race course or a new trail being built by the Forest Service; it’s certainly a much easier way to get to and from the summit.
Back on route after our side-trip we made quick work of the miles. But the bushwhacking was far from over: our next task was the infamous Tipi Trail through half a mile of dense rhododendron thickets. It was here that Shenanigans and Smokejumper took a wrong turn and ended up on a parallel trail. After attempting to make their own way back to Tipi, the dense brush soon proved too much of an obstacle and forced them to backtrack.
The rest of the group rendezvoused at the canyon rim overlook and took in the views. When we had waited what we thought was a reasonable amount of time, we elected to hike on knowing that both of our missing members were strong hikers and navigators, and would soon catch up. The Canyon Rim Trail was pleasant, with intermittent views to the south and a steady breeze. We snacked on blueberries as we walked and enjoyed the sunshine, open meadows and pleasant temperatures. Smokejumper and Shenanigans caught up during our lunch break on the South Prong Trail and the group was whole once more.
After a brief roadwalk we entered Dolly Sods Wilderness on the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail. Here we began to hear hints of what the rest of the day had in store: raindrops on the canopy above and distant thunder. Our first drenching rain hit just as we reached Rohrbaugh Cliffs, spoiling any hopes of further views. The thunderstorms continued sporadically throughout the afternoon, alternating between heavy rainfall and residual tree-rain as the fast moving storms moved through one after another. By this point we were all feeling the miles. We stopped for a short break at The Forks and were astonished to find one of the most popular sites in the Sods almost completely deserted (unheard of for a weekend in July!). The rain really must have scared everyone off!
From The Forks we just had one final push up into the northern meadows of Dolly Sods. The rain continued as we made our way around Blackbird Knob and down to Dobbin Grade. Here we stocked up on water for our “dry” camp (at the Right Fork, not the beaver fork!) and made the last climb up to Raven Ridge. The rain turned to drizzle as we made our way up into the foggy meadows and we were grateful to find Dmitri camped in a sheltered grove of spruces. There was no firewood to be seen but that didn’t disappoint anyone too badly; starting a fire would have been tough in the rain and we were all exhausted from our 25 mile day. Shenanigans remarked that miles in Dolly Sods count for more than other places, and we all agreed. By 8pm the whole group had arrived to camp and shortly after cooking dinner we turned in for the night.
Heavy fog greeted us on Sunday morning. We got quite an early start, with most of the group on trail by 6. We cruised down the west edge of the wilderness through the ethereal mists, occasionally mourning the lost views of Canaan Valley. But the rain held off, and I don’t mind hiking in fog occasionally. It’s a nice change of pace!
The miles came easily (mostly downhill) and we soon found ourselves hiking down Big Stonecoal, one of my favorite trails in the Sods. I was once again astonished at the lack of crowds; almost every single campsite along the creek was empty! We quickly reached the final crossing of Red Creek where we turned downstream for the final 1.5 miles to the parking lot. Here I caught up with Dmitri, who was moving slow due to an unusual injury: a substance in his new shoes had reacted with the rain and caused chemical burns on his feet! Crazy! He vows never to buy new shoes again.
We regrouped at the Red Creek trailhead, noting that we had knocked out 10 by 10. After some quick shuttling to save some of us a roadwalk (thanks Alex!) we formed a caravan to Davis to find a bite to eat. Unfortunately our first choice, the diner, was slammed, but we were just in time for the Big Belly Deli opening and had some delicious hot sandwiches and fresh chocolate chip cookies instead before the drive back to DC.
Thanks to all for joining me for this experimental route! Forty miles in the mud and rocks of Dolly Sods is certainly rough on the feet but I think all will agree this hike is worth the challenge.